Mistaking the Edges for the Norm

One of the best lessons from social quantitative analysis in grad school (public policy) was learning to understand if you are viewing edge cases or the norm (mainstream).

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Humans have some common traits, but when you start to design or develop any sort of program (be it government services or social software ) you start to realize that social at scale has many variations to how humans are social.

When taking that deep understanding we must understand if the trends we are seeing are the edges (or even outliers) or the norm. The common elements that cause the variation (often very large variations) are often driven by culture (as well as sub-cultures) and personality types.

Many of us who were early to blogging and many other social platforms were very much outliers and at or beyond the edges. We built and designed tools and services based on our personality types and traits. When you have 1.5 billion people the internet getting 70 million or even 200 million people that are similar to the edge case traits can be somewhat easy. What is really difficult is that next 90 percent. Keep in mind people use social tools very differently. What has worked for the very early innovators through early adopters is extremely different from the different personality types that will follow.

This gap in understanding that the world is not like us has not become real to many building social tools. But, to some it has hit hard, very hard. Much of the early Web 2.0 theories about social web patterns were looking at the edges and mistaking them for the norm. This was relatively easy to see if you have a background in social analytics and adoption trending through a society at scale.

To get beyond the edges you have to go deep, very much like danah boyd has done with her work. The work danah has done is deeply helpful as it surfaces the difference in understanding across personality types, age ranges, and many cultural influences. She deeply understood the problem that most people on line (youth and adults) were not openly social as was (and sadly still is) the common assumptions of things to come. Privacy and small groups is much more common. Today we see Facebook privacy setting with 70% or more with “Friends Only” or tighter for sharing information ([Pew’s Privacy management on social media sites” report).


This understanding the edges and norms differences is also incredibly helpful for things like gamification, which can cause really nice upticks in usage of social services with the innovator and early adopter types (in the Technology Adoption Lifecycle, that is the core of Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm framing). But, for the rest of the users it is either non-influencial or is deeply problematic. The mix of benefit and loss is essential to understand. At IA Summit I had quite a few discussions with UX people trying to fix the communities that were damaged by gamification in the long run after a nice initial uptick. It is a tough problem and a real issue to grapple with. This is incredibly noticeable on inside the firewall communities as there is a fixed user base and you can easily see who participated and how over time and the shifts (well, you do need access to the data, which some vendors don’t provide access to).

Today many of the one year to four year old social software deployments in organizations have gone through the edge types and been finding gaps in their services and tools offered as they work to get to the norm types.

The tools must change and adapt to the edges and the norms and the two user sets don’t really work in the same way. We have a lot of seeing, thinking, understanding, and building a better path for the mainstream folks as we bring people along on this fantastic transformation those of us on the edges have been through the last 20 years and more.

Thomas Vander Wal

Thomas is Principal and Senior Consultant at InfoCloud Solutions and has been focussing on social software for web and intranets since the mid-90s and has paired this design, development, and management of these services with breadth and depth across many user experience domains.

2 comments on this article

  1. Adrian Chan on

    … but what is the norm? There isn’t one. Social is dynamic, and in its exchange/interaction with tools, is ever-changing, adapting, and experimenting. The fleeting success of gamification owes as much to curiosity and novelty as it does to limits of game rules. People played, found little, got bored, and when they stopped the games were exposed for what they were: largely empty and pointless. But this is not explained by a return to norms (IMHO); simply a common social dynamic. What we sometimes call fad but otherwise recognize as “event.”

  2. Kathy Sierra on

    I wish everyone in an form of development, design, management, marketing, education, etc. would read this post.

    Or at least this sentence:
    “At IA Summit I had quite a few discussions with UX people trying to fix the communities that were damaged by gamification in the long run after a nice initial uptick.”

    Far too many folks do not understand the subtlety of the science around motivation (and especially the deep issues around operant conditioning and self-determination theory). This lack of deep knowledge is made far worse thanks to the intuitively (seeming) safe nature of incentives. After all, what possible harm could come from rewarding the behavior you want more of?

    I recall a meeting long long ago, Thomas, up at Microsoft, where you and I and Nancy White audibly gasped when someone mentioned incentives/rewards for community participants. I was so relieved to not be the only one expressing a concern. And that was long before the gamification frenzy that has made Skinner /operant conditioning /behaviorism suddenly popular and exciting. Meanwhile, professional animal trainers are themselves beginning to question the pure behaviorist approach upon realization that even horses can become DEmotivated when rewarded for behaviors that *should* be intrinsically pleasurable. The fact that the DEmotivating/undermine effect happens below the conscious awareness of the incentivized person makes this even more dicey and difficult to spot… Until its too late.

    Amabile’s work on “The Progress Principle” has some excellent research on these issues, and I still find myself telling those who want to incentivize community, social, or work behaviors to make sure they have at least watched Dan Pink’s TED talk on “Drive” — which does a nice job of summarizing the decades of underlying research on these counter-intuitive effects.

    (apologies for the long rants comment. This is an issue I care quite deeply about today)