Does social network design affect local acceptance?

Despite some social networking juggernauts’ efforts to become global standards, a quick survey of the most popular social networks seems to indicate that social networking experiences cannot easily be optimized for ubiquity.

Why is Fotolog a relatively photo sharing site in the US but wildly popular in Brazil? Hi5 and Bebo are both able to capture the attention of many social networkers in India and the UK, respectively, despite the hype around MySpace and Facebook here in the US.

It could all be marketing, but I think it’s something else. As far as I know, Friendster’s popularity in the Pacific Rim was not an intentional decision. Cases like Friendster, Orkut, and Fotolog also undermine the case that Hi5, Bebo, and other apps like Opera don’t seem to expand beyond their designers’ native soil due to lack of ad dollars or a foreign language character set.

It could be luck. I’ve read theories, based on concentrated social interactions on sites like Digg, that a social network’s growth depends on acceptance by thought-leading “tribes” of users who get active and become the heartbeat of a social network. This concept seems akin to Malcom Gladwell’s Maven-Salesperson-Connector model of trendsetters. So maybe a few cool kids in Indonesia jumped on Friendster and the rest was history.

I think there’s another possibility that’s worth exploring: social software becomes popular in a region if it’s interface and experience design closely represents the social interactions in that area.

Social networking is a fun, powerful tool that isn’t going away, though may evolve into subtler forms than the current cow shed social networking sites. As pundits and entrepreneurs celebrate the new connections and communications enabled by social networking tools, we often overlook the medium itself, focusing only on the people and the content they generate.

As Burst 2.0 looms, it’s tempting to frame social networks as a simple, clickable “people need people” fad. The more things change, the more they’re staying the same, right? Wrong. The truth is that the social networking medium – the sites and other tools that power social networks – continues to change; there are many flavors of this and some flavors taste better to different communities.

Understanding local cultural preferences for social functionality flavors is a subtle study of usability trends within the context of specific populations. Building a truly global social app would require finding not a single best solution but a mutable experience that fits the social mores of each user population.

The variables that might determine the success of a social application in a given population could include user expectations around:

  • formality and politeness
  • expectations of personal privacy and property rights
  • trust or fear of others
  • the relative value of education/reference vs. entertainment
  • language constraints
  • the local technology ecosystem within which the application lives (e.g. how much technology is a part of social interactions in general)

As an example, if I were designing a social application to succeed in the United Kingdom, I’d take a look at Islandoo and all the reality tv that comes out of the UK and note that (as an American) britpeeps seem to be very competitive and very interested in reality programming (attention whores?). That’s a sweeping generalization, but it could lead me to realize that whereas an American audience might not be interested in point systems and featured members, such features might promote growth amongst British users.

For the big social networking site, this might mean subtly altering a user’s experience based on her geographic origin, or slowly molding the experience or suggesting setting changes based on her behavior.

I think that part of Orkut’s Brazilian popularity is a result of a happy accident – the sites tools and transactions closely mirror the kinds of social interactions that are common in Brazil. This is potentially good news for anyone who is having trouble with an American (or other intended) audience: try out some new languages in your interface and some new cultures, and you may find that your application designer is a Dane at heart.

OpenSocial ain’t all that, but Pluck has some interesting ideas

After doing some research, I realized there was a major flaw in my previous post regarding the potential of OpenSocial – the new standard will not allow member data to move between the various participating social networks. For now, the gardens will remain walled. Cattle? Safe!

So what this means is that if you build an app, you can plug it into any social network that participates in the OpenSocial standards, but not across multiple participating social networks.

Not all is lost though – social networking plaform Pluck is jumping into the concept to link the networks they power with larger social networks, giving them a presence on the aggregator sites like Facebook and MySpace in exchange for feeding handy links and info into users’ profiles.

Jim Brady, executive editor of washingtonpost.com, runs his site on Pluck and said in a recent Reuter’s article that “We’re not trying to be Facebook or MySpace. By giving ourselves a hook into the bigger social networks, it allows us to get more pollination.”

