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The design of social spaces

Designing social spaces
Earlier today, I had a great conversation with Rashmi from Slideshare, where we dug into the design of social spaces – inspired by that, I wanted to write down a couple ideas that came up over coffee. Personally, I draw a lot of inspiration from offline social spaces, particularly malls, bars, cafes, stadiums, etc. There are places where these analogies hold, and places where they break down completely.

Here are some of the interesting design decisions for social spaces:

  1. What is the "unit" of your social space? (people/discussion/media/etc.)
  2. Is your social space open, closed, and somewhere in-between?
  3. How personal versus mainstream is the content on the site?

Let me emphasize that there are advantages and disadvantages to all of these different approaches – I’m sure there are many companies that are built using every permutation of this.

Anyway, to drill into each question in more detail…

What is the "unit" of your social space?
Every social site has a fundamental unit that’s tied together through social context. For MySpace and Facebook, that’s clearly people. For YouTube, Metacafe, and others, it’s video. For forums, it’s discussion-centric.

The easiest rule of thumb for understanding which unit dominates your social network: What is the core action your users are repeating over and over? If it’s navigating from video to video, that’s one thing, but navigating from person-to-person indicates another. For many sites, even when you are looking at a person’s profile, the most emphasized navigation element is to draw them back into a piece of media – that indicates that it’s media-centric rather than people centric.

An interesting example of this is Facebook photos – when you click into a person’s profile, you can then click through a whole bunch of photos. But ultimately a person "contains" a set of photos, and it’s not a "YouTube for photos" situation where I might be looking at a photo from Person A’s profile, and it lets me directly navigate to related photos from Person B’s profile. Instead, I always have to go up a layer from photos to the containing person, and then go to another person, then go down into more pictures. This emphasizes Facebook’s people-centric approach.

In my humble opinion, people-centric social networks tend towards communication (or pseudo-communication, like poking), which in turns tends to drive more stickiness. The reason is that when someone sends you a directed piece of communication, that’s the most urgent possible way to get you back to a site. Compare this to a piece of media that may or may not be directed to you – you might find it compelling, yet it doesn’t drive a huge sense of urgency.

Is your social space open, closed, and somewhere in-between?
Another key design decision has to do with whether or not your social space is open, closed, or somewhere in-between. If it’s open, then everyone can browse everyone else’s profile (or at least folks are visible). If it’s closed, you have to be invited to even see a single person, and vice-versa.

And there are examples like Facebook or Yahoo Groups which tend to be semi-open (or semi-closed, depending on how you look at water in cups). In those, you are able to browse people in your "network," but you can’t browse further than that.

By far, the most interesting issue here has to do with the process in which people self-identify with a web property or not. If it’s very open, then it makes it easy to say "oh these aren’t my people." The advantage of open, of course, is that you get some network effects as people join – you can reach a critical mass more easily (even if it’s in Turkey). On the flip side, if you are too closed, it can be harder to get started, but your site will seem more accommodating for a larger span of demographics.

How personal versus mainstream is the content on the site?
Photobucket, Flickr, and other photo sites ultimately hold a very different kind of content than YouTube. The reason is that the former has mostly "personal" content which is appealing only if you know the folks involved – sometimes this is combined with the term "long tail UGC." Compare this to YouTube, which has more mainstream content in the form of pirated media, mainstream studios releasing content, etc.

Of course, if you have personal content, it’s then important to either have a social graph of your own, or to sit on top of someone else’s. Otherwise, if you don’t provide an easy way for your friends to see your photos and vice versa, then the personal content is just sitting there. Of course, if you have both components – both personal content and the personal social graph, then you have a very sticky site.

Mainstream content is great, but lacks personal relevance. It doesn’t need a pre-existing social network to exist, yet it’s less relevant and not very urgent for users to consume the media. Of course in the case of YouTube, they exist on so many social graphs (MySpace/FB/Email/IM/WOM/etc.) that it doesn’t matter.

Couple attempts to classify successful consumer sites?
Here are a couple versions I’m thinking:

  • YouTube: video-centric, open, mainstream+personal content
  • MySpace: people-centric, open, mostly personal content (except for hot girl,s which is mainstream!)
  • Facebook: people-centric, semi-closed, personal content
  • SomethingAwful: discussion-centric, semi-closed, mainstream+personal content
  • ICanHazCheezburger: cat-photo-centric, semi-closed, mainstream cat content :)

Am I missing anything from my framework?? I suspect there are a couple more axes I am leaving out.

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