LinkedIn: Social Interaction Design Lessons Learned (not to follow) - 1 of 2

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , , , ,

Why LinkedIn Needs to Have a Better Grasp of Social

A heavy user of LinkedIn, I have been hearing identical complaints to my own as regular business networking event conversation fodder for the last six months or more. Light users of LinkedIn as well as those of us who have over 600 connections have nearly identical problems.

At its core the social interactions design is severely flawed and poorly thought through. LinkedIn integrates social interaction components and features as if they were playing a game of "me too" with Facebook. This is problematic as much of the Facebook social interaction design is poorly executed. I have stated how Facebook's DNA does not support business use (in Facebook for Business or LinkedIn Gets More Valuable. Oddly, now LinkedIn seems to be building the poorly thought-through Facebook interactions, implementations which are directly counter to their reason for being.

Wake-up LinkedIn! You may have money to get you through some sort of recession that lasts for a while, but your business relevance requires you to get these things right and get them correct now.

Too Many New Features, Too Fast

LinkedIn now has conflict and confusion about its primary focus as a service and what is the primary social object. Prior to 18 months ago LinkedIn was more or less a live resume and work connections site. The social object was the individual person and the focus was clear and social actions, while limited, were clear and focussed too. The addition of more social interaction and services has completely lost that sense of focus and could be one of the causes of poorly built social tools.

The last 18 months or so has LinkedIn seeming like it wants to be more of a Social communication site,  workplace social platform, and/or  general social site like Facebook with a quasi-focus around work-life.The lack of central understanding of what LinkedIn is also has increased the scatter shot understanding of social and voice (based on really confounding contexts for understanding). The inclusion of social elements that bleed into LinkedIn, with similarities to Facebook, are executing on the same social understanding of social interaction design that acts as if the last 8 to 15 years in digital social interaction design and knowledge did not exist.

This is a compilation of things that have been increasingly bothering me with the rollout of LinkedIn's social features. They seem to roll out features that are not fully baked. Then, they release new features rather than fixing the poorly thought through functionality already deployed. I have delayed writing this as I have heard many of these items were going to get fixed (but have not after far too long). I also have many friends at LinkedIn and have not wanted to rock their boat (but many of them have publicly and privately encouraged me to write this publicly).

Another reason for posting this is I am seeing these mistakes many places. Far too many "social x gurus" are just users of less than optimal systems. They don't grasp the less-than-optimal features are holding back the tool adoption, in addition to a lack of social interaction design.

This muddled social mess triggered Jonathan S. Knoll to proclaim on Twitter, "LinkedIn: the online community of people you don't really like."

What Worked Well

LinkedIn worked well for me as an ambient social network for business contacts. The last 3 or 4 years LinkedIn has been one tab that was always open in my work browser (until a couple weeks ago when I got fed up). I would watch the ambient flow of who changed jobs, titles, connections, and what they were seeking. These were social business clues that I used as opportunities to reconnect with people and see where I could help out.

LinkedIn was a great tool for strengthening business relationships. Quite often I would offer help to someone job seeking or send congratulations on new role or job. The communications often lead to chatting about working together, which had a really good business upside for me.

Watching people connect has value in finding people I already knew and had not connected with, as well as having some understanding of who outside a community is looking for help (those who say they can tell everything about a person by who they connect to don't understand social interaction dynamics very well, particularly around business relationships and business growth).

LinkedIn's recommendation services for finding others to connect with have been really good. The only other service that is this strong in my opinion is Plaxo, which is a service that increasingly has taken the place of LinkedIn for me. Plaxo understands volume, various levels of relationship, and keeping contact information current where you need it (in address books, not is disconnected services). LinkedIn is also really good for capturing and making recommendations of one's work.

Something LinkedIn has done rather well is its iPhone application, which really should be extended to other mobile platforms for smart phones. It finally enabled the ability to use contact information in a use context that matters and outside their service (mail does some of this but it is broken as in LinkedIn responses and external responses are not coordinated).

LinkedIn's question and answers section has been done rather well. Many people find it valuable and get good use from it. There are many things that could be done to augment it, particularly around using it to build an understanding of reputation around subject matter. It also could use the ability to easily hold on to (and annotate for one’s self) good suggested answers. This is the sign of a decently thought-through social platform.

The second part to this post, LinkedIn: Social Interaction Design Lessons Learned (not to follow) - 2 of 2 looks at some specific lessons learned from LinkedIn.

Getting Info into the Field with Extension

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This week I was down in Raleigh, North Carolina to speak at National Extension Technology Conference (NETC) 2008, which is for the people running the web and technology components for what used to be the agricultural extension of state universities, but now includes much more. This was a great conference to connect with people trying to bring education, information, and knowledge services to all communities, including those in rural areas where only have dial-up connectivity to get internet access. The subject matter presented is very familiar to many other conferences I attend and present at, but with a slightly different twist, they focus on ease of use and access to information for everybody and not just the relatively early adopters. The real values of light easy to use interfaces that are clear to understand, well structured, easy to load, and include affordance in the initial design consideration is essential.

I sat in on a few sessions, so to help tie my presentation to the audience, but also listen to interest and problems as they compare to the organizations I normally talk to and work with (mid-size member organizations up to very large global enterprise). I sat in on a MOSS discussion. This discussion about Sharepoint was indiscernible from any other type of organization around getting it to work well, licensing, and really clumsy as well as restrictive sociality. The discussion about the templates for different types of interface (blogs and wikis) were the same as they they do not really do or act like the template names. The group seemed to have less frustration with the wiki template, although admitted it was far less than perfect, it did work to some degree with the blog template was a failure (I normally hear both are less than useful and only resemble the tools in name not use). [This still has me thinking Sharepoint is like the entry drug for social software in organizations, it looks and sounds right and cool, but is lacking the desired kick.]

I also sat down with the project leads and developers of an eXtension wide tool that is really interesting to me. It serves the eXtension community and they are really uncoupling the guts of the web tools to ease greater access to relevant information. This flattening of the structures and new ways of accessing information is already proving beneficial to them, but it also has brought up the potential to improve ease some of the transition for those new to the tools. I was able to provide feedback that should provide a good next step. I am looking forward to see that tool and the feedback in the next three to six months as it has incredible potential to ease information use into the hands that really need it. It will also be a good example for how other organizations can benefit from similar approaches.

Social Tools for Mergers and Acquisitions

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , , , , , ,

The announcement yesterday of Delta and Northwest airlines merging triggered a couple thoughts. One of the thoughts was sadness as I love the unusually wonderful customer service I get with Northwest, and loathe the now expected poor and often nasty treatment by Delta staff. Northwest does not have all the perks of in seat entertainment, but I will go with great customer service and bags that once in nearly 50 flights did not arrive with me.

