Social networks are changing the game

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.

What does this mean for social networks?

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.

make_money

  • 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.

identity_online

  • 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.

design and emotions

In this article I want to discuss the relation between emotion and design, but first let me say why I think that we are having this discussions at this very moment (and not a decade ago (or next decade)) I see five reasons.

  • Interaction design is more than graphic design on a screen or industrial design in a browser
  • Enlightenment, modernism and the questioning  of man being rational
  • The rise of neurological research, and the continues psychological and sociological experiments
  • The availability of a massive amount of behavioural data
  • Internet companies have found themselves in a saturated market with highly competitive products

I believe this is the right moment  to connect emotions with design research. Let me first go over the word “emotional” (again) in our language emotional is often used as the opposite of rational, when you are ‘all emotional’ you are not acting rational, and even worse both also carry a value connotation, to be emotional is bad, to be rational is good. I (and many with me) think this is a strong oversimplification that will not help us any further. Emotion is in accepting that in order to make a decision we  take much more into account than only  ‘is this cheaper or will this last longer’. As Malcolm Gladwell tried to explain in his book Blink or Weinschenk in her book Neuro Web Design there is a lot of thinking going on beyond closed doors.

The estimate from neuroscientist is that our five senses are taking in 11 million pieces of information every second. And how many of those are we processing consciously? A mere 40! (Weinschenk)

Is it pure magic what happens with the other 10 million inputs? Luckily we can already say quite a lot about the way those other inputs are processed, they are (mostly) in-line with our needs (A theory on needs was developed by Maslow, the so called hierarchy of need) I don’t want to go in this too deep, but I hope you agree that there is an awful lot to take into consideration when making a decision. This taking into consideration is what I for the lack of a better therm will call ’emotional’ decision making.

Interaction design
Interaction design (or user-experience design, information design, webdesign, etc) although there isn’t makes one thing pretty clear, designing for digital interfaces is not the same as just applying old design knowledge (architecture, graphic design, industrial design) to a new medium. We need the old knowledge, but it’s not enough, we have a new thing to learn about what happens when time, humans and mediated social action meet on a screen, magic happens. To know more about this magical field many people have turned to fields originally hardly associated with design such as psychology and sociology, as I shall try to make clear in this article, it was about time.

Enlightenment and modernism
Now let’s move back a bit in history -and make some terrible generalisations- and try explain why in the first place we have to defend emotional design over rational design. In the period of enlightenment the idea man could get out of the darkness and get on the path of progress if only we would be rational came to the surface . If we would follow our mind and with the help of technology we could work towards a better future for all mankind, we could put ourselves on a infinitive track of progress. In the 20th these ideas shaped thinking about design and architecture the idea of modernism rose on the horizon. If only we would remove every non-essential part, all the clutter, all the fluff, than at the heart we would reach a perfect blend of man and technology the essence, buildings would be white and shiny, products would be simple and clean and font-faces would be simple yet beautiful. Even the short rise (and fall) of post-modern design could not stop it, post-modernism gave us a change though to question our believes, maybe there would be more in life than this.  Now with the knowledge that there is more to progress than just simply removing everything that was not necessary to the job. Emotions came back to the table.

Psychological research
A lot has happened since Sigmond Freud uncovered the subconscious, experiment after experiment prove that humans are not as rational as we think. Research keeps on proving that people are influenced by reciprocity, commitment consistency, social proof, authority, liking and scarcity (for a short introduction on these: Neuro Web Design) So although people are not rational, the factors that influence their behaviour are known and can be studied. This of-course with the hope that we will come to a rational way of understanding irrationality.

Data crunching
Now we have stated that although humans don’t behave as rational as expected, patterns in their behaviour can still be found, it is time to move on to the rise of the internet companies. Because any action that happens on a network can be registrated by that network, there is a massive amount of data available on internet usage. Data in itself is not really meaningful, just a long strings of zeros and ones. Meaning only appears after we work with this data and turn it into information. The quality of this information both depends on the kind of data, the quantity and most important the questions you try to answer with this data. If you start mixing psychological insights with quantitative data, interesting patterns start to emerge. You could for example base authority on the amounts of links that any web page gets, or you could use data clustering to create statements as ‘people who bought this also bought’. Or use it to answer if a border should be 5 or 6 pixels. Important to remember is that data is only useful when you ask the right questions.

