Category Archives: Theory

Social Networking sites are differiated through their base functions

In the previous post we explored how Social Networking sites normally have 4 different functions:

  1. Networking;
  2. Social;
  3. Identity; and
  4. Sharing

Now, by looking at four well know examples, I will illustrate how different emphasis on these functions differentiate Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and Second Life.

Second Life

Second Life is in fact a weak example of a Social Networking media property.

  • This is primarily because it lacks Networking functionality (You have no friend or contact lists, where you can create ties or nodes and track their movements or interactions);
  • It is however very big on Identity formation features (although this identity does not have to map to a real identity);
  • It can be very social and users can build real & warm relationships;
  • It also does have ‘sharing‘ functionality. (Just by being on Second Life you in fact become content! Everything you build is user generated content and therefore sharing.)

But because it tries to recreate reality and its users can not create ties or links (a buddy list) that allows them to associate, track or interact with contacts it’s a social networking site without the networking.

What are the user behavior of Second Life users like? They tend to spend hours on SL, they tend not to use their own identity, but a fictional one. They tend to meet strangers and befriend these stranger’s fictional identities. They can just be or play or build stuff in Second Life. But what they do there tends not to have much of a bearing on what they do outside of SL.

LinkedIn

LinkedIn can be described as a very functional Social Networking site that’s lite on social functionality because:

  • Is a Networking site in the business sense of the word, where people create ties to achieve a goal; (It has built its networking features strongly on so-called weak tie theory.)
  • Does not contain much Social functions (Users not enabled to show their personality and build deeper personal relationships);
  • Has basic and core Identity functions: A user’s real (but laundered to the extent that they can be sanitized of personality) identity is crucial;
  • Little by way of ‘Sharing’ functionality (Although they have recently added Question and Answer functionality, which generates fantastic content);

LinkIn’s user behavior is quite different form SL.

“We focus on a few but high value moments” Reid Hoffman, LinkIn’s founder.

And thats exactly what happens. Many users only visit it when they are job hunting – once every few years. The users real identities are crucial, but they are stripped of any depth. It’s a corporate identity, an online resume of your career status and achievements. There’s little evidence of socialising on LinkIn and little functionality that encourages it. ‘Sharing’ is limited to gaining access of contact’s contacts (weak ties) and asking professional Questions and getting Answers.

MySpace

MySpace combines the 4 functions more equally that Second Life or LinkIn.

  • It has very strong Social functionality that allows users to interact in a personal way;
  • But it has Networking functions as well, that allows users to create friends or contacts through ties;
  • User identity formation and expression, real or made up (and therefore often comprised of groups of people like bands), is extremely important, a user can completely customize a page to reflect who they are and associate with whom they want;
  • ‘Sharing’ things like songs, pictures, videos and blog entries is key;

MySpace’s users come back to the site often and spend a reasonable amount of time on it. It has become very popular with bands and artists as a promotional tool. Anybody can see who your ‘friends’ are, and some users have thousands of them – so weak tie theory applies.

“Andy Warhol said everybody is famous for 15 minutes. Social Networking changed that to everyone is famous for 15 people. If you have a million friends, your broadcasting. You’re an entertainer”Tom Anderson (MySpace)

Facebook

Like MySpace Facebook applies the 4 core functionalities associated with social networking more evenly. It has:

  • Very strong Networking functions, without ‘Friends’ you literally have nothing to read, see or interact with. Facebook is built on strong interpersonal ties;
  • It has allot of functionality that makes it very Social and allows personalities to to be on display. Poke!
  • User Identity functionality is paramount, made up identities are virtually useless (pun intended);
  • ‘Sharing’ is crucial (Users can share almost everything, their every Facebook move is UGC. UGC that is delivered to their ‘friends’ via a personalised feed);

Facebook’s user behavior is very interesting. Most users visit the site at least daily, but often for less than one minute. Besides the importance of real Identities and Facebooks strong and deep ties (versus MySpace’s weak ties), the main difference between Facebook and MySpace is in the clever exposure given to ‘sharing‘ via its Personal Newsfeed function.

“You can’t create communities, you can just find them” – Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook)

All this explains why Facebook has been so successful. As Jeff Jarviss said, it harnesses the wisdom of your crowd. But it’s not suitable for all Social Networking needs, because it militates against discovering new people and therefore new things. It’s also doubtful whether it would have bee so successful without it’s revolutionary Personal Newsfeed.

