Last Wednesday, 26th of November, I was in Utrecht to give a lecture on Social Networks for the audience of Studium Generale and SSPN. I had a marvellous afternoon and want to thank all the audience and organisation.
The social networks of today aren’t what they used to be. Facebook, LinkedIn and other large survivors have evolved from a simple collection of personal data (like the the files they keep about you at the CIA) to something that has no ‘old’ media comparison any more. How did we end up there, what are the social, commercial and technological changes that brought us this far and what is the effect of commercial questions on the way we can express ourselves on these social networks? These are the questions that I will try to answer in this post.
The possibility of always being online together with the large amount of the population who has broadband has turned out to be a fertile soil for social networks. In their short history they quickly rose up from static biographical pages to an oversized ticker-tape ticking away the lives of everyone you’ve ever known. Also in other areas change did roar, the move from communicating by email and forums to blogging, twittering and status updates and eventually the ‘like’ button changed the landscape again. This social-technological change combined with a change of expectations of privacy and the way we interact with technology is the backdrop for this story.
First: Different people
The amount of people online has reached new heights and is slowly approaching the line where everyone who could possibly be online will have internet access. Not only are there more people, but they are also more tech-savvy, better able to deal with new challenges and less afraid to use their credit card. In short: everyone is here, they know how it works and they are not afraid to pay.
Second: A continual search for new money
Deep changes have taken place on the commercial side of social networks. Not only is there more money flowing from investors and consumers into the web, expectations have also risen to new heights, competition has brought the fee for most services down to zero, and banner blindness and internet smartness have made it harder to shake money out of visitors. I’ll highlight three money-making methods that still play a role in the design of social networks.
- Banner advertisement (such as payment for clicks, views and sales)
- Information harvesting (these annoying long sign up forms you have to wrestle through, or the bright yellow boxes that tell you your profile is only 40% done)
- Engagement enhancement (creating brand awareness, and help to find community leaders to use them to get the first two methods done more effectively)
Third: New technology and new design challenges
From a technological point the internet of today is hardly recognisable for that of 1999. “Always on” has become the default, both with the ongoing penetration of broadband, the possibilities of wi-fi and the completion of the 3G network. Computers have become faster and even do their job when sized back to phone-size. Also the software made great leaps forward, browsers became ubiquitous, ajax technology gave way to a whole new thinking about web ‘pages’, and the open-source nature of the internet allowed for high pick-up speed of innovative ideas. Social network builders have to live up to these challenges and, in the end, make a profit. They’ve figured out a couple of solutions to come to there.
- More content in total and less content per page allows for as many banners as possible.
- Increase the amount of places where users can leave information behind, more information is better targeted banners.
- More engagement and activity, brings up the amount of page views, possibly the amount of clicks, and teachthe system more about its users.
Fourth: How a different design forces/allows for a different identity presentation
From how you look to what you do, where Myspace and Friendster are still based around the profile, your virtual representation in cyberspace, Facebook managed -with the help of Twitter and Friendfeed- to move beyond the profile and beyond the wall to something like the live-feed, your own micro-news CNN news-ticker. We have to understand that this is different from chatting and forum posts; these still have an internal structure, even a topic. The Facebook newsfeed is coming closer to Google Epic than Google ever came.
- Presentation model: based on the assumption that more pages will allow for more advertisements space, and that showing more banners would be the solution, websites catered for having as many pages as possible.
- Interaction model: By putting more focus on creating activity, the role of social network changes too. Where in the myspace era designing a fancy style for your profile was enough, at Facebook your profile is of little matter, what counts is what you do, to exist you have to constantly feed the network, and what you feed it defines how you the world sees you.