So now we have the right mindset that by doing research we can improve the workings of technology, we have the psychological models to know where we have to look for answers and we have the data to give us the answers. Now the only thing we need is a financial stimulus to actually start working.

Web companies face a saturated. mature market
To be a successful company in the online sphere is at least as hard as to be successful in any market, there is no easy money any more. Although it might be easier than ever to start an online service and to have visitors coming your way, this is true for everyone. Thanks to the growing awareness of good usability practices most new web applications are now usable, this however is also true for the competition. To make the most out of their visitors companies have to make each visitor count. The psychological lessons about humans emotional behaviour are therefore really valuable, design that anticipates human emotional behaviour can make a visible difference in the amount of people that will actually use a website. By applying this knowledge we can move on from ‘is the user’s task doable’ to ‘does the user want to do the task’

progress

So there we have it, the mindset, the questions, the answers and the money. This is why we will hear a lot more about psychology, sociology and emotions in the design world the coming decade.

more to read:

Donald Norman’s Design and Emotion
Predictably Irrational

The amazing slide shows by Joshua Porter
Pieter Desmet research emotions method

Design for the difficult

This is my tiny wrap up of uxcamplondon talk that I held at the Ebay Headquarters down in Richmond. My talk had the  inspiring title “designing for the difficult – because some things just aren’t simple”. Before I had my talk I had only a vague understanding of the concept. But I think I understand it a bit better now, so i decided to give you a rough outline of the concept.

The problem
The problem is quite clear, many applications (be it software such as word, excel, be it web-apps such as Ebay or Facebook) are quite well designed to get beginners up to steam, and also have some advanced features for the top of the end users. How someone goes from beginner to advanced users is still an hardly explored terrain, leading to many people stuck in the middle. To use a graph to explain the problem: If a new product arrives on the market some people will quickly ‘get it’ and become an advanced user, most people will slowly grown in to the functionality they need and become moderate users, and also a fairly large chunk will never grow out of the beginner state and or give up, or only use the very basic of functionality of the software. The challenge therefore is: how can we get as many users from beginners to moderate and from moderate to advanced in a way is most natural to the user.

Old answer – the manuals
Rtfm Write lengthy manuals, hundreds of frequently asked questions, and many pages on help. Although this is not a bad thing to do, it’s also not the best for two reasons:

  • Users don’t read for various reasons, but mainly because reading requires true effort
  • Developers and designers don’t like to write manuals (no statistics for this claim, so I’m happy to be proven wrong)

So the reading coin doesn’t work out for two reasons, no-one likes to read and no-one (almost no-one) loves to write help texts, faq and manuals when they know they won’t be read.

Old answer – the course, seminar, workshop
Sent the users of your software so lengthy and expensive help courses, where they will burn away their valuable hours and burn away valuable company’s cash. Although this method works, it comes with the down down sides, that it requires even more effort than reading and most times courses are more expensive than the software itself.

New Answers
I believe there are better methods to educate the user and there are several fields of which ux-designers can borrow inspiration and information.

  • Game design – is already working for decades on how to get users through their levels with giving them the right challenges at the right time.
  • Marketing – also has a long track record in how to get users to do something /anything
  • Education – Just as the classic examples of the book and the classroom, there should be a lot of information there on how to motivate people to learn new tasks.

Together with the fields above there are also two scientific areas that give a lot of ‘new’ answers: sociology and psychology both studying human behaviours and trying to come up more answers on how to keep the change > effect train running. Recently this whole field has got an incredible boost by both the further development of neuro research and the incredible rise of data mining

To me it seems no more than logic that ux field should learn as much as they can from those three fields of work, two fields of science and two incredible methods. Luckily this is already happening, but as far as I can see not in a very structured way.