But, there is a second thing. It is something that all mergers and large organization changes trigger...

Social Tools Are Great Aids for Change

Stewart Mader brought this to mind again in his post Onboarding: getting your new employees cleared for takeoff, which focusses on using wikis (he works for Atlassian and has been a strong proponent of wikis for years and has a great book on Wiki Patterns) as a means to share and update the information that is needed for transitions and the joining of two organizations.

I really like his write-up and have been pushing the social tools approach for a few years. The wiki is one means of gathering and sharing information. It is a good match with social bookmarking, which allows organizations that are coming together have their people find and tag things in their own context and perspective. This provides finding common objects that exist, but also sharing and learning what things are called from the different perspectives.

Communication Build Common Ground

Communication is a key cornerstone to any organization working with, merging with, or becoming a part of another. Communication needs common ground and social bookmarking that allows for all context and perspectives to be captured is essential to making this a success.

This is something I have presented on and provided advice in the past and really think and have seen that social tools are essentials in these times of transition. It is really rewarding when I see this working as I have been through organization mergers, going public, and major transitions in the days before these tools existed. I can not imaging thinking of transitioning with out these tools and service today. I have talked to many organizations after the fact that wished they had social bookmarking, blogs, and wikis to find and annotate items, provide the means to get messages out efficiently (e-mail is becoming a poor means of sharing valuable information), and working toward common understanding.

One large pain point in mergers and other transitions is the cultural change that brings new terms, new processes, new workflow, and disruption to patterns of understanding that became natural to the people in the organization. The ability to map what something was called and the way it was done to what it is now called and the new processes and flows is essential to success. This is exactly what the social tools provide. Social bookmarking is great for capturing terms, context, and perspectives and providing the ability to refind these new items using prior understanding with low cognitive costs. Blogs help communicate people's understanding as they are going through the process as well as explain the way forward. Wikis help map these individual elements that have been collectively provided and pull them together in one central understanding (while still pointing out to the various individual contributions to hold on to that context) in a collaborative (working together with one common goal) environment.

Increasing Speed and Lowering Cost of Transition

Another attribute of the social tools is the speed and cost at which the information is shared, identified, and aggregated. In the past the large consulting firms and the slow and expensive models for working were have been the common way forward for these times of change. Seeing social tools along with a few smart and nimble experts on solid deployments and social engagement will see similar results in days and a handful of weeks compared to many weeks and months of expensive change management plodding. The key is the people in the organizations know their concerns and needs, while providing them the tools to map their understanding and finding information and objects empowers the individuals while giving them knowledge and the means to share with others. This also helps the individuals grasp that are essential to the success and speed to the change. Most people resent being pushed and prodded into change and new environments, giving them the tools to understand and guide their own change management is incredibly helpful. This decreases the time for transition (for processes and emotionally) while also keeping the costs lower.

Selective Sociality and Social Villages

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , , , , , ,

The web provides wonderful serindipity on many fronts, but in this case it brought together two ideas I have been thinking about, working around, and writing about quite a bit lately. The ideas intersect at the junction of the pattern of building social bonds with people and comfort of know interactions that selective sociality brings.

The piece that struck me regarding building and identifying a common bond with another person came out of Robert Paterson's "Mystery of Attraction" post (it is a real gem). Robert describes his introduction and phases of getting to know and appreciate Luis Suarez (who I am a huge fan of and deeply appreciate the conversations I have with him). What Robert lays out in his introduction (through a common friend on-line) is a following of each other's posts and digital trail that is shared out with others. This builds an understanding of each others reputation in their own minds and the shared interest. Upon this listening to the other and joint following they built a relationship of friendship and mutual appreciation (it is not always mutual) and they began to converse and realized they had a lot more in common.

Elements of Social Software Build OrderWhat Robert echos is the Elements in Social Software and its build order. This build order is common in human relationships, but quite often social software leaves out steps or expects conversations, groups, and collaboration to happen with out accounting for the human elements needed to get to this stage. Quite often the interest, ideas, and object (all social objects) are the stimulus for social interaction as they are the hooks that connect us. This is what makes the web so valuable as it brings together those who are near in thought and provides a means to connect, share, and listen to each other. I really like Robert's analogy of the web being like university.

Selective Sociality of Villages

The piece that resonated along similar threads to Robert's post is Susan Mernit's "Twitter & Friend Feed: The Pleasure of Permissions". Susan's post brings to light the value of knowing who you are sharing information with and likes the private or permission-based options that both Twitter and FriendFeed offer. This selective sociality as known Local InfoCloud of people and resources that are trusted and known, which we use as resources. In this case it is not only those with whom we listen to and query, but those with whom we share. This knowing who somebody is (to some degree) adds comfort, which is very much like Robert Patterson and Luis Suarez#039; villages where people know each other and there is a lot of transparency. Having pockets where our social armor is down and we can be free to share and participate in our lives with others we know and are familiar to us is valuable.

I am found these two pieces quite comforting as they reflect much of what I see in the physical community around me as well as the work environments I interact with of clients and collaborators. The one social web service I have kept rather private is Twitter and I really want to know who someone is before I will accept them as a connection. This has given me much freedom to share silly (down right stupid - in a humorous way) observations and statements. This is something I hear from other adults around kids playgrounds and practices of having more select social interactions on line in the services and really wanting to connect with people whom they share interests and most often have known (or followed/listened to) for sometime before formally connecting. Most often these people want to connect with the same people on various services they are trying out, based on recommendation (and often are leaving a service as their friends are no longer there or the service does not meet their needs) of people whom they trust. This is the core of the masses who have access and are not early adopters, but have some comfort with the web and computers and likely make up 80 to 90 percent of web users.

Getting to Know Collective and Collaborative

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , , , , ,

One of the things that has been a little bothersome in the last year or two and has been the lack of understanding between the difference between two terms, collaborative and collective. The two terms are rather similar in definition (in some dictionaries they are nearly identical), but the differences between the two terms have a huge difference when it comes to value in social software. This difference and value is often overlooked or missed by those crafting these tools and services, which I hope gets corrected as both have great value and compliment each other.

