Social is Normal

Jump on the social media bandwagon
Credit: flickr / Matt Hamm

Last week, I read Coders at Work (Amazon, Google books). I really enjoyed it, it was fascinating and I learned a lot about the history of programming and the programmers themselves.

There’s a great quote from Douglas Crockford:

Progress isn’t always forward. Sometimes we’re leaping forward and sometimes we’re leaping backwards. When we leaped to the PC, we lost a whole lot of stuff. In the timesharing era, we had social systems online. A timesharing system was a marketplace. It was a community, and everyone who was part of that system could exchange email, they could exchange files, they could chat, they could play games. They were doing all that stuff and it got lost when we went to PCs. It took another 20 years or so to get that back.

Humans are social creatures. Social is normal. So the person pitching a website so: “<generic idea>, blah blah blah… but it will have this social network and that’ll be so awesome” – how different are they really from those people who used to pitch: “we’re going to have a business, we don’t know what it will do yet but it’ll be on the internet” back in the day.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about user’s mental models. For instance, for the “average user”, what does their mental model of the internet look like? How about their mental model of their social network?

For sophisticated users, the mental model explains to me why Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Foursquare can be completely complementary. LinkedIn is for professional contacts. Twitter is for people they want to share ideas with. FourSquare is for people they actually hang out with. Facebook is for everyone else (perhaps that is why power users have lately been finding Facebook so expendable?).

What about average users though? Do Facebook lists sufficiently enable the distinctions they have in their mental model? What do you think? It seems like they wouldn’t.

In the real world, people have different social networks. Some people work hard to keep their different networks separate, and may act differently depending on who they are with. Some people are consistent, and deliberately try to build links across networks. Most of us probably fall somewhere in between.

It used to be that you managed these networks from one phone – two at a push. That is less and less the case. Now we manage our networks through diverse means – multiple phones, multiple email addresses, multiple social networks, chat programs. I might make a plan with a friend on Facebook, confirm the day before by SMS, and know that they’ve arrived via Foursquare. Mentioning that we’re hanging out on Twitter or Facebook might mean that other people join us. It’s confusing.

Ages ago, I read a novel about a woman with commitment phobia who managed her cheating by having a different phone for each lover. Horrifying, right? Most of us would not want to live like that. And yet – right now it seems like I kind of do. I catch up with my work colleagues via Sametime, some friends via Facebook and some via Twitter. I email a couple of people. I chat with some friends via a AOL/MSN using Adium, and others on Skype. The other day I invited some people over, and I had no clue how many people were coming because I’d arranged it via so many different medium.

I think the future of “social” depends on our mental models of ourselves and our network. I was started to explore this in this post, and I’m increasingly fascinated by it. So I’m going to keep thinking – and let me know what you think, too.

Social art
Credit: flickr / kevindooley

Embedded below – really great slide deck with commentary which has given me a lot to think about in respect to this. I hope you enjoy it too!

2 thoughts on “Social is Normal

  1. In the beginning, we really have no idea what does what. I only joined Twitter when it seemed literally everyone I was interested in was on it. I also never intended to start spewing out a bunch of whatever, but here I am.

    People have generally become comfortable with the distinctions between email and a social network like Facebook, and sometimes with IM. Lately, we have to also deal with Twitter and FourSquare.

    Part of the confusion stems from multiple services that do the same thing. “Facebook? Isn't that like MySpace?” I've had acquaintances try to add me on LinkedIn, even though we've never had a business relationship, or even when we've never met (I think he was a local web developer). I've heard of strange new social media sites, but I haven't checked them out because I couldn't fathom that they could be something new and different. For location-based applications, you have a choice between FourSquare and Gowalla.

    I think this problem will be solved by a few bright minds, in the next two or three years. A single application that pulls in data from all possible social media sources and displays it in a single stream would mean that people no longer have to remember several sites if they want to keep up with you. Operating Systems could integrate our 'default' social media aggregator, like they do email clients or web browsers. A standards body could write a specification so that we can use something like a mailto: link to add a profile (or list of profiles) to the user's default Social Spyglass or whatever it'll be called at that point in time.

    I don't think we've ever had quite this problem. People have had one or two houses, phones, mailing addresses, or email addresses for ever. I guess it makes sense that we're only starting to get a handle on this.

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