To give you some links to sources where you can read more on this subject:
Books:

Articles

Examples
I’ve gathered quite a series of examples, but at the moment I feel it’s to early yet to state that it is anything beyond incidental anecdotes, but for those interested; have a look at my presentation:

Social Networks, who are they

Lately I’ve spent some time in trying to map the ‘true essence’ of social networks, as always with true essence they refuse to be mapped. Here is my attempt though

There are (should be) three mayor components in any social network

  • Users – this might be members, visitors, creators, editors, (who knows even spambots), someone needs to be willing to do something though.
  • Actions – having user is not enough, a social network should also enable these users to do things, to alter the status quo, to change reality.
  • Objects – last there need to be things that user can preform actions on -to be visible in a digital world you will need to create, alter, reflect on media objects
  • Time

In other words we could state the goal of a social network is to ‘enable people to perform actions that will change what was there previously’

If you would be willing to follow my thoughts this would mean something for many of the current social networks out there, because it is NOT (only) about publishing (blogging, writing, uploading photos, uploading films) it’s fine if you want to focus on that, but don’t call yourself a social network. It is also NOT (only) about activity, displaying activity (twitter, friendfeed, facebook wall anyone. It is (here it comes) about the following three things:

Social networks should enable users to prepare, act, reflect:

Enable a user to see what is going on:

  • Enable a user to see what is going on (activity feed) (real time)
  • Enable a user to create, reply, act, do, take the action (publishing)
  • Enable a user to know what effect this action had

To enable this, social networks should rebrand themselves as social collaboration tools and focus on

  • Providing quick insights on what is going on
  • Making actions disturbingly easy
  • Provide an easy way to know what happened after you acted

You now might want to read more at Boxes and Arrows and read about Google Wave

And more important pleaes leave me your thoughts on what you think are important actors when we think about social networks

Facebook, Foucault and the CIA

From the surface Facebook might look like just another toy for teens to waste their time on, but Facebook is much more than that. Not only is the audience comprised of much more than purely teens, the amount of users –70 million– and the time spent on it – the 6th most trafficked website in the world- make it a platform that is a seriously big player in the world of online destinations. Tom Hodgkinson, journalist for the Guardian, writes in his article about Facebook With friends like these… about the size and the goals of Facebook:

Furthermore, have you Facebook users ever actually read the privacy policy? It tells you that you don’t have much privacy. Facebook pretends to be about freedom, but isn’t it really more like an ideologically motivated virtual totalitarian regime with a population that will very soon exceed the UK’s? Thiel and the rest [shareholders of Facebook] have created their own country, a country of consumers. (Hodgkinson 2008)

With Facebook, state and commerce seem to have found a solution to the problem of decentralisation that they had been dealing with on the web. Where they already had solved some of their problems by building in surveillance possibilities in the hardware, with Facebook they can directly see what users are doing by following every click they make on this closed platform. I’ll try to present you with some background of Facebook as both a surveillance and marketing tool and we will try to relate the ideas of Foucault, biopolitics, segmentation and the Panopticon to the way Facebook allows its users to interact on the platform and itself the surveillance all this.

With Facebook as a closed platform, commerce no longer needed to need tools anymore to track users on different internet sites, for as long as the user stayed on Facebook, they could be followed on every page they visited. From research done by Harvey Jones and José Hiram Soltren for their article Facebook: Threats to Privacy, we can understand that on average nearly 90% of the students of their researched universities (including MIT and Harvard) had a Facebook account (Jones/Hirman Solten 2005 [14]) and although Facebook has a privacy option to disallow ‘strangers’ from viewing specific information (Jones/Hirman Solten 2005 [14]) this setting does not interfere with what Facebook itself can see; their privacy statement also leaves no doubts:

When you use Facebook, you may set up your personal profile, form relationships, send messages, perform searches and queries, form groups, set up events, add applications, and transmit information through various channels. We collect this information so that we can provide you the service and offer personalized features. (Facebook 2007)

It is pretty clear that those surveillance powers of getting all the user data are used by marketers to up its fullest potential, and according to Tom Hodgkinson the government in the form of the CIA also managed to get onboard; he writes:

Facebook’s most recent round of funding was led by a company called Greylock Venture Capital, who put in the sum of $27.5m. One of Greylock’s senior partners is called Howard Cox, another former chairman of the NVCA, who is also on the board of In-Q-Tel. What’s In-Q-Tel? Well, believe it or not (and check out their website), this is the venture-capital wing of the CIA. (Hodgkingson 2008)

And although the CIA were only indirectly related to Facebook in this article it would be of no surprise if the CIA were indeed capable of having the same information as Facebook’s commercial partners.