The last year these confusion between the two terms became really frustrating as tools and services were being touted as being collaborative that were only based on collective social interaction. When the Wikipedia entry for folksonomy moved to make the statement that folksonomy is synonymous with collaborative tagging, it deeply bothered me as the term folksonomy was coined to separate tagging done in a collective manner (each individual's contribution is held separate and collected or aggregated to build a fuller understanding, as the tagging is done by and from the individual reading the media for their own retrieval and is also share out with others). Collaborative tagging does take place and there is a need for it in certain situations, but it is not folksonomy. The following mini tutorial should help move the understanding of collective and collaborative forward. I have received much encouragement from academics and social computing researcher and social craftspeople that really need to have the differentiation of these terms brought into clearer light to help move forward the creation of better tools and services.

Social Tools and Services

To start this tutorial the understanding of the object that is central to social interaction need to be understood. Often in digital social environments there is a social object that is at the core of the discussion (see Jyri Engestrom's post on Karin Cetina Knorr's "object mediated sociality", which he brings to the web an understanding of social objects). These social objects form the frame of focus for discussion and social interaction, be it a photo in Flickr or a post in a person's blog that is being discussed in the comments or tagged, annotated, or blogged about in another post, much of the social web is built upon social objects or the creation of sociality around objects. These social objects are the focus of this discussion as it is the focus of the discussion and annotation that is being brought into focus here.


Collective I am starting with the collective understanding. The collective as seen in the first graphic has three layers: 1) the object being discussed; 2) the discussion or annotation of or about the object; 3) the people annotating or discussing the object. The object is the focus of collective, the individual's voices and annotations are held separate as each individual is working as an individual. The individuals annotations and contributions can be aggregated or collected (a helpful connection is the collective is based on collecting) and surfaced as an aggregate. This aggregate is what allows folksonomy, as it surfaced in providing understanding how many people use a single tag term on an object. But, this same approach in folksonomy helps discern slight or vast differences between understanding around an object. We can see what an object may be commonly by many in a folksonomy, but we can also see differences in perspective and context.

The deep and rich value in tagging from a folksonomy perspective is created in the collective structure of tagging with the individual voices held separate around the understanding of the individual. The ability for anybody and everybody to tag and annotate and object and have their perspective captured is a very strong value for each individual who has hopes of refinding the object in their own perspective and context, as well as having others whom have similar understanding find the same object. Lacking the understanding of collective approach is lacking the understanding of folksonomy and leave incredible value out of a service as the depth and breadth of understanding supports the human collective mind as it exists.


Collaborative The collaborative understanding has value as it allows for capturing consensus and usually aims at completeness. The collaborative approach has individuals contributing understanding of their perspective of an object, but it done so with everybody working together to build one understanding (often a comprehensive understanding), but often with the aim of the work building the understanding out of one voice capturing many perspectives. The depth and of understanding is flattened - if the object is a picture of a sunset, once it is annotated as being a sunset there is no value in many others making the same statement. Quite often a wiki page on a subject is used as an example of a collaborative effort.

Social bookmarking can be collaborative when a group is working to capture all objects on a subject matter and annotate them, but this is rare occurrence. There is a need for this when organizations are doing competitive analysis of other organizations work on a subject matter and the aim is to be as exhaustive as possible. Often the competitive exercises are done in selective social spaces that are closed to all but members of the group doing the work.

In the past I have describe Flickr as a narrow folksonomy, which is a rough synonym for collaborative tagging. There is value missing in Flickr tagging (I am always hopeful they will add the collective individual tagging into Flickr as I see great value to the service and the individuals who are tagging other people's photos by being able to tag a photo of a sunset as a sunset, which would all the person tagging to have a nice collection of things they call sunset as well as reinforce it is about a sunset). Flickr does allow for this type of tagging to a degree, but only provides access to the tags by API (Flickr has had many other things on their plate that the community has placed higher priority on). But, the collaborative tagging approach is often copied from Flickr by services that do not have the massive user contribution, which provides Flickr to do insanely brilliant algorithmic understanding of what is in their service (like interestingness and clustering).

The understanding of collaboration has trickled out of business and academic understanding of most anything social in an organization being categorized as being collaborative. The aim in the 1990s was for business and organizations to use digital collaboration tools to let people to work together across distance and to capture understanding. At this point most of what was being done was collaborative, with the focus on building one document or deliverable (marketing report and sale projections, etc.). Many of the tools that business used and the academic community in information science studied were tools that were trying to foster collaboration or a collaborative knowledge with in the organization.

Tools Improved and Collaborative and Collective Tools Evolved

Today we have grown well beyond the relatively poor tool foisted upon unsuspecting employees as knowledge management tools with the wonderful goal of capturing and sharing knowledge (often through complex tools that created excuses for adding new required form fields) [I have lived through the implementation and non-use of many of these painful KM tools, which did market what is now capable and far less painful in the tools of today]. Today people wanting to hold on to information or a media object can easily bookmark the object in their social bookmarking tool from their own perspective to greatly ease refinding the object later, as well as share that object with others who are near in thought or have similar interests. This collective approach is still being incorrectly called collective through habit of calling anything social collaborative even though the tools that are now delivering on the promise of the last 15 years (which the tools of the past damaged the hope that proper tools could work).

Those building tools and implementing tools (I am looking squarely at you large consulting firms who use the old models to mis-understand, provide poor strategy, and improperly implement tools that should work well) must expand their vocabulary and understanding by one term and add collective to their lovely term (when used properly) collaborative.

Getting More Value In Enterprise with Social Bookmarking

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , ,

The last few weeks I have been running across a few companies postponing or canceling their social computing or Enterprise 2.0 efforts. The reasons vary from the usual budget shifts and staff changes (prior projects were not delivered on time), and leadership roles need filling. But two firms had new concerns of layoffs or budget cuts.

To both firms I pointed out now was the exact time they really needed to focus on some Enterprise 2.0 efforts, particularly social bookmarking as well as wikis and blogs. These solutions help gather information, find value across the organization, capture knowledge, build cohesiveness for members of the organization in time where there there is uncertainty. One of the biggest reasons that these tools make sense is their cost to deploy and receive solid value. As Josh Bernoff  (and others in from Forrester) points out in the Strategies For Interactive Marketing In A Recession free report from Forrester, the cost to deploy is in the $50,000 to $300,000 range (usually more expensive for large and more complex deployments).

