Danah Boyd, one of the most insightful analysts of social network sites, got some great coverage by the Financial Times in an extended article entitled “The high priestess of internet friendship” by Graham Bowley on October 28-29, 2006. The article provides an interesting overview of social network sites and the various roles they tend to serve, especially for kids. As I read through the article though, I began to crave for a more explicit typology to make sense of the diversity of social network sites that continue to emerge and evolve. I also began to want a more systematic discussion of the relationship between these virtual sites and physical space.
Here’s an early typology of social network sites that I sketched out after reading the article. Rather than categorize sites themselves it may be more useful to think about three primary functions of these sites – connection, creation and collaboration. Individual sites can then be analyzed in terms of their relative emphasis on these three functions. It turns out that sites differ significantly in terms of their relative emphasis.
Connection is the first function – it emphasizes the ability of social network sites to connect participants effectively and conveniently with each other and with resources that are useful to them. An extreme example of this is LinkedIn, the social networking site helping to connect business people based on profile data and knowledge about networks of relationships. In terms of connecting people with relevant resources, think of Digg and del.icio.us. In this context, the primary value is a filtering function, helping participants to sort through a growing array of options and quickly connect to relevant people or resources.
Creation is the second function. In this context, let’s differentiate two different forms of creation – identity creation and content creation - by contrasting MySpace with sites like Flickr and YouTube.
Identity creation. The overwhelming growth of MySpace stems from its success in helping participants to create and evolve distinctive identities. It does this by providing a robust platform for appropriating and mixing different elements, combining music clips, video clips, graphics and text in engaging ways, to create and communicate a distinctive identity. Bowley’s article does a nice job of communicating how MySpace rapidly gained share against an earlier social network site, Friendster, by emphasizing this functionality. Bowley reports on her conversation with the two founders of MySpace:
They were getting “antsy” about doing something new, especially in social networks, they told me, and thought they could get away from the pre-programmed “box” that Friends locked users into and instead let people “really open up and do all sorts of things with their profiles.”
“Our site worked,” said DeWolfe. “You actually could log on, surf, customize your web pages and really be creative.”
In contrast to Friendster, MySpace encourage people to put up wacky art or even pipe music on to their pages. . . . As Friendster fell back, MySpace became the leading social network site, its millions of pages a cacophony of teenage self-declarations, friends’ testimonials, flirting, provocation, scrawls, art and music.
Content creation. Now let’s contrast this with Flickr or YouTube. Here, the emphasis is on a different form of creation – it’s more about content creation than identity creation. Surf through Flickr and you encounter impressive photography. YouTube provides a great platform for presentation of videos, some appropriated from other sources, but an increasing number produced by the contributors themselves. On these sites, you get some sense of the identity of the contributors, but the real focus is on showcasing the content itself. Networks in these sites begin to organize around a shared interest in certain forms of content. The content is the anchor and shaper of social networks.
It is interesting to note that MySpace really took off initially as a showcase for indie bands and their music. As music fans flocked to this site, MySpace was able to evolve into an environment for broader identity creation and experimentation because of the flexible platform it had created. Sites like Flickr and YouTube are likely to have a harder time doing this because their sites are optimized for content capture and display.
Collaboration represents a third function that defines social networking sites. Collaboration in turn breaks down into three very different types of collaboration – commentary, conversations and construction.
Commentary. Commentary is pretty pervasive across most social networking sites – even the narrowly focused LinkedIn offers an ability to provide testimonials regarding the work of participants and sites like Flickr and YouTube offer participants an opportunity to comment on the contributions of others. In most cases, though, this commentary consists of one-off postings and rarely evolves into sustained conversations.
Conversations. Conversations represent more sustained interactions around topics of shared interest. True to form, the conversations at MySpace tend to revolve around the individual profiles, although forums and interest groups have begun to form as well. In general, though, on most of the recent wave of high profile social networking sites, structured and sustained conversations take a back seat to other types of functionality. If they exist at all, they tend to be awkwardly tacked on. The social networking sites that do the best job of promoting these kinds of conversations remain places like Yahoo! Groups and other forms of virtual communities that have emerged around an extraordinary diversity of topics. These sites tend to be highly fragmented in contrast to social networking sites focused on other types of functionality.
Construction. Construction is a third form of collaboration. Here we are talking about shared creation initiatives that are undertaken across a large number of distributed participants. If you look at the creation sites discussed earlier like Flickr and YouTube, the creation there is largely confined to individuals or, at best, small groups who come together in physical space to make a video and then post it on YouTube. Construction requires platforms for participants to come together in shared practice. At this point, we are no longer talking about purely technology platforms, but instead also need to define a set of governance mechanisms that can help structure and focus the collaboration. Here we encounter a diverse set of sites ranging from World of Warcraft, with its emphasis on collaboration in guilds, to Wikipedia and a variety of open source software sites. Complex and more structured social networks emerge as participants wrestle with the challenges of coming together online to create shared objects or engage in joint efforts.