Conclusion

Facebook and MySpace share almost all their key features, and LinkedIn shares some with them, but the differing implementation of the 4 elements has yielded very different user behavior.

So when planning a Social Networking site ask yourself:

  • To what extent should the users form relationships or ties?;
  • Should they be weak or strong?
  • To what extent should the site allow socializing?; and
  • To what extent should users be able to express their identity; and
  • Should this identity be real?
  • What content do you want your users to generate?
  • And how do users find out of new UGC content that might interest them?

Notes:

Ties

One can not have Social Networking site without two-way ties built into the architecture. The ability to communicate and interact is not enough (See Second Life), although users can still build ad hoc relationships without this functionality.

Building ties into the architecture requires permissioning functionality. Even when one does have permissioning to create ties, how one implements the use of ties leads to wildly divergent outcomes. (See the huge difference between LinkedIn and MySpace.)

Weak ties

Interpersonal ties, generally, come in three varieties: strong, weak, or absent. Weak social ties, it is argued, are responsible for the majority of the embeddedness and structure of social networks in society as well as the transmission of information through these networks. Specifically, more novel information flows to individuals through weak rather than strong ties. Because our close friends tend to move in the same circles that we do, the information they receive overlaps considerably with what we already know. Acquaintances, by contrast, know people that we do not, and thus receive more novel information

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Social Networking on the Web

Are you building a so-called Social Networking site? Then you need to know what makes them tick, what user needs they address, and how you can play with these things to design your own site. But first lets start from the beginning. What is a social network?

According to the collective wisdom of Wikipedia –

A social network is a social structure made of nodes (which are generally individuals or organizations) that are tied by one or more specific types of relations.

But what does that mean in practice, what is a social network when found on the web?

What is referred to as Social Networking online is often conflated and confused with the concept of ‘sharing’. So many think sharing pictures, video or music (so-called user generated content) are examples of Social Networking.

But in truth social networking sites tend to have three other key elements or functions besides ‘sharing‘:

  • Identity formation functions;
  • Networking functions; and
  • Social functions.

Often the distinction between Networking, Social, Identity and Sharing functionality is not clear and there is some overlap between them. I will now explore these concepts in further detail with reference to real life examples and on the net.

Networking – Here networking is meant in the business sense of the word. In the real world this would be like when two executives meet and exchange business cards at an industry seminar. What is taking place is formal, relatively impersonal and goal orientated relationship creation.

Social – If something has a Social function it means there is a strong human and informal dimension to the interaction. Personalities are on display and personal relationships created. Social could thus include people doing things for fun: Like playing tennis for instance. But it does not necessarily mean it is not serious. A practical example: It’s where Bill Clinton and Tony Blair sits in a bar at the yearly Davos conference and talks about the conflict in Palestine over a pint of lager.

Identity means building meaning and displaying what and who you are. If I have a Mohawk hair cut, skinny jeans, a black leather jacket and Doc martin boots, it’s fair to assume that I’m a punk, and that I’d be likely to have certain views with respect to work, society, politics and music.

Sharing’ is of course in reality a misnomer. To many observers, users seemingly do things on the internet for free as if they want nothing in return. This is not accurate. In fact this gift giving is actually self publishing – for egotistical and status reasons. They do it because they want recognition. For the purposes of this post we will keep on calling it by its popular name: ‘sharing’.

But this is still abstract. By looking at familiar sites like Second Life, LinkedIn, MySpace and Facebook, all described as being social networking in nature and how they place different emphasis on these elements, it can help us to better understand their practical implications.

Can tech save the earth?

There was a time when a UK academic, Dr. Richard Barbrook, accused the digirati of California of believing in a misleading ideology, the “Californian Ideology“.

According to him Net heavy weights like Kevin Kelly, Esther Dyson and Steve Jobs were beholden to this Californian ideology. A weird hybrid ideology that married ideas associated with the right – free market economics – and those that came from the left, counter-culture libertarianism.

Barbrook said:

“On the West Coast, skilled workers and entrepreneurs in the hypermedia industries form the ‘virtual class’. Like the ‘labour aristocracy’ of the last century, core personnel in the media, computing and telecoms experience both the insecurities and rewards of the marketplace. The Californian Ideology reflects this ambiguity by simultaneously advocating the New Left utopia of the electronic agora and the New Right’s vision of the electronic marketplace.