Social Bookmarking has Great Value in the Enterprise

Every organization needs to know itself better then they currently do. The employees and members of the organization are all trying to do their job better and smarter. The need to connect people inside an organization with others with similar interest, contexts, and perceptions is really needed. I am a huge fan of social bookmarking tools to help along these lines as it helps people hold on to information they have need, want, or have interest in (particularly with future uses) and put things in their own context and perception. Once people understand the value they derive from using the tools to hold on to information out of their vast flow and streams of information and data that run before them each day they quickly "get it". As people also share these bookmarks in the organization with their tags and annotations, they also realize quickly they are becoming a valuable conduit to helping others find information and they grasp the value they will derive from being a resource that adds value in the organization. Other people derive value from information in the organization and outside it being augmented with individual perspectives and context. When this is pair with search, as Connectbeam does with their social search that pairs with existing FAST, Google Search Appliance, and others in-house search engines, the value the whole organization receives is far beyond the cost and minimal effort people are putting into the tools to get smarter, by more easily holding on and sharing what they know.

Nearly every attendee to the workshops I have put on around this subject quickly realizes they undervalued the impact and capability of social bookmarking (as well as other social computing tools) in the enterprise. The also provides a strong foundation for better understanding social computing to increase the derived value for all parties (individuals, collective users, collaborative users, and the organization).

Is is time for your enterprise to get smarter and provide more value inside and out?

The Elements in the Social Software Stack

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , , , , , ,

When thinking through social software (also known as social computing, social media, and social web) I have been influenced by many ideas, but at the core there are two things that stick in my head: 1) Good visualization; and 2) Object-centered sociality. Getting the two to mesh, while accounting for most of the important components of social software has been really difficult for me to square for quite some time.

One of my starting point for visualization has been Gene Smith's wonderful honeycomb adaption of the social software building blocks. The strength of the graphic is having identity at the core of the social interaction. The honeycomb allows Gene to display many different services deployed has the pieces of the social software stack (stack is a collection of elements that comprise a whole set of services).

One of the things with Gene's graphic that has always bugged me is I have not been able to square it with the object also being at the center of the social interaction. A second piece that also bothered me is it did not account for the action element of collaboration (people working together as part of a group or team to build something, while acting with one goal as their focus, which can be a broad goal). Collaboration is central to nearly every enterprise or work organization effort (directly or tangentially) I am or have been involved in professionally, so I feel it is essential to include it.

Object-Centered Sociality

It was through reading Jyri Engeström's blog post about "Why some social network services work and others don't — Or: the case for object-centered sociality" that I came to have familiarity with Karin Knorr Cetina's object-centered sociality. It was through the repeated mentioning of this Knorr Cetina concept by Rashmi Sinha in her presentations and from personal conversations with Rashmi that the ideas deep value sunk in (it is a concept central to Rashmi and Jon Boutelle's product SlideShare).

Knorr Cetina's work brings into view the individual and the object as central elements in social interaction. She proposes physical objects, around which discussions take place help focus and start conversation and other social interaction between and among people. In her and Urs Bruegger's  journal article "The Market as an Object of Attachment: Exploring Postsocial Relations in Financial Markets" in Canadian Journal of Sociology 25, 2 (2000): 141-168, they state:

One characteristic of the present situation is that perhaps for the first time in recent history it appears unclear whether other persons are, for human beings, the most fascinating part of their environment. Objects may also be the risk winners of the relationship risks which may authors find inherent in contemporary human relations.

The short of this is the person may not be the sole focus and possibly the person is not the focus of social interaction as the objects being discussed in social interactions is the focus for the people and take the role of the most interesting element in the social discourse.

When we look at social web services like Flickr we see the photos that a person takes and shares are the focus of social interaction. It is around these objects that the conversation takes place. Jyri Engeström calls these objects of social focus "social objects".

It is these social objects that are in need of being accounted for in a visualization of the social software stack. While in Germany for the most recent IA Konferenz I wanted to include his more fleshed out understanding of the social software stack, in this case it is actions or components that comprise sociality from the perspective on an individual in a social environment. I really wanted a graphic that brought these elements together so I could talk through it more easily in a workshop on the foundations of social software and tagging. The visual model is this Venn diagram that I put together sitting in the hallway for an hour or so. While it is not as interesting as Gene's graphic, for me it is a much better representation of the important components in social software if your goal is wanting your service/software to work optimally.

Explaining the Graphic

Social Software Elements Yes, the inclusion of the object into the graphic is given a central focus  equal to that of identity. Identity and the object are the two important elements that comprise the social software stack. All elements that are represented in the graphic may or could be seen by others and are triggers for social interaction with other people (yes, the interaction can be with just other objects, but that is another subject I am not addressing in this writing). This ability to see all the elements represented is the social aspect of the software service. The overlaps are where there are direct interactions. But, there is a specific order to the revealing and relevance of each of the elements after the identity and object are shown.

The order is important because if one leaves out an element (or does not account for the elements in some manner) the next step is really not going to be capable of being fully realized and there will be a weakness in the social software. I can not stress this enough, this is not a list of items to pick from, but if you want to have reputation in the system there previous elements really need to be in place or accounted for through using an outside service that can be pointed to or brought into the service through using an outside service.

Order of the Elements

The order is: Identity and Object; Presence; Actions; Sharing; Reputation; Relationships; Conversation; Groups; and Collaboration.

The colors were chosen so the bridging elements were orange and fit with the color scheme of my company and the usual slide templates I use when presenting (orange with blue highlights, text, and accents). After I built the graphic I realized the similarity to a finance industry logo, but when playing with other color combinations the graphic lost its punch and also did not fit within the color scheme of my long used slide template, so I have left the colors alone.

The Elements in the Social Software Stack

The Central Focus


Identity is comprised of the information about the person using the social software tool. Often the identity is a built upon profile information such as name, username, location, personal website, e-mail, photo or avatar, and sometimes the person's age. These pieces help others recognize the person and can carry associations from other interactions and/or services to the current service (that is if the individual wants this cross-service tracking). Contact information is normally required for setting up an account so the service (and the people running the service) can communicate with the person. Sometimes the contact information is shared if the person using the service permits the sharing of the contact information with other people using the software/service.

Identity is also augmented through the inclusion of usernames on other services and sites the person contributes to or has an account on. This cross-service identity helps people who use other services to find their friends and contacts more easily. The cross-service identity also helps tie others understanding of the identity and possibly reputation as understood by other people. Cross-service identity connecting can also be used for aggregating content that an identity shared on another service into a new service.

Identity is included in the focus on object-centered sociality as it is people who are being social around the object. It seems that there is a codependent relationship between the person (their perceptions as expressed through their interest and actions around and about an object). The identity is a pivot to learn more about these understandings for a richer understanding by those reading/consuming what has been shared. This is much like the object is a pivot to find others who have interest in the same type of things.