Foucault and Facebook
If we take another example that Foucault uses in his book Discipline and Punish, namely measures that have to be taken when a plague hits town, we can see another kind of social control happening on Facebook, the user-to-user control. An interesting feature on Facebook is its News Feed, which is on the opening page for everyone who has logged in and shows everything that your friends have done on Facebook: whether they have added new friends, uploaded photos, or even if their relations are still working out; and thereby reminds us both of the ideas of the Panopticon as to the segmentation after a plague, as Foucault writes: ‘Everyone locked up in his cage, everyone at his window, answering to his name and showing himself when asked – it is the great review of the living and the dead’ A quite somber image for the profile pages users create for themselves, but it could be used as a way to think about how social networks (especially those with a reach of more than 90% in certain groups) force their members to behave in a certain way. If we see each profile page as the representation of a human being, and we know that the News Feed allows everyone in the group to know about all the changes a person makes, then we can see the order Foucault mentioned:

This enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded. (Foucault 1977 [140])

Two things are different though; first, the users join voluntarily (although is it a free choice to not join, when you know you will miss out on an activity 90% of your friends are joining?) and second the unknown guard is replaced by all your known friends that could be watching, although there is no way to find out which ones exactly, because Facebook does not give insight into who is watching your profile. It is here that we choose to be part of a self-created Panopticon, we are the inmates of a self-inflicted social prison; Foucault states: ‘that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers.’ (Foucault 1990 [31]) The current Internet users do not need power of state, or seduction by marketing anymore to keep them in control; rather they happily agree with self-surveillance to create an online society of social normalisation.

Facebook is a dream platform for extracting marketing data –and possibly security data- because it no longer has to deal with the problem of decentralisation; from the moment the users show up on one of Facebook’s pages their every move can be tracked and traced. Facebook’s privacy policy also leaves no doubt that they will. The way Facebook is created also allows us to see it as a sort of social prison or Panopticon and use the work of Foucault to understand better how social surveillance creates a status of social normalisation.

Where are ideas when they are on the internet?

finally a new update, and this time it’s an essay about Supermodernity and non-places, it’s based on a small book/ article written by Marc Auge (and lucky for us translated to English in 1995) Find Articles has a good review on it, and you can order it on Amazon Although it’s not really an easy read, he makes some interesting points.

Short essay on Marc Auge

In this short essay I will try to answer the question as to whether the Internet can also be seen as a non-place; a place where ideas and concepts travel between real places and the virtual places of computers, Internet and the minds of humans sitting at their desk waiting for new information to come out of the gap. To answer this question I will use the ideas stated by Marc Auge in his book Non-places about and see if it can also be applied for this particular situation.

First I will write an account of the execution of my idea of a trip to Epping Forest, hereby using the London public transport to get there. Because I wanted to include some friends on this trip I had to share my idea first and let the group shape it into a workable plan. Therefore information had to travel through the Internet to reach different places where it reached certain people and let them work with it so we created a mutual plan to go to a place. I shall try to describe the path that this idea travelled from a virtual message on a screen to a real meeting in London

Secondly I will give a short overview of the ideas of Auge on super-modernity and see how these ideas can be used to understand certain details of my story.

Account of a journey

After seeing photos of a trip to Epping Forest on a friend’s Facebook profile, I sent him a message on how to get there. Next I discussed the idea of visiting that place with some friends I met in the kitchen. Because most commented positively about the idea I decided to create a group message on Facebook with a time and location to meet up. The idea hereby travelled from virtual space -the digital photos- to real space –the kitchen- to virtual space – the group message. On it’s way it both changed its information available online, as well as the people it met in real life.

The message on Facebook contained several links to other places of interest on the Internet. There was a link to the photo site Flickr displaying all the interesting pictures of the place: a link to the Wikipedia article on the area describing its history and its characteristics; a link to Google Maps with an overview of the area; and a link to the website of the City of London where a travel map on the area was available. All different links with different information about the same location, seen by different people on different locations but with one common connection – it was in front of a computer screen.

After my invitation was sent out, there were three replies from people who couldn’t make it and five from those who could. Very early in the morning (3 AM) on the day we would go a new reply came from one of the accompanying people: after a late night kitchen meet-up they had decided that 10am was too early and that eleven o’clock sounded a much better time to go. Again a message that came from a meeting in real space led to a message in virtual space that had direct implications in the real space and time: namely an hour change in schedule.

