Social Interaction Models: from Google+ to twitter

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Whether by design or by accident, every social tool is an instance of a generalizable social model. The model is defined by the types and modes of social interaction built into the system as enabling bias. As they are used over time by users, social tools become social systems — a necessary combination of both technical features and user practices. Again, over time, individual user practices communicate (to other users), and cause reinforcing feedback loops and iterative cycles within the system such that social practices emerge. These practices are stabilizing and binding, for they lay down tacit codes of conduct and behavior that facilitate the growing competencies of users.

As social tools develop over time, with their users, they become increasingly complex. Timed right, this complexity is embraced by users — it not only “enhances” user experiences, increases diversity and variety of features and functionalities, extends to other systems/tools, it differentiates the system. In systems theoretical terms, this internal differentiation is required if a system is to handle increased levels of activity and information. In social systems, this increased activity comprises of both mediated symbolic action and communication. Symbolic action takes the form of represented, normalized, and signifying activity: ratings, votes, likes, leaderboards, rankings, and many other non-individual, impersonal, generalizable forms of social differentiation and action. (A Like for one is a Like for all.) Communication is personal, individual, communicative and expressive, and is non-generalizable — thus unavailable to the system for generalized absorption. There is no “aggregation” or interpretation of user communication within social systems. At best, limited sentiment and semantic extraction (trending topics, number of communications (posts, tweets, @replies, comments), and user-supplied semantic declarations (#hashtags, tags, and supplemental sentiments such as ratings and votes).

Internal differentiation of a social system also results in greater social differentiation — a must for social tools. Users must be as able to distinguish themselves and others in mediating social systems just as they do in everyday life. Again, social tools avail themselves of the palette of symbolic media: ratings, votes, likes, +1, checkins, followers, and so on. For these can be normalized and thus easily aggregated for the purpose of system-produced social rankings, leaderboards, recommendations, and so on. (An impossibility in the old days of Myspace testimonials — hence no leaderboards for social rank.)

Social differentiation permits the system to increase its internal referentiality. That is, internal connectedness and the functionality of connectedness. Actions connect to reactions, confirmations, shares, permalinks, and so on — each nest of connections enabling greater access to system contents now and in the future. Emphasis by the system on real time connectedness speeds up system activity. Emphasis on horizontal connectedness increases the system’s navigability. Think twitter vs Wikipedia. The former is designed for realtime content consumption; the latter, for topical content relatedness.

A further and salient feature of social tools is their inclusion and exclusion of user actions and activity, communication included. The amplification, distortion, symbolic representation, and bracketing of social interaction is a universal feature of mediating social systems. Some acts and actions are amplified (distorted) by how they are made to appear online. Others are bracketed out. Users adapt to and become competent at how these mediation effects reflect on them, represent activities of others, and produce ongoing social interaction. Social systems become uniquely world-like, and each is as distinct a world as, say, genres of film distinguish themselves. What works in some social systems doesn’t work in others (we call this frames, or context).

It’s interesting, then, to compare social tools to tease out their interaction models. Let’s try a few, in brief.

Facebook is built on friend relationships, lacks social ranking systems, and has designed for a wide variety of interactions and communication. One might say that it has a tonal preference for mediated relationships — a design reflecting the psychology of its founder, perhaps, or simply a design born out of college-age socialities. Facebook friending is interpersonal (mutual friending), Likes have become a universal gesture of attentiveness, attentiveness is baked into algorithmic news item surfacing, and symbolic activity is related to people and to the personal. Facebook is about the “status of our friendships” — and offers a means to maintain friendship.

Twitter is for speed, and is on the development path to recuperate and preserve content (tweets) lest it implode under its own velocity. Speed and volume of activity in twitter results in a social system that creates invisibility problems — further complicated by the fact that the counter to invisibility is repetition and redundancy. “Am I being heard” might be the catchphrase for twitter, because the tool is designed to fashion the illusion of conversation with users followed, when in fact tweets are read by followers. The follower model, which is asymmetric and unilateral, offers a solution for some: reciprocity. But reciprocal following is no guarantee that followers pay attention: this is twitter’s fundamental social challenge, and the greatest threat to its longevity. Perhaps for this, its current drive to build features based less on tweeting and more on the user/brand, on its platform as plumbing, and on “tweet this” as a global action available from any web page.

Turntable.fm is interesting in that it is a synchronous experience. If twitter is “am I being heard,” turntable is “am I being listened to.” That one is being heard is a given (for the most part). The site seems interested in developing towards greater social differentiation of users: this by points and followers for djs, and navigation not by sound but by visual representation of social activity (named rooms, number of listeners in room, proportion of dj spots used, etc). Liking (or not) a song feeds into points for djs, allows a room to fall into synch (the visual of bobbing heads), and of course qualifies “am I being listened to” (do they like what I’m playing). The manner in which turntable.fm transforms and extends the user’s ego online is very compelling — music users like that others like, too, creates a strong social affirmation because it persists for a stretch of “shared” time.

Empire Avenue, one could say, is about the “sum of me.” The majority of user actions and thematic activities on Empire Avenue involve numbers and the peculiar world of magnitudes. I say this because it is not just numbers, as increments or proportions, or even as relative numbers, but also the culturally-informed numbering quality that is “magnitude.” (Magnitude is a numerical quality meaning “great,” “greater,” and “greatest” and is the property of a type of number that has all three of these in social form — it’s a socially meaningful, or socialized number.) Empire Avenue might appeal to those who relate to and enjoy counting and being counted, who get a reward from quantifying, and who grasp numbers as a substitute for Self worth and an attribute of Self worth. Of course, the game references the stock market, and so numbers are expressed as prices. The core social activity in Empire Avenue is not content creation, but the symbolic transaction of buying/selling other users. Not surprisingly then, reciprocity becomes a social tactic — effective but ultimately merely a means of iterating game play.

Google+ is brand new, and so it is early yet to say what it’s interaction model will become. But interestingly, Google+ Circles makes a metaphorical adaptation of a social concept — that people do not relate to each other socially across one graph equally. That people’s relationships are asymmetric, unequal, dynamic, and non-transferable is of course a social fact. Google+ has chosen to make this lumpiness explicit, allowing users to assign people to named circles. The catchphrase for Google+ might therefore be “in or out,” for this is the social dilemma friend circles poses. Circles are not transparent among users, so social solutions (other than reciprocation, which is based on trust and faith, for there is no social norm possible until there is transparency and a means to hold users accountable for reciprocation) are hard to come by. Furthermore, Google’s emphasis on personal utility over social system design is reinforced by the fact that Circles are for content/feed consumption more than for talk amongst Circles. They can as of yet not be shared, overlapped, or properly targeted and addressed. There’s on other peculiarity of circles:  they do not include the user. Why Google chose the circle, which is for “a group of others not including me,” rather than a hub, I’m not sure. For a hub is a more accurate social relationship model — and in its metaphor, is more inclusive and socially group-like than a circle (which is more a grouping than group-like).

Social interactions emerge within social systems in the shape of socio-technical competencies and practices. Each system is unique, technically and socially. We are still only learning how technical, feature, and system architectures result in varying social dynamics, interactions, practices, and outcomes. But it should seem clear from this comparison that differences between systems are indeed real and profound, each resulting in social dynamics that express the particular social milieu a system’s design supports. Dynamics that in turn shape not only a company’s future prospects, but in many ways those of the industry overall.

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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