The object is the core focus of object-centered sociality and in this representation with one identity interacting it is part of the the codependent at the core of the graphic. The object is the center of the sociality. The object is what is being shared with others. This shared object may be a photo, bookmark/link, video, statement, or other matter. The object may be digital or non-digital in nature. Lastly, the object can also be what is being built in a collaboration-focussed effort.

Active Elements

Now that we have the cornerstone set of the two main components for sociality we can start looking at the elements around these two components. Again, these actions and elements are in a specific order that build upon the previous elements. These are active elements because they are either actions or are the result of sets of actions.


The identity is often built around static profile information, but people are not static as they have lives they lead and people have locations and tasks they perform that provide context for understanding perspective of statements or related actions. Presence can be a simple as Twitter's question of "what are you doing?" It can also be location, time, availability, and/or activity. These provide others a glimpse of understanding, or at least a hint of the identity's perspective.

In the case of Twitter and similar services the statement of presence is not necessarily related to another object, but the presence statement in and of itself acts as the object. In the case where presence is the object, the object is directly related to the person and not an external object. The presence statements may or may not be shared with others as the understanding is quite helpful information for the individual for later recollection as to why they made other statements or actions.


Using stated presence or the inferred presence, as the actions connote presence around an object that action is taking place around. The actions are what is being done as an expression communicating  to one's self or to others what they understand. This may be as simple as just expressing interest (even if the interest is negative). These actions are expressions of the person's understanding can take the form of annotation, messaging, modification of the object, commenting, rating, tagging, flagging or favoring, storing, naming, etc. The actions are tied to the person who is taking the action and linked to the object around which they are taking the action. These actions are are in most cases the some form of adding data or meta data to or around the object.

In social bookmarking in the object is the link expressed as the URL and the person is taking the action of saving the link and is likely also annotating and tagging that link for at least their own retrieval.

The actions always include the identity and the object (which may be the person's own identity and presence). Actions may or may not be shared with others. As many services provide public, selective, and private access to the information and actions.


The act of sharing is where we finally start fully acknowledging social actions. The presence and actions elements can be private, if the person behind the identity wishes. Sharing is the social action that opens up the capability for all others (or only others whom have been given permission) to see their actions and possibly presence around an object. This can also include opening access to an object for others to see and others to add their annotations and actions around the object. This includes open annotations of other's openly shared objects or objects shared to a closed community to which the person has access.


Shared presence and actions are the elemental building blocks for reputation. Reputation can build upon something as simple as existence on a service, by having an identity there. Reputation grows based on the interpretation of others based on shared presence and actions.

The actions that build reputation can be through the content that has been created by that identity. Others' understanding grows through seeing annotations that are by an identity (ratings, notes, comments, what is shared, etc.). Others also see actions that have been attributed to the identity, which may not be the direct actions that are seen, but can be actions of stating a relationship, joining a group, rewards (top contributor, etc.), or other indirectly perceived action.

The volume of actions also builds reputation. This can be the breadth of actions or breadth of subjects covered. Volume can also be depth of actions. Depth is how many in a subject area and/or the depth of understanding showed on a subject.

The breadth and depth lead to understanding of quality. Quality is often attributed by others based on their own perceptions and understanding. Perceptions, as we know, vary from person to person and that builds trends of reputation. Quality is also interpreted through perception. These interpretations are can be reflected in what others actions taken around an identity (identity can be the focal object in this activity) such as rating contributions made by an identity, favoriting/holding on to the actions of an identity (comments, their favorites, etc.), electing to follow the actions through subscribing or other similar actions, etc. Others may also write about an identity to express and understanding of the identity.


Based on reputation people chose to interact with that identity. Through interaction  relationships are established or built. This may be explicitly stated in some manner (the "connection" or "collaborator" or "friend" distinctions in some social services are examples). Relationships may also be an inferred relationship based upon actions. The inferred relationship is through another's actions of following, subscribing to actions, annotating an object, or other actions.

Relationships may be causal (as result of actions) or intended. The breadth of the relationship needs also be considered. A relationship between people or their identities can be based only on a precise subject matter or many distinct subjects in a granular social manner. The relationship may be more broad-line by encompassing most subjects that around a person and their identity.

There is rich derived value that can be built upon through identifying and understanding the granular subjects of common interest between people. The relationship can be one that is expansive, in that one person or both are learning and exploring new ideas and material through the shared experiences and shared understanding of the other. Understanding that a relationship is only as broad as a similar interest(s) (it does not have to be the same polarity (like/dislike)) such as for acoustic bebop jazz will help framing the relationship for what is shared, followed, and interaction made around.


A relationship predicated on some understanding of reputation (remembering that it may be a rather thin understanding of reputation) provides a good foundation the next stage, conversation. The conversation is most often with an identity about or around an object.

The conversation may be a 2-way or multi-directional. This communication may be a synchronous live conversation or asynchronous over time (message boards or other services what allow comments or time ordered annotations. The conversation in a social environment is open and often around an object (keeping in mind the object may be a person's presence statements as in Twitter).

These conversations may be structured through form-based forums or listserves. The conversations may be free-form as in Consumating'sflirting through tagging or other open communication structures.


It is in the conversation (derived from relationships based on reputation) that people with similar interest come to the point where they want a more formal relationship so to have more focussed communication and sharing and these people form a group. The group is a sub-set of the whole service, as in Ma.gnolia's groups for sharing social bookmarks (Ma.gnolia's groups can be open to all or they can be closed and not seen). The sharing is a collective understanding of the group with each individual identity openly sharing their actions around that subject matter or interest. The group is normally comprised of trusted listeners who have a relatively strong understanding of reputation. The group is a collective voice what accounts for each voice. There does not have to be a common goal other than sharing information around (tightly or broadly clinging to the subject of interest) and each voice matters in the group.


Groups working often leads to collaboration where not only are people openly sharing information as individuals, but aim to work together to build objects. One example of this is a wiki where there the object is the development of a page or set of pages built through a collaborative process. The collaborative process has one goal (explaining a subject in the case of a wiki) and the group works with a single focus and intentionally becomes a single voice. The object being built may be text content, video with different production tasks and skills needed, other media, an application or service, or other object (physical or digital). Central to collaboration is an understanding of what is being built. Collaboration is most often iterative though building upon what is there with the goal of improving it.


A walk through the elements in the social software stack should provide an understanding of the progressive relationship between the elements. The aim is for this to be used a guide to think through building and implementing social software. I talk to many organizations that are trying to get to collaboration but are missing some or many pieces of the social software stack that collaboration is built upon. Not all of the elements need to be in the same tool, but they need to be accounted for in an environment that is collaborating.