I think this is the future of social media – as it becomes cheaper to build social media experiences and users become aware that a site tailored to their interest and populated by other, like-minded people are far better than being poked or drowned in “friend” spam, we’ll see a spoke-and-hubs model evolve where users have a primary presense on a generic social media clearinghouse and one or more identities on smaller niche social networks. Until now, widgets were the best tool for linking these sites, but OpenSocial and OpenID are far more abstracted and powerful tools for handing data back and forth between social networks.

Computerworld has more news on Pluck’s recent OpenSocial announcement.

Seeing isn’t believing

This clip from the people at Quirkology that illustrates the difference between vision and perception. It was mentioned during a discussion of eye-tracking technology in the IxDA forums, and it has an obvious parallel in what we’re now calling “banner blindness” – a phenomenon where web-savvy users unconsciously ignore content they believe to be banner advertisements. This phenomenon isn’t only bad for business, it’s also bad for designers whose editorial content somehow also triggers this behavior.

Were you fooled? I was, which probably means I need to work on my visual awareness if I want to improve as an interface designer. Boo.

I think the video raises some other interesting questions, especially when gathering feedback for a design. Though a user might not notice every change within the video, that doesn’t necessarily mean the changes don’t affect the user in some way. Oftentimes, subtle usability differences lead users to say “I don’t know why, but this is better.” Or, more commonly, the preference is attributed to a more obvious but unrelated factor.

During the early part of the video, I thought the production quality made it difficult to follow the magic trick. But was it the production quality or the variable environment? Having learned the video’s “real” trick, I now suspect it was the latter – the changing clothing and background colors disrupt their role as framing elements for the card trick, perhaps creating a subtle dissonance that hampers the overall information flow. I’d be curious to see the magic trick performed with and without the other changes, and test viewers’ reaction to the magic trick itself. Was it more interesting or entertaining? Easier to follow? This has a direct parallel in the navigation, support information, and other framing elements of a web interface.

This confusion also flows in the other direction – oftentimes, a production team spends a lot of time and energy deciding on a factor such as what color the magician’s second shirt should be, and then assume that the user is just as aware of this decision.

I often feel like this is happening when I view eye-tracking “heat maps” that cover a whole page. In those situations, it seems like the tester has said “look at this page and tell me what it’s about” so the user scans every part of the page. This behavior isn’t useful because we know that users don’t come to a page and think “alright, before I do anything, I should orient myself, so I don’t miss anything.” Instead, they satisfice – they scan a page until they see something that seems good enough to meet their needs, and stop (or click), regardless of how much time was spent by the copywriter wrangling over the footer links.

The video was introduced in the IxDA thread to support someone’s argument that vision doesn’t equal perception, which is certainly true, but it undermines the larger argument that this renders eye-tracking tests (and, from the tone of the thread) other empirical testing techniques useless when someone could trust a good designer and a quick conversation with some test users. It is exactly because users and designers are often biased and unaware of their actions that empirical testing techniques remain useful – they provide transcripts of unnoticed and unintended behaviors that point designers to subtle factors, problems, and solutions that would have otherwise been missed.

OpenSocial + OpenID = borderless communities?

Update: check this for a clarification on a seriously flawed assumption in this post.

Initially, I spent a lot of time thinking about OpenSocial in terms of Widgets/Apps/Gadgets, which is I think where people want us looking: it’s in the big graphic on the Google documentation and it’s what made Facebook so sexy to developers.

(If you’re still catching up, Marc Canter offers my favorite, frothy take on OpenSocial to date. It’s so comprehensive that I’ll just link to his blog.)

But I think Widgets are an artifact of closed website borders. The data that’s available via OpenSocial, the data that powers those Widgets, is people data. What’s striking to me about the blog commentary to date is that they seem to take it for granted that users will stay put while apps float around. Here’s a sample headline for Jermiah Owyang:

Using mini-applications, companies can now efficiently extend their website experience to existing communities on popular social networks

Boo. Forget about extending your website experience, let the users float freely!