Some broader observations on social networks
All social network sites are likely to have some elements of all three functionality types – connection, creation and collaboration – but, as I hope the examples illustrate, there are significant differences in relative focus. I don’t have the time now to explore all the implications of the differences in focus, but I will assert that these difference matter, not only in terms of design, but also in terms of business model and growth potential.
By the way, learning is a potentially interesting overlay on all three types of functionality. In other words, these sites can be largely configured as a way to organize and present existing social networks and related resources or they can be designed with a more dynamic view to accelerate and amplify the ability of participants to learn more rapidly. While much learning is certainly going on today on a variety of social network sites, I suspect there is a much greater opportunity to foster learning than is currently being addressed. The Financial Times article quotes Fred Stutzman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill regarding Facebook:
One of the things students do is they test out identities. Maybe that is one new thing we are seeing now – more rapid changes of identity. Online you can get feedback and you can change at a moment’s notice.
We can also analyze social network sites in terms of attention economics. In some cases, these sites are very good at enhancing return on attention by acting as filters to connect people with relevant resources. In other cases, they can help attract and amplify attention from others. These ought to be two sides of the same coin but, in practice, design of social networking sites can favor one side over the other. In general, there's a lot of untapped potential to focus on the attracting attention side of the coin, but to do it in a way that accelerates learning rather than fostering attention-getting Ponzi schemes. Especially as we move from connection to creation and then to collaboration, social network sites will become more powerful platforms to attract and amplify attention from others.
In trying to anticipate the likely direction of social network sites, pay attention to the edges. The FT article quotes Danah Boyd on an important point in discussing the early success of Friendster, one of the early social network sites:
Freaks, geeks and queers all invaded Friendster in the early days and they made certain that all of their friends were there.
Often, the fringe elements in our society find the greatest value in amplifying social networks that exist in physical space.
I mentioned the relationship between social network sites and physical space at the beginning of my post. Too often, social network sites are viewed as a substitute for coming together in physical space. In fact, quite the opposite is true – social network sites are more often a supplement to physical space relationships. Even when participants first meet online, there is a natural and strong desire to connect in face to face meetings in physical space – witness, as one small example, the growing number of offline World of Warcraft guild gatherings. In the FT article, Danah Boyd is quoted as observing that social network participants
. . . . were using [social network sites] to reinforce existing relations with the group of friends they already had from their offline lives. For them, MySpace had become an electronic version of the local mall or park, the place they went to with their friends when they just wanted to hang out.
A lot of forces are at work on a global scale that increase the need for us to both broaden and deepen our network of social relationships. These forces will continue to drive the growth of even richer social network sites online but, in parallel, we will see a growing tendency to aggregate in physical space as well.
Those of you who have been following my blog for a while know that I am a strong believer in the growing value of cities as we seek to broaden and deepen our network of social relationships. Urbanization trends are very strong on a global basis. In fact, one interesting study suggests that 95% of the world’s population growth over the period 2000 to 2025 will occur in urban areas.
This is clearly a strong trend in less developed economies, but the tendency for urbanization will become even stronger in developed economies. Over the past several decades, we have seen a pattern of dispersal of population in the US into edge cities on the periphery of more traditional urban areas. I anticipate that we are going to see a growing reverse migration into urban centers, led two broad demographic groups – young people entering the job market for the first time and aging boomers who are less and less content with traditional retirement models. Rather than isolating themselves in retirement centers, boomers will want to go where the action is so that they can refresh and renew. The collision of younger and older generations in our urban centers will reshape social networks in interesting ways.
When you reflect on the three functions of social network sites described above – connection, creation and collaboration – it is useful to keep in mind the key insights of urban champions from Alfred Marshall to Jane Jacobs regarding the unparalleled ability of cities to create and nurture dense and productive networks of social relationships. These social relationships span significant edges – age, culture and vocational – just to name a few. The relevant edges are no longer on rural frontiers; they are deep in our urban fabric. As we all begin to appreciate the importance of rapid and sustained learning, more and more of us will make our way into city centers to extend and deepen our social networks. Urban centers foster both specialization and serendipity – two key elements in learning.
Far from substituting for urbanization, social network sites will increase the value we reap from locating in urban environments. The two will play off each other in interesting and unexpected ways.