Those not building collaborative services will also greatly benefit from understanding at what stage their social software service or tool is aiming to serve and ensuring all of the preceding elements are included or accounted for in the service.

Lastly, but not least it is important to understand what is the object of focus in the social software tool or service. This social object is part of the starting foundation and the better the understanding of the object and how it works in the service or tool the better the whole of the project/product will be in the end.

Pffft! Social Graph, We Need the Portable Social Network

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , , , ,

In reading Alex Rudloff's "Privacy as Currancy" post I had two thoughts reoccur: 1) privacy is a currency back by trust; and 2) Pfffft! Social graph? Where is my Portable Social Network?

I agree with what Alex stated about wanting to move out of Facebook as my trust in them is gone completely (mostly driven by even though they apologized (poorly) Facebook still receives trackings of all your travels on the internet after you opt out, Om Malik's Zuckerberg's Mea Culp, Not Enough, and Brian Oberkirk's Facebook Harder to Shake than the Columbia Record Tape Club (a great read on the hurdles of really getting out of Facebook)). I will likely blog about the relationship between privacy and trust in another post in the not too distant future, as I have been talking about it in recent presentations on Social Software (Going Social and Putting Users First).

The Dire Need for Portable Social Networks

When Alex states:

Beacon had me so freaked out that I walked through what would happen if I simply removed my account (my natural, gut reaction). The fact is, I'd lose contact with a lot of people instantly. There's no easy way for me to take my data out and apply it somewhere else. There is no friend export and there isn't anywhere suitable for me to go.

I think we need portable social networks (or Social Network Portability as it is also known) before we need the social graph. Part of the interest in the social graph (mapping the relationships) is based on Facebook, but Facebook is a really poor interface for this information, it has some of the connections, some of the context, but it is not granular and does not measure strength (strong or weak ties) of relationships on a contextual and/or a preferential interest level. This social graph does little to help us move from one social software service to another other than to show a linkage.

There are strong reasons for wanting and needing the Portable Social Network. One is it makes it easy to drop into a new social software service and try it with social interactions with people whom we are already having social interactions. Whilst this is good it is also really important if something tragic or dire happens with a social software service we are already using, such as it is shut down, it is no longer performing for us, or it has given us a reason to leave through loss of trust. As I noted in the past (Following Friends Across Walled Gardens") leaving social software services is nothing new (even predates people leaving Delphi for Prodigy and Prodigy for AOL, etc.), but we still are not ready for this seemingly natural progression of moving house from one walled off social platform for another.

The Call for Action for Portable Social Network is Now

I am finding many of my friends have put their Facebook account on in hibernation (Facebook calls it &#quot;deactivation") and many have started taking the painful steps of really getting all of their information out of Facebook and planning to never go back. My friends have not sorted out what robust social software platform they will surface on next (many are still using Flickr, Twitter, Pownce, Tumblr and/or other options along with their personal blogs), but they would like to hold on to the digital statements of social relationship they made in Facebook and be able to drop those into some other service or platform easily.

One option could a just having a Smart Address Book or as Tim O'Reilly states Address Book 2.0. I believe that this should be a tool/service should have the relationships private and that privacy is controlled by the individual that owns the address book, possibly even accounting for the privacy request of the person whose address is in the address book. But, this is one option of many.

The big thing is we need Portable Social Networks now! This is not a far off in the future need it is a need of today.

Can Facebook Change Its DNA?

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , , , ,

The posting on Facebook for Business or LinkedIn Gets More Valuable received a lot of feedback and discussion. The e-mail discussions has urged me to post about the Facebook DNA and why it will be tough to transition Facebook into a really valuable tool for business without changing the services to a great degree. A social platform like Facebook is desperately needed for business, within enterprise, and organization that have information flows between the people interested in or that are members of an organization. The platform for this type of community has slightly different needs that Facebook does not provide.

Facebook and Its Initial User-base

It is not secret that Facebook started as a services that was by and for students and members of a university setting. The focus was connecting to people you have run across or will run across as friends, acquaintances from social events, or classmates. The services is quite conversational and does a decent job pulling together a person's shared digital lifestream (many others have done this for years and do it much better, Jaiku (now owned by Google) is one example of a much better approach).

Facebook as a service tended to focus on the current conversation as students largely are focussed on the now or short-time frame planning, e.g. it is Tuesday and what are people doing on Thursday through the weekend or who is going skiing this weekend and putting together a carpool. The time span of conversation and interest is etherial and Facebook very much reflects the short term nature of conversation. The focus is also students in networks framed as campuses, which enables this Local InfoCloud of familiarity to be used for memory, which is not needed in the service. This means if I see something in Facebook, say a good restaurant for a special date night, I can track down the person who suggested the restaurant or tap friends in the network (on campus) to recall the restaurant. This foundation of building a digital space for people in a common physical network does not need strong search or capability to hold-on to information that may have future value.

The reliance on building a digital services that replicates the frailties of physical communication (all hallway, classroom, or party conversation is lost to the ether and is reliant of human memory) is problematic when the people using the service are physically distributed.

Future Information Value

Facebook's largest failure is the lack of using digital conversation for the great value digital conversation provides, which is capturing conversation and information. This capturing of digital conversation has great value as the information that is shared often has much greater future value than current value. Take the same restaurant example from before, when a friend recommends a restaurant I may not have a need for that romantic restaurant now, but I most likely may need that information at sometime in the future. There are two things that I can do with that information: 1) Know the information is in the service and can search for it at a later time ("restaurant" and "romantic" in search, which may also find others have made the same recommendation); or 2) Mark the information in some manner for my ease of refinding (flag, favorite, or bookmark it with annotation from my perspective and context).

The Challenge Facebook has Changing

Making this shift in Facebook will be a huge challenge, not for the developers or technology (although Facebook has not modified its interface to handle the scaling of information flows of applications or increase in traffic, but that is another real problem that needs addressing) as they seem capable to make the minor technology changes that would be needed to use the service for improved search or holding onto information. The big pain point will be making a change that is counter to the understanding and use of those who still make up the core of its use-base, university students. When Facebook opened its doors beyond university students it created panic (well deserved) as their closed society was open to all viewers. The difficulty in holding on to information and searching through the services did not keep people from finding party photos or profiles that were meant for just friends and not future employers or others outside their immediate network. A large number of people left, or more accurately stopped using the service as much as they did (after removing the potentially problematic images and content).