I’m no developer, but a quick review of the People Data API seems to indicate that if you have a user’s credentials, you can grab all their profile information. So we could envision a flow like this:

  1. Member has a ton of profiles on social networks all over the web.
  2. Member browses to a new, OpenSociable online community.
  3. Ooh, she’s hot! Member wants to join!
  4. Member clicks the “Join” link
  5. Instead of the usual form, member sees that he can simply enter his MySpace, Orkut, Bebo, etc. usernames and passwords (OpenID would make this faster) and all of his profile info from all those other sites gets pulled into his newly-created account.

This is like the Slide.com experience, except it’s so much more than photos, it’s everything you got. That means that rather than waiting for the apps to fit inside the Host site’s box, the user can go to the apps.

I strongly believe that online communities are one part same old social media infrastructure (message boards, friends, UGC, etc.) and one part “gravity” – that special feature, configuration, or population that makes it most appropriate to a specific audience. OpenSocial helps standardize that first part and mobilize users, which means they can float to the gravity that best fits them.

This is also very scary for big sites that are still dependent on switching costs to preserve user loyalty (instead of, oh say… a good product offering). I think Marc’s fears are bound to come true, at least in the short term:

What happens when some of the alliance members don’t adhere to ALL of the APIs and thwart or warp the APIs? What happens if they DON’T let their users more their data around – but only SUCK IN external data?

Look out paw! The cattle done busted out of the corral!

I’m not sure how, but it’s important to identify incentives for letting your users run free. I think this means cash, and I’m not sure how to make exit doors profitable, but we know they’re good for users, so there must be a connection to dollars somewhere.

Next up, I want to see the first developer who starts *extending* the OpenSocial APIs! I hear murmurs of fear that Google is secretly going to do bad things at the helm of this project. Who leaves them at the helm? Why are we content to chew on what Google’s dishing out when we could be looking for ways to extend it? This seems like an exciting beginning. Marc’s already making demands. Just as Flickr and Yahoo extended the core RSS schema, I think we’ll know OpenSocial has made it when people start building, and using extensions.

Thinkin bout APIs…

John Musser offered a presentation at Web 2.0 Expo titled Open APIs: Big Picture and Best Practices (that’s a PDF link).

His slides #4, explains why publishers should care about APIs:

  • Ebay uses them to make money: Over 45% of all products get listed via their APIs
  • Google Maps uses them to build their brand, seeing 300% growth vs 20% MapQuest
  • Salesforce uses them to extend their audience reach: over 50% of all transactions via their API and 500 apps for specific verticals
  • Flickr uses them to innovate, with hundreds of apps built to date

And for users, the benefit is far easier to understand: free/cheap functionality. Musser notes that Smugmug used APIs to save money ($500K/year) with Amazon S3 Storage.

Most of this argument applies to Widgets as well – they’re just simple presentations of platform APIs, after all.

There’s plenty more in the presentation, and Jason Snyder did a nice presentation write up for InfoWorld that warrants a read.

Zero to 60,000 members in 12 weeks

Social networks are valuable two big reasons:

  1. They cheaply attract eyeballs to your pages
  2. They provide heaps of data about your audience

For reasons to be addressed in a later post (or in my recent FOWA presentation, if you were one of the five people in the audience), both of those benefits are best achieved via targeted, niche communities. That means YOUR community, not those big social networking warehouses. Until recently, setting up a scalable social network with plenty of rich media, Widgets, and whatever else was a big pain in the ass.

Then KickApps and a few other companies changed all of that. We’re seeing success across the board (despite what some people’s less-than-friendly blog posts would have you believe), but I was recently discussing Vibe Verses, a KickApps-powered community, and I raised some eyebrows with these numbers:

  1. The site took 3 weeks to build, once the graphic design/branding was settled
  2. When the first contest ended, about 12 weeks after it had begun, the community had 60,000 members

The site performed so well that it did something that every online marketer dreams of: the contest site became an ongoing community.

Here’s an even better use case: Hip Hop Music dot com dot com. It’s so Web 2.0 you have to write the “dot com” twice! This dude hooked up a free WordPress blog to a free KickApps community site, fueled it with his personal passion and blew up. Check out his page views on his most popular KickApps-powered media. No marketing budget, just love, and he’s getting well over a million page views a month.

