Posts Tagged ‘social design’

First thoughts on Apple Ping

by Hang

Apple has just recently announced their first foray into the social space and it’s an interesting product, if only because it embodies the Apple way of doing social. Apple Ping is a social network for music, embedded into iTunes. What it is, above anything else, is what MySpace should have become.

MySpace served an amazing niche in that it served as a platform for bands to reach audiences. Before, every band had to build it’s own website, maintain it’s own mailing list and acquire each fan painfully & manually. MySpace leveled the playing field by giving anyone those tools for free and letting bands concentrate on the more important task of making, promoting & selling music.

I think the idea behind Ping is great. That music should be a social activity is a bit of a no-brainer duh type revelation. There are at least a dozen different companies attacking this from all different angles but Apple’s entrance is appealing because it has an asset others cannot have, verified purchase data. This is an incredibly strong position to leverage off of.

However, I think Apple’s biggest mistake with the actual implementation of the product is that they haven’t realized that most conversations about music are not about music. There are the super-fans who find the ability to connect with bands appealing. Those were the ones who, before web 2.0 would actually visit band websites and read their blog posts. However, these represent a tiny minority of music listeners. For the most part, the average consumer is happy to simply listen to a piece of music without any special desire to investigate the story behind it. Instead, for them, the social purpose of music is that music serves as a conversation proxy. That is, they use music as a channel to open up a conversation with their friends about life in general. I’ll ask how that concert you went to last night but what I really want to know is who you went with, why you like that band, how you heard about that band, what you did before & afterwards, how’s your week been, heard any funny stories recently etc.

Apple Ping is a place to have conversations about music. What Apple Ping should be is a place to have conversations involving music. The difference is the audience. Because Apple Ping is it’s own separate walled garden, the only people who are going to go to the effort of checking are the people who are passionate about music which means the only content that is appealing for me to produce is conversations about the actual music itself. I’m going to write on Apple Ping about what my thoughts are on the new Lady Gaga CD but I’m not going to write about who wants to go to a concert with me next month since the people who would potentially go with me are not on Ping, they’re on Facebook.

What Apple needs to do to make Ping a success is simple. They need to turn it into a Facebook App. They need to leverage their core strengths to enable to people to have conversations involving music that they never could have before. If they do this, Ping will be a success. If they do not, it will die a miserable death of neglect since it’s simply not sustainable to have a conversation platform that’s only about music.

Facebook Places & Keeping up with the Joneses

by Hang

I’ve noticed an interesting phenomena that I’ve been experiencing since the launch of Facebook Places that I’m going to argue could negatively damage both the product and people’s social lives in general. I’m going to dub this the “Keeping up with the Joneses effect”.

As soon as Facebook Places launched, I had a couple of my friends who were essentially, sneak bragging full time on it. That is, they were constantly posting about all the hip bars & restaurants they were visiting in a very casual, FYI manner.

The real reason for such behavior is that people are using it as a form of identity construction. “I am at place X so, therefore, I am the the type of person who is Y”. But such overt displays of bragging are socially frowned upon so instead, a utility narrative is constructed. “The reason I’m posting on there to let my friends know where I’m at so they could possibly join me” (foursquare used “the reason I’m checking in is to collect badges” as their plausible cover). What this allows people to do is use the utility narrative as a means to plausibly deny that their true purpose was identity construction, aka they are sneak bragging.

This is something that happens all the time in real life (I’ll be telling you about a funny thing that happened to me and casually drop in a reference that it all happened at this hip bar, the real purpose was to let you know I’m a hip person without it seem like I was bragging) so the fact that Facebook Places has made this behavior much more efficient to perform¬† is a mildly annoying but tolerably narcissictic addition to my social life. What I think will be interesting is what happens to the rest of us.

I don’t lead nearly as interesting a life as I have most people believe I do but, because my friends are not with me the majority of the time, I’ve been able to exploit that ambiguity to craft a socially interesting identity for myself. I constantly give off the impression that my nights and weekends are packed with exciting & socially validating activities instead of the actual boring sitting at home alone that usually happens. I’m not unique in this, I informally polled a couple of friends and they all admitted to some degree of social massaging for the purposes of “keeping up with the Joneses”.