There is an incredible mass of information in Facebook, most of it nearly impossible to find and hold onto at this point. Many of the people who have used the service have relied on this obscurity to keep from removing the (at the moment funny, ironic, humorous, or even not fully informed) statements made on walls, groups, status updates, and other places. Changing the core platform to create value for the people using the service as a digital information platform, that is similar to what is expected outside Facebook could have dire repercussions for Facebook as a service. But, not making these changes makes Facebook a really poor platform for business and knowledge sharing.

Valuable Lesson in Foundations

Having build many web base services, intranet, and networked services over the many years I have been doing this it continually comes back to the initial foundations are the ones that are hardest to shake. The initial people using a service shape it for the future and the initial technology decisions of a service often are the ones that are hardest to change. This change is difficult as the practices are socially ingrained into the understanding of the mores of the system and the social interactions are predicated on these understandings. All design and all interaction aspects of systems are political and drive people's motivation for use as they set the rules and social scripts for interaction. The components are not intentionally political, but they have do trigger reaction and alter motivations no mate how slightly. Not only does the medium have a message, but how the services works or does not work has a message that triggers a response for if and how it is used.

A Stale State of Tagging?

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , ,

David Weinberger posted a comment about Tagging like it was 2002, which quotes Matt Mower discussing the state of tagging. I mostly agree, but not completely. In the consumer space thing have been stagnant for a while, but in the enterprise space there is some good forward movement and some innovation taking place. But, let me break down a bit of what has gone on in the consumer space.

History of Tagging

The history of tagging in the consumer space is a much deeper and older topic than most have thought. One of the first consumer products to include tagging or annotations was the Lotus Magellan product, which appeared in 1988 and allowed annotations of documents and objects on one's hard drive to ease finding and refinding the them (it was a full text search which was remarkably fast for its day). By the mid-90s Compuserve had tagging for objects uploaded into its forum libraries. In 2001 Bitzi allowed tagging of any media what had a URL.

The down side of this tagging was the it did not capture identity and assuming every person uses words (tag terms) in the same manner is a quick trip to the tag dump where tags are not fully useful. In 2003 Joshua Schacter showed the way with that not only allowed identity, upon which we can disambiguate, but it also had a set object in common with all those identities tagging it. The common object being annotated allows for a beginning point to discern similarity of identityĵs tag terms. Part of this has been driven on Joshua's focus on the person consuming the content and allowing a means for that consumer to get back to their information and objects of interest. (It is around this concept that folksonomy was coined to separate it from the content publisher tagging and non-identity related tagging.) This picked up on the tagging for one's self that was in Lotus Magellan and brings it forward to the web.

Valuable Tagging

It was in that we saw tagging that really did not work well in the past begin to become valuable as the clarity in tag terms that was missing in most all other tagging systems was corrected for in the use of a common object being tagged and the identity of the tagger. This set the foundation for some great things to happen, but have great things happened?

Tagging Future Promise set many of out minds a flutter with insight into the dreams of the capability of tagging having a good foothold with proper structure under them. A brilliant next step was made by RawSugar (now gone) to use this structure to make ease of disambiguating the tag terms (by appleseed did you mean: Johnny Appleseed, appleseeds for gardening/farming, the appleseed in the fruit apple, or appleseed the anime movie?). RawSugar was a wee bit before its time as it is a tool that is needed after there tagging (particularly folksonomy related tagging systems) start scaling. It is a tool that many in enterprise are beginning to seek to help find clarity and greater value in their internal tagging systems they built 12 to 18 months ago or longer. Unfortunately, the venture capitalists did not have the vision that the creators of RawSugar did nor the patience needed for the market to catch-up to the need in a more mature market and they pulled the plug on the development of RawSugar to put the technology to use for another purpose (ironically as the market they needed was just easing into maturity).

The movement drove blog tags, laid out by Technorati. This mirrored the previous methods of publisher tagging, which is most often better served from set categories that usually are derived from a taxonomy or simple set (small or large) of controlled vocabulary terms. Part of the problem inherent in publisher tags and categories is that they are difficult to use outside of their own domain (however wide their domain is intended - a specific site or cross-sites of a publisher). Using tags from one blog to another blog has problems for the same reason that Bitzi and all other publisher tags have and had problems, they are missing identity of the tagger AND a clear common object being tagged. Publisher tags can work well as categories for aggregating similar content within a site or set of commonly published sites where a tag definition has been set (but that really makes them set categories) and used consistently. Using Technorati tag search most often surfaces this problem quickly with many variation of tag use surfacing or tag terms being used to attract traffic for non-related content (Technorati's keyword search is less problematic as it relies on the terms being used in context in the content - unfortunately the two searches have been tied together making search really messy at the moment). There is need for an improved tool that could take the blog tags and marry them to the linked items in the content (if that is what is being talked about - discerning predicate in blog tags is not clear yet).

Current Tools that Advanced

As of a year ago there were more than 140 social bookmarking tools in the consumer space, but there was little advancement. But, there are a few services that have innovated and brought new and valuable features to market in tagging. As mentioned recently Ma.gnolia has done a really good job of taking the next steps with social interaction in social bookmarking. Clipmarks pioneered the sub-page tagging and annotation in the consumer tagging space and has a really valuable resource in that tool. ConnectBeam is doing some really good things in the enterprise space, mostly taking the next couple steps that Yahoo MyWeb2 should have taken and pairing it with enterprise search. Sadly, (according to comments in their discussion board) is under a slow rebuilding of the underlying framework (but many complaints from enterprise companies I have worked with and spoken indepth with complain continually blocks their access and they prefer not to use the service and are finding current solutions and options to be better for them).

A Long Way to Go

While there are examples that tagging services have moved forward, there is so much more room to advance and improve. As people's own collection of tagged pages and objects have grown the tools are needed to better refind them. This will require time search and time related viewing/scanning of items. The ability to use co-occurance of tag terms (what other tags were used on the object), with useful interfaces to view and scan the possibilities.

Portability and interoperability is extremely important for both the individual person and enterprise to aggregate, migrate, and search across their collections across services and devices (now that devices have tagging and have had for some time, as in Mac OS X Tiger and now Vista). Enterprises should also have the ability to move external tagged items in through their firewall and publish out as needed, mostly on an employee level. There is also desire to have B2B tagging with customers tagging items purchased so the invoicing can be in the customers terminology rather than the seller terminology.

One of the advances in personal tagging portability and interoperability can easily be seen when we tag on one device and move the object to a second device or service (parts of this are not quite available yet). Some people will take a photo on their mobile phone and add quick tags like "sset" and others to a photo of a sunset. They send that photo to a service or move it to their desktop (or laptop) and import the photo and the tag goes along with it. The application sees the "sset" and knows the photo was transfered from that person's mobile device and knows it is their short code for "sunset" and expands the tag to sunset accordingly. The person then adds some color attribute tags to the photo and moves the photo to their photo sharing service of choice with the tags appended.