If you’re paying a ton of cash, waiting months and months, and have a creeping fear that you’re reinventing that ole social networking wheel, check out the wide range of RYO social networking solutions that are currently out there. Start with KickApps of course – partly because I work there and partly because the platform is built to integrate cleanly into your existing website (moreso if you’re a Joomla lover).

This is mostly a bland tooting of my own horn post, but it’s also interesting because as we talk to more large companies I am repeatedly surprised to hear how difficult and expensive they expect this stuff to be. If you’re one of those people, hop on over to the KickApps site and check out our recent whitepaper that outlines 9 easy steps to create an online community, then quit waiting and go.

“Creativity” is dying. Thank god.

Alan Schulman‘s recent “Algorhithmic Creative — A Formula For Feeling?” article warns against the promise of algorithmically-generated ad ideas, copyrighting, and design. It makes sense for a paid “creative person” to fear a trend that may cost him his job, but I’m not sure his Skynet prognostications are a bad thing.

First off, the whole “ads are emotional, and emotions are too complex for a computer” argument is more honestly phrased as “I can’t even begin to imagine how it would be done, and I’m the smartest person I know, therefore it’s not possible.” This attitude is great for the stage magician industry but bad bad bad for entrepreneurs and business in general. In Made to Stick, the Heath brothers cite a study where ignorant test subjects armed with a handful of common ad templates created successful ads. Sooo… pretty complex stuff, huh? It’s time to face the music: when a knowledge work task can be Taylorized, it’s ripe for algorithmic substitution.

Consider also Scott French’s computer-written romance novel or the Turing bots that are sometimes used to advertise products on chat clients. That’s pretty emotional stuff, no? The Internet only increases the potential for these projects: throw in some split testing on volume and you can refine your algorithm and isolate relevant contextual and audience variables.

What is perhaps more frightening to ad agency “creatives” is the possibility that the old ad paradigms that did so well for newspapers and television will be anachronistic in the AdSense age. Forget trying to teach a computer to envision silhouetted dancers on colorful backgrounds, perhaps the whole game is changing and million dollar superbowl spots are less valuable than a good recommendation on Amazon or a similar shopping service.

While we’re killing traditional media, let’s take the banners out back and shoot them too. Check out vnunet‘s review of Forrester’s recent report on the failure of traditional ads to engage social media audiences. All media’s going social so all traditional advertising needs to go.

While agencies are being squeezed from below by algorithms, Guy and Seth continue to harp on the fact that a great ad can’t sell a bad product. Should a company’s “creative” resources really focus on a couple of jaded Madison Ave copywriters’ ability to shill the product? Isn’t that energy better spent on the product itself? Years ago, during my agency days, I remember a hue and cry within the industry for advertisers to take on a more “strategic” role, but it’s still a rarity, and the vnunet article (published last week) includes a statement from Blast Radius’s Gurval Caer that “marketing needs to ‘turn itself on its head’ with a much greater focus on building relationships that will make people’s lives ‘easier, better and richer’.” Really? So people should hire a third party agency to build relationships with their customers? Hmm…

I’m thinking about all of this after seeing Chris Fahey give a great presentation on the nature of creativity and the pseudo scientific “processes” that surround it. He has a nice quote from a Pentagram partner basically saying “I make something up out of nowhere, then try to convince you that it is the result of a process.” So on the one hand there’s these creatives saying that even they don’t know what’s in the secret sauce, but on the other hand, I’ve heard a philosopher’s elegy for the death of his vocation, roadkill in the grille of biological innovation.

I look forward to advertising’s race to the bottom. For all it’s emotional paint, advertising “creative” is really just an effort to get products into the hands of consumers, in exchange for cash. Loyalty, relationships, etc., are all just fancy words for more cash, again and again, at lower cost. Traditional marketing and advertising is really just an effort to create market inefficiencies (misinformation about a product’s value and availability), so audiences will be fooled into choosing a product. As the Internet strips away these inefficiencies and advertising becomes a solved problem, we can look forward to a renewed focus on real product value. When audiences can’t be fooled, all that “creative” energy will have to be channeled into better products and services, and we’ll all be better off.