Facebook Places removes my ability to perform such social massaging. The use of Facebook Places as a sneak bragging tool means that implicit narratives are created by the absense of activity. If I check into hip bar #1 tonight and only use Places again to check into hip bar #2 a month later, that must mean nothing of sufficient interest happened in the intervening time. Before, I could casually mention hip bar #2 the next time I saw you and let you infer that I go to hip bars all the time but I can’t do that anymore because if I did go to hip bars all the time, I would have checked in to every single one of them on Facebook Places.

So, now that I’m confronted by the few of my peers who actually are leading the socially interesting lives they claim they are so I am faced with three possible reactions:

  1. I can actively change my behaviour to become competetive with my friends
  2. I can accept my new identity and reveal to the world just how pathetic my social life is or
  3. I can construct an external reason why I refuse to use Facebook Places in order to maintain the plausible fiction about my social life.

While some insecure teenagers might adopt option 1 and I’ll bet there will be at least a few geeks with an extreme case of stockholm syndrome towards Facebook that will adopt option 2, option 3 is, by far, the most preferable one. If I can claim Facebook Places is a horrible invasion of my privacy of that it’s a meaningless and shallow ritual or even that I prefer *experiencing* an event to *telling* people about the event, then I have figured out a way maintain that plausible fiction that I actually am able to keep up with the Joneses in my network. This is not to say that I will even know this is what I’m doing. For most people, this degree of rationalization happens well below the concious layer.

Thus, I predict that if I’m correct, over the next few months, Facebook Places is going to come under an extreme amount of criticism. What’s more, it will be the type of criticism which geeks are uniquely unsuitable to handle because it will be vague, mutually contradictory and factually incorrect. The geek instinct is to try and educate the users about why their complaints are invalid without realizing that there was never any desire for the complaints to be valid in the first place. If this does happen, the only way for Facebook to make Places relevant is to address the core issue for these people which is the creeping fear that we are, indeed, not keeping up with the Joneses and everyone will finally know.

Guest post: Viewing the Internet as a third place

by Hang

I was invited by Nina Simons of the wonderful Museum 2.0 blog to contribute a guest post for a book club discussion on “The Great Good Place” by Ray Oldenberg. I’d been meaning to read that book for years now so I jumped at the chance.

Check it out:

Oldenburg’s book is important because it managed to put into words what many people only knew as a gut feeling or intuition. It dissected out this one important aspect of our public spaces and said “look, a pub is not just an economic institution for exchanging alcohol for cash, it also serves a vital social function.” What’s more, he demonstrated how certain social spaces either helped or hindered this social function and provided a framework to understand¬†why certain pubs are great good places and others, lifeless drecks.

Presentation at Mozilla Today

by Hang

Hi All,

If you’re interested in the work I’m doing, I’m giving a presentation at Mozilla today at Noon PST. You can view it over their fancy live streaming service. If you can’t make the live event, I’ll have an edited video of it up next week.

Museum 2.0: Nina Simon

by Hang

It was a stroke of luck that I decided to come down to the Bay Area the time I did because I managed to catch what was possibly one of the best presentations I’ve ever seen in my life. Nina Simons is a woman with the most ridiculously awesome job in the world. She flies all around the world, helping museums figure out how to turn their exhibits into social spaces. On top of that, she also runs the Museum 2.0 blog and has published a book. I managed to catch her presentation at BayCHI last night.

I often make the analogy that our online social spaces can be thought of like real, physical spaces and I draw inspiration from examples of successful interaction in physical space and how it can teach us how to fix broken social interaction online. Nina, instead, draws inspiration from examples of successful social interaction in virtual spaces and figures out to fix broken social interactions in physical museum spaces. It was fascinating seeing this inversion of viewpoints and it’s got my mind churning about the possible implications that her work has on social interaction design.

Participatory Spaces

After Dunbar’s Number, the 90/9/1 rule is probably the second most heard of and misunderstood snippet of pop psychology that dabbling amateurs know about social interaction design. What most people believe the 90/9/1 rule implies is that it’s the natural order of things that only 1% of your users will ever be active contributors and the rest will be passive consumers. This may be fine for consumer Web 2.0 companies who build their business model around this but it’s unacceptable for museums who’s main charter is broad based participation for all.

