Social Interaction Design Primer II: 3. Feeds & Lifestreaming

Let’s now take some examples of how social action systems describe the user and social interactions on social media. Because there are so many different kinds of applications out there, we will look at just one kind of social media application. We will take those that have attracted the most attention this year: feed, status, “micro-blogging,” and lifestreaming applications. These would include Facebook (although Facebook is also a social networking site), Twitter, Seesmic, Jaiku, Pownce, Dipity, Swurl, Tumblr,, Dopplr, Friendfeed,, Spokeo, and others). They include also the applications that interface with Twitter (Tweetdeck, Twhirl, etc.), and those that aggregate feeds as customized RSS readers (designed to simplify blog tracking, friend tracking, etc.).

Attention: this article is part of a series.

If the profile is a representation of one’s face, then the feed brings it to life — feeds are the medium’s “talkies.” Feed-based applications are more immediate, more conversational, more personal, and more mobile than profile-based networks. Some have reproduced aspects of social networking (followers, following, subscribing, grouping). Some are concerned with topicality and navigation of conversations by content. Some extend the user’s presence across devices, working with the rich possibilities of mediated social presence. Some extend the medium’s capacity for discovery, surfacing, and serendipity. Some seem designed to surface influencers, experts, recommenders, reviewers, and so on, while others enable co-accidental meetings (coincidental accidents, or accidental coincidences, whichever you prefer as a description of Loopt, Dopplr and geo-location services). Generally speaking, feed-based applications focus on the conversation flow, or stream, and do so with a lighter footprint than other community and networking sites. (I understand that social networks also have feeds and status messages — but there is little doubt that lifestreaming and aggregators are their own category.)

All “talkies” play in presence, presence availability, presence extension, audience membership, audience attention, “public” behavior, regionalization of public “spaces,” and other matters described by symbolic interactionism. Feed applications represent a speeding-up of communication across social media, and involve a nearer sense of proximity and presence than many earlier social media. They have audiences but those audiences are somewhat invisible and can be less organized than in online communities; many feed-based apps are designed around the individual user, and not around a network or community. There are thus social effects deriving from the many possible interpretations of what’s being said, why, to whom, for what purpose, in response to what, or whom, and so on — all aspects of symbolic and communicative action ripe for the designing.

The primary evolutionary step taken by feed-based applications comprises of two parts:

  • the immediacy, proximity, and sustained attention of their users, which supply the necessary social preconditions for presence that makes their use relevant and rewarding;
  • and the design innovation of the short-form verbal declaration, which provides a highly distributable, aggregate-able, extensible, and flexible presentation format and simplicity of user input from multiple applications and devices.

These applications are interesting because they point to a departure from page-based social networking and profile-based systems. Their emphasis on talk overthe profiles and rich media interactions can make them more appealing to the conversational audiences. Their blend of friend followers and public followers creates interesting opportunities for social talk, as in talk that is “addressed to friends” but “in front of everyone.” Their open-ness and unstructured-ness begs for (and creates opportunities for) more channeled, closed (Yammer being one) and structured variants (e.g. topical, typical — Q/A, location, recommendation, ecommerce — commercial, niche and similar types as have emerged on message boards and in discussion-based networks). (Of course it is also possible that some feed-based services will successfully layer on social networking, discussions, and profiling, thus reproducing variants on the success of Facebook and MySpace, but around short-form talk.)

Feed-based applications are loosely related to what Goffman calls an “open state of talk.” Open states of talk are the types of conversation that do not require full front-and-center attention from their participants. They often accompany a task, and are common among co-workers. The continuity of an open state of talk is not handled as much by direct and focused attention (of each participant on the other), but by their co-presence: participants are readily available to conversation when it picks up, as when it fades out. Feed-based applications bear some similarity to this form of conversation. Indeed, all asynchronous communication tools do, and point to an ubiquitization of networked presence and social awareness.

In the next part, we will look at forms of action common to feeds and lifestreaming, and begin to formalize our approach to designing screen and interaction. We will take three significant aspects of feeds and lifestreaming — temporality, presence, and communication — and examine ways in which social interaction design accommodates them. As we will see, the richer our understanding of the interface between user and social, between social and technical, the better we might anticipate the trajectories of any particular social technology.

Adrian Chan

Adrian Chan is a social media expert and social interaction theorist at Gravity7. You can follow him on twitter at /gravity7

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