After I released my idea on the Internet it was no longer my own, it had became also the idea of the others who felt connected. The central overview thereby moved from a human to a computer network and got a bit lost. The people, who lived in the same real space of my house, had the chance to connect without using the virtual medium of the Internet. And although they responded on the original message with a reply of the new time, those who weren’t at that midnight meeting could run the risk of missing out on information, if that information would not manage to jump across the gap between real and virtual space. Luckily for them I woke up early enough to see this risk and check with the outsiders if we all had the same information. Hereby I used another screen based devise that was also capable of sending information, the phone. By using a second device I raised the possibility of information actually reaching its destination. And it seemed that it worked, for one person at least, who got the information and was able to respond to it by changing her original plan. A second person however did not reply.

This could mean that the second person got the Facebook or text message with the new time and had changed her plans accordingly but hadn’t replied, or that the information never left the machines and she was still acting on old information and would be an hour too early. The last solution left was that of a medium that only worked if there was an instant reply, namely the call and speak function of the telephone. When I tried that I indeed managed to get to speak to a very sleepy person that hadn’t heard of the change of plans but was able to adapt to it at that specific moment.

Half an hour later the idea that had only travelled through the minds of people by mail, instant messaging, spoken word, text-messages and telephone calls created a meet up in a real space, creating a group that was ready to move through space and time to reach a place where distance nor time was of first concern.

Critical Analysis

The next thing I will do is compare my account of this story with the ideas of Auge, but first let’s see what these ideas are. Auge sees four key points to believe we are now living in a time of super modernity (Auge, p.34)

  1. Overabundance of the present. Although we are aware of history, we no longer have the feeling that we live in a certain time, we live now, and history is always on our heels. We try to see us of what we are in the light of what we are no longer (Auge, p.26)
  2. The change of scale. Not only has there been an upward change in scale – the first travel to the moon, satellites that turn around the earth each day – the world has become smaller in the same time too – London to Paris in 45 minutes by plane, satellite television and Internet that allow us to watch events in real time while they happen on the other side of the planet. (Auge, p.31)
  3. The proliferation of imagined and imaginary references. Famous people on TV become like relatives to us, we know where they live, how they are doing, what is happening in their lives, although we have never and will never meet them in person. The same goes for all the images we see around us, Tokyo, New York, San Francisco; we have a feeling that we know those places although we actually never went there. (Auge, p.32)
  4. The acceleration of means of transport. Thanks to the airplane, we can go to places that were previously only a piece of information to us e.g. ‘that it is sunny’. Or we can take the tube and go underground in the suburbs only to go outside again in the middle of the historical centre.

Overabundance of the present can be found in the fact that the reason to go was not an historical interest in the place, but more digital photos only one week old, which in the end resulted in new digital photos only a few weeks later. Another point can be made of the way the trip was organized; no longer did people have to wait for the time information had travelled from the sender to the receiver. At the moment the sender had sent the information is was already available for the receiver.

The change of scale can be found in the way that Internet changes communication even more than the letter, telegraph and telephone did. Not only does it allow for real time communication, it also gives the possibility to communicate with a group, in different times and different locations. The subject that is worked on –in this case an idea to go somewhere- can be changed, altered and moved by any of the group’s members from any location (if Internet connection is available) at any time.

The proliferation of imagined and imaginary references can be found in the information that was available about this place that none of us had ever visited. Photos from people we knew that had already been there gave the possibility to imagine how it would be to be there. This together with the available historic data of the area, the satellite images and the other available photos gave us so much information that it felt like we had lived there all our lives.

The acceleration of means of transport meant that we didn’t even need to come together to share information and ideas. The ideas and plans of one person were available for all others at the moment one was capable of formulating these ideas in written text. The transportation of ideas with the speed of light, literally removed the distance between sender and receiver (although one could argue that the change of the medium from oral to text also caused an altered perception of the idea itself, distance was removed at a certain cost).

As we can see here, if we modify Auge’s idea about super modernity from real space as tubes and highways to virtual spaces as computers and telephones (and also telegraph and mail) his ideas can still be useful. However as my example in the last paragraph of my story states: the miscommunication of the idea through different forms of media states has to remind us that if distance, space and time get close to zero, old problems might disappear but previously non-existent problems can arise.

Bibliography

Auge, Marc

Non Places – Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity

London: Verso 1995