However both left- and right-wing anarchists ignore the key role of taxpayers’ dollars in the creation of the PC and the Net. The exclusion of public institutions from the construction of cyberspace can only increase the fragmentation of American society into antagonistic, racially-determined classes.”

But today one of the cyber gurus that Barbrook accuses, Nicolas Negroponte, made an announcement that both disproves and supports Barkrook’s contention.

Negroponte, head of the Massachusets Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Media Lab announced the wonderful news that the first batch of computers built for the One Laptop Per Child project could reach users by July this year.

The One Laptop Per Child Project aims to deliver the children’s laptop — a potent learning tool created expressly for the world’s poorest children living in its most remote environments.


Originally uploaded by ozymiles.

The laptops will run a bespoke form of Unix operating system where they are encouraged to work on an electronic journal, a log of everything the user has done on the laptop. Because says Negroponte:

“…one of the saddest but most common conditions in elementary school computer labs (when they exist in the developing world), is the children are being trained to use Word, Excel and PowerPoint,” Mr Negroponte said.

“I consider that criminal, because children should be making things, communicating, exploring, sharing, not running office automation tools.”

The proposed $100 machine will also have a dual-mode display—both a full-color, transmissive DVD mode, and a second display option that is black and white reflective and sunlight-readable at 3× the resolution.

The laptop will have a 500MHz processor and 128MB of DRAM, with 500MB of Flash memory; it will not have a hard disk, but it will have four USB ports. The laptops will have wireless broadband that, among other things, allows them to work as a peer-to-peer mesh network; each laptop will be able to talk to its nearest neighbors, creating an ad hoc, local area network. The laptops will use innovative power (including wind-up) and will be able to do most everything except store huge amounts of data.

Why do children in developing nations need laptops? Why not a desktop computer, or—even better—a recycled desktop machine? Negroponte answers:

Desktops are cheaper, but mobility is important, especially with regard to taking the computer home at night. Kids in the developing world need the newest technology, especially really rugged hardware and innovative software. Recent work with schools in Maine has shown the huge value of using a laptop across all of one’s studies, as well as for play. Bringing the laptop home engages the family. In one Cambodian village where we have been working, there is no electricity, thus the laptop is, among other things, the brightest light source in the home.

Why is it important for each child to have a computer? What’s wrong with community-access centers?

One does not think of community pencils—kids have their own. They are tools to think with, sufficiently inexpensive to be used for work and play, drawing, writing, and mathematics. A computer can be the same, but far more powerful. Furthermore, there are many reasons it is important for a child to own something—like a football, doll, or book—not the least of which being that these belongings will be well-maintained through love and care.

What about connectivity? Aren’t telecommunications services expensive in the developing world?

When these machines pop out of the box, they will make a mesh network of their own, peer-to-peer. This is something initially developed at MIT and the Media Lab. We are also exploring ways to connect them to the backbone of the Internet at very low cost….We are working with the local governments and the private sector regarding how to reduce the cost of Internet access.

This includes connectivity to the Internet from the mesh through gateways at the schools. And how will these be marketed?

The laptops will be sold to governments and issued to children by schools on a basis of one laptop per child. Initial discussions have been held with China, India, Brazil, Argentina, Egypt, Nigeria, and Thailand. An additional, modest allocation of machines will be used to seed developer communities in a number of other countries. A commercial version of the machine will be explored in parallel.

How will this initiative be structured?

The $100 laptop is being developed by One Laptop per Child (OLPC), a Delaware-based, non-profit organization created by faculty members from the MIT Media Lab to design, manufacture, and distribute laptops that are sufficiently inexpensive to provide every child in the world access to knowledge and modern forms of education. OLPC is based on constructionist theories of learning pioneered by Seymour Papert and later Alan Kay, as well as the principles expressed in Nicholas Negroponte’s book Being Digital. The founding corporate members are Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), Brightstar, Google, Marvell, News Corporation, Nortel, and Red Hat.

To keep the cost down we will market the laptops in very large numbers (millions), directly to ministries of education, which can distribute them like textbooks.

So there you have it. Barbrook was right. Negroponte can not deviler his digital utopia and save the world without the help of not-for-profits, academia and government.

But he was wrong because Negroponte is well on his way to actually have an almost unimaginably positive impact on the lives of poor people in the developing world.