September 27th, 2006
Around the office, we’ve been talking about the increasing amount of social networking functionality that is permeating into the products and services we’re dealing with. Tagging, for example, allows people who use a resource to help define a living category structure for the content. But it also gives insight into what the other people are thinking. By looking at how other people tag certain items, you get new information about that item. The bookmarking service, Del.icio.us is a great example of that.
In another aspect of social networking applications, Netflix has the capability to invite “friends” into your experience. When your friend accepts you invitation, you can see how they recommend a movie you might be interested in. This now gives users two perspectives on a film: what the general Netflix user base thinks about a given film and what your specific friends think about it. Like using tagging, looking at the differences in the recommendations tells you something about the film you didn’t know before.
While rarely talked about, the grand-daddies of social networking functionality is, of course, Amazon and eBay. Amazon, with it’s “Customers who bought this book also bought…” functionality changed the way we shop. eBay, with it’s reputation system that allows both buyers and sellers to decide if a transaction is worth the risk, changed the way we interact with what is otherwise complete strangers.
In general, computers and software are taking an increasingly social role for us. Our behavior hasn’t become all that much more social (although it certainly has for some) but we’re learning how to effectively model our social needs in software. Three years ago the social aspects of software was email and chat messaging. Now, it’s forging online identity as profiles and embedded messaging within applications. It’s become always-on, which means that there is no distinction between “offline” and “online” anymore. We are not just modeling messaging, we’re modeling presence as well. This is a big shift…and our language reflects it. I’m “on MySpace” means that we are figuratively and literally on the site.
I quoted Wil Wright recently, and I think he’s (pardon the pun) right on. First thought of as super calculators, computers are now part of the social fabric of our lives. They are becoming integral to how we communicate with our family, friends, and colleagues. They’re still doing calculations of course, but the software that we’ve designed for them is all about human-to-human contact. Social contact. And since we’re social animals in the end, the trend of modeling this in software won’t be reversing any time soon.
I agree. It’s not going away soon. And more importantly, there will be increasing demand for designers who have experience with this. The recent Facebook controversy shows us what happens when we design social networking functionality poorly. And how we design, introduce, and maintain social network systems is unlike any of the other design problems we currently regularly face.
I think a new specialty in design will soon emerge to deal with social networking functionality. Specialists in this discipline will learn from others, develop a working body of knowledge, and apply their knowledge and experience to new problems in different contexts. I’m betting, within five years, we’ll see a conference where more than 200 such specialists gather to share and compare their experiences in this new field.Tweet