Marshall McLuhan taught us that every medium uses a previous medium as its content. The same applies to social media. But in any social technology the progression of technology and design innovation is accompanied by the increasing complexity of the social practices it enables. This is as true of the stirrup (Mongol warriors, jousting, cattle-herding, equestrian games) as it is of television (reformatted radio plays, stand-up routines, comedy shows, soaps, reality tv) and, most recently, securitized investment vehicles (asset-backed, mortgage-backed, credit default swaps, derived credit swaps, synthetics, even cubed derivatives). At each stage in the “evolution” of the technology, social uses and practices enable corresponding cultural “progress” of increased complexity.
The history of social media began with Geocities, as a simple form of homesteading: establishing an address, or Here I Am. It moved through identity-based sites: or This is Me, such as Friendster. (This was in part why Friendster suffered through Fakesters — it was trading in the attributes of personal identity: trust, friendship, authenticity, etc.). Then came communities: early social networks based on discussions, such as Tribe, and This is What I Think. In the next phase the social network came to the fore: MySpace, Facebook, each of which thematize the social currency or value of social capital, based on more or less real relationships and testing the symbolic and “real” meaning of relatedness: This is Who Likes Me (and Who is Like Me). Today we are animating the face, and extending the face beyond the page.
At each stage of development, a socio-technical dynamic drives what will succeed or fail. This dynamic is like a governing principle of social technology design, and it articulates both design and use together: for each stage of social technology evolution, social practices complexify in increasing order of self-reference. With each stage, previous social practices become available (as references) to new practices. Established social customs and conventions, in other words, can either be practiced “directly” or become embedded and referenced in newer ones. Subsequent levels of social complexity make each new socio-technical practice possible.
we can suppose that the next round will involve presentation layer innovations and meta-level practices
Identity, for example, which is an important theme of dating sites. The early years of dating sites established conventions, meanings, playful and serious behaviors, etiquette, and so on. They saw the emergence of subcultures among online daters, from lurkers to stalkers, late night hook-ups to eharmony’s bureaucratization of romantic compatibility, etc. In its earliest days, dating sites suffered from the stigma that a) nobody’s real, truthful, or sincere on dating sites and b) they’re a means of last resort. But in the ten or so years that they have been around, it’s become understood that some 20% of a profile is inflated, but that everyone does this — and in part because we want to like ourselves, too. Gross lies and deceptions are less common now in online dating; it simply doesn’t pay to misrepresent oneself.
Online dating is now a theme or practice available to other social media. Indeed many, if not most Facebook apps, play in the flirtation and with the subtleties of symbolic and linguistic interaction that enable higher-order social games. Facebook social apps use practices already explored and sedimented out of several years of precipitating socio-technical discovery and experimentation. In this way social conventions can continually reference themselves, making an ever-growing landscape of technical features viable.
If we take status and activity feeds and their applications as another example, we can see this evolution at work and imagine where it goes next.
If it is likely that on-going innovation will kick off with the next level, or layer, up from today’s application interfaces and user practices, we can suppose that the next round will involve presentation layer innovations and meta-level practices. By meta I mean observing the “world” or activity produced through social media. If today’s twitter is for tweeting, meta Twitter would be for watching the world of Twitter.
This progression has already occurred in social networking sites (consider the number of facebook apps that report on facebook user activity, their demo or friend data, social rank, popularity, etc.). The next round of lifestreaming apps will mine usage to construct and represent the feed-based world of activity. Designers will design new and compelling ways to show this activity and make it interesting in the dimensions of social use that can be compelling: presence; activity; social rank; social networks; location; notifications; topics; and so on. Some of these are already off the ground: tag clouds and hashtags for topicality; counters for popularity and rank; twittervision for location; and so on.
With each iteration of social media sites, tools, and applications, designs leverage the familiar for the purpose of something new. We have tried to show here that it is possible to identify aspects of social interaction, social activities, the acts that comprise them, and social technology forms commonly used in social practices. Now, while a designer doesn’t need theory to practice design work any more than a musician needs music theory to play a tune, I hope to have demonstrated that a framework for social interaction design can help organize the field of social media design. One could write further on other social media tools and practices, and identify the modes of use implicated in design choices. And apply these insights to bigger goals, such as new business opportunities and uses for social media. But that would be a separate undertaking — and a separate primer!
Image by Elvire-r