Nina gave the example of an psychedelic music exhibition in which one of the participatory activities was that visitors could create their own band posters. Now, if the visitors were just provided with blank pieces of paper and art materials, the participation rate would be dismal and the quality low as had happened in other museum exhibits in the past. But what was clever about this exhibit was that they provided cut outs from previous band posters which visitors could assemble underneath a plastic overlay and then draw on top of them before handing them to an attendant who then made a color photocopy of it.

What’s amazing was that, of the over 90,000 people who went through this exhibit, they managed to achieve over a 30% participation rate and astounding 25 minutes on average were spent making those posters… 25 minutes people, that’s an engagement figure that any web 2.0 company would drool to see for a task so basic.

If by such simple tweaks, we can shift the participation curve so far to the left, how much credence should we put in the 90/9/1 rule?

Building high quality conversation

It’s a somewhat disconcerting experience, after talking about commenting systems for so long to be confronted with the design of actual, real life commenting systems.

Unsurprisingly, real life commenting systems, if casually designed, suffer from the exact same pathologies that online commenting systems do. Also, unsurprisingly, simple design tweaks can also dramatically alter the tenor of conversation. Nina said that one of the worst questions she’s ever seen a museum ask people to comment on is “How do you define nanotechnology”. It was esoteric, it was objective and, more importantly, why would any visitor care what another visitor’s answer was?

On the contrary, this was the best question that she has ever seen asked:

To answer the question of “Would you go to Mars”, you go through one of the two marked turnstiles. Then, at the end of the exhibit, you are asked the same question and go through the same process. What was striking was that the answer to the initial question leaned 75% towards yes and 25% towards no but the answer at the end was completely inverted with 2/3rds saying no and only 1/3rd saying yes.

I think one of the best examples from the presentation was of a Jack Kerouac exhibit she did where the comments were actually typed on one of Kerouac’s original typewriters. The design of the commenting space differs so little from the first, unstructured example but the quality speaks for itself.

Which leads me to…

The sensitivity to conditions of successful social design

One of the most striking things coming from Nina’s examples of both successful and unsuccessful projects was how all of the really great projects sprang from a harmonic convergence of wonderful design decisions. On the other hand, a single wrong choice among otherwise excellent design was enough to derail the entire social experience.

These two wombats were an example she gave of something that left her feeling sad and lonely because she didn’t have another person to go through the activity with. It’s interesting to speculate just how minor a tweak it might have taken for this to instead, be a focus point for fostering introductions between strangers. One person from the audience suggested making the wombats look at each other rather than side by side. Nina herself wondered if adding “find another person of the same gender” might have been all the impetus necessary.

In preparation to sell my work to people outside of the design field, mostly engineers and business people, I’ve been focusing my attention on turning my half baked intuitions and analogies into a “methodology” with “solid theoretical grounding”. I was doing so much of that that I even somewhat convinced myself. Nina’s talk made me reappreciate that good social design must necessarily involve a healthy dose of ineffable magic as well as solid, reasoned technique and it’s the marrying of those two that makes a great social interaction designer.

Find out more

I’ve only talked about a sliver of what Nina presented last night. If you want to see the presentation, Nina’s slides are online and a podcast of the talk will eventually get posted on the BayCHI homepage. If you want to know more about Nina’s work, you can follow her on her blog and if you want even more insight, you should buy her book.

If you want to know more about the work I do, my portfolio is pretty incomplete right now but it has a sample of the work I do.¬† I much prefer to talk about my work in person. I’m in the Bay Area until March 20th and then hopping between Seattle & Bay Area after that. Feel free to email me at [email protected] to arrange a meeting or just chat. I also have a presentation called “Space & Narrative: Designing for Social Interaction” if you know a group of people who would be interested in hearing about my work. I’m also looking to get hired to an interesting position, working on projects that have impact so if you know anyone who’s looking for my particular skill set, have them get in touch with me at [email protected]

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