The current tools and services need tools and functionality to heal some of the messiness. This includes stemming to align versions of the same word (e.g. tag, tags, tagging, bookmark, bookmarking). Tag with disambiguation in mind by offering co-occurrence options (e.g. appleseed and anime or johnny or gardening or apple). String matching to identify facets for time and date, names (from your address book), products, secret tag terms (to have them blocked from sharing), etc. (similar to Stikkit and GMail).

Monitoring Tools

Enterprise is what the next development steps really need to take off (these needs also apply to the power knowledge worker as well). The monitoring tools for tags from others and around objects (URLs) really need to fleshed out and come to market. The tag monitoring tools need to become granular based on identity and co-occurance so to more tightly filter content. The ability to monitor a URL and how it is tagged across various services is a really strong need (there are kludgy and manual means of doing this today) particularly for simple and efficient tools (respecting the tagging service processing and privacy).

Analysis Tools

Enterprise and power knowledge workers also are in need of some solid analysis tools. These tools should be able to identify others in a service that have similar interests and vocabulary, this helps to surface people that should be collaborating. It should also look at shifts in terminology and vocabulary so to identify terms to be added to a taxonomy, but also provide an easy step for adding current emergent terms to related older tagged items. Identify system use patterns.

Just the Tip

We are still at the tip of the usefulness of tagging and the tools really need to make some big leaps. The demands are there in the enterprise marketplace, some in the enterprise are aware of them and many more a getting to there everyday as the find the value real and ability to improve the worklife and workflow for their knowledge workers is great.

The people using the tools, including enterprise need to grasp what is possible beyond that is offered and start asking for it. We are back to where we were in 2003 when arrived on the scene, we need new and improved tools that understand what we need and provide usable tools for those solutions. We are developing tag islands and silos that desperately need interoperability and portability to get real value out of these stranded tag silos around or digital life.

Open Conversations and Privacy Needs for Business

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , , ,

I thought I would share the latest press bit around this joint, Thomas Vander Wal was quoted in Inc Magazine What's Next: Shout it Out Loud (or in the August 2007 issue beginning on page 69). The article focuses the need and desire for companies to share and be open with more of their data and information. Quite often companies are getting bit by their privacy around what they do (how their source their products/resources, who they donate money to, etc.) and rumors start. It is far more efficient and helpful to be open with that information, as it gets out anyway.

Ironically, in the same paper issue on page 26 there is a an article about When Scandal Knocks..., which includes a story about Jamba Juice and a blog post that inaccurately claimed it had milk in its products, which could have easily been avoided if Jamba Juice had an ingredients listing on its web site.

The Flip Side

There are two flip sides to this. One is the Apple converse, which is a rare example of a company really making a mythic organization out of its privacy. The second is companies really need privacy for some things, but the control of information is often too extreme and is now more harmful than helpful.

Viable Privacy

I have been working on a much longer post looking at the social software/web tools for and in the enterprise. Much of of the extreme openness touted in the new web charge is not a viable reality inside enterprise. There are a myriad of things that need to be private (or still qualify as valid reasons for many). The list include preparations for mergers and acquisitions, securities information dealings (the laws around this are what drive much of the privacy and are out dated), reorganizations (restructuring and layoffs, which organizations that have been open about this have found innovative solutions from the least likely places), personal employee records, as well as contractual reasons (advising or producing products for competitors in the same industry or market segment). Out side of these issues, which normally add up to under 30 to 40% of the whole of the information that flows through an organization, there is a lot of room for openness in-house and to the outside world.

Need for Enterprise Social Tools Grasping Partial Privacy

When we look at the consumer space for social software there are very few consumer tools that grasp social interaction and information sharing on a granular level (Ma.gnolia, Flickr, and the SixApart tools Vox and LiveJournal are the exceptions that always come to mind). But, many of the tools out there that are commonly used as examples of social web tools really fall down when business looks at them and thinks about privacy and selective sociality (small groups). The social web tools all around really need to grow up and improve in this area. As we are seeing the collaboration and social tools evolve to more viable options we start to see their more glaring holes that do not reflect the reality of human social interaction.

Closing the Gap

What we need is for companies to be more open so the marketplace is a more consumer and communicative environment, but we also need our still early social web tools to reflect our social realities that not everything is public and having tools that better fit those needs.

Sharing and Following/Listening in the Social Web

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , ,

You may be familiar with my granular social network post and the postings around the Personal InfoCloud posts that get to personal privacy and personal management of information we have seen, along with the Come to Me Web, but there is an element that is still missing and few social web sites actually grasp the concept. This concept is granular in the way that the granular social network is granular, which focusses on moving away from the concept of "broad line friends" that focus on our interest in everything people we "friend", which is not a close approximation of the non-digital world of friend that we are lucky to find friends who have 80 percent common interests. This bit that is missing focusses on the sharing and following (or listening) aspects of our digital relationships. Getting closer to this will help filter information we receive and share to ease the overflow of information and make the services far more valuable to the people using them.

Twitter Shows Understanding

Twitter in its latest modifications is beginning to show that it is grasping what we are doing online is not befriending people or claiming friend, but we are "following" people. This is a nice change, but it is only part of the equation that has a few more variables to it, which I have now been presenting for quite a few years (yes and am finally getting around to writing about). The other variables are the sharing and rough facets of type of information we share. When we start breaking this down we can start understanding the basic foundation for building a social web application that can begin to be functional for our spheres of sociality.

Spheres of Sociality

Spheres of Sociality The Spheres of Sociality are broken into four concentric rings:

  1. Personal
  2. Selective
  3. Collective
  4. Mob

There are echos of James Surowiecki's Wisdom of Crowds in the Spheres of Sociality as they break down as follows. The personal sphere is information that is just for one's self and it is not shared with others. The selective sphere, which there may be many a person shares with and listens to, are closed groups that people are comfortable sharing and participating with on common interests (family, small work projects, small group of friends or colleagues, etc.). The collective sphere is everybody using that social tool that are members of it, which has some common (precise or vague) understanding of what that service/site is about. The last sphere is the mob, which are those people outside the service and are not participants and who likely do not understand the workings or terminology of the service.

These sphere help us understand how people interact in real life as well as in these social environments. Many of the social web tools have elements of some of these or all of these spheres. Few social web tools provide the ability to have many selective spheres, but this is a need inside most enterprise and corporate sites as there are often small project teams working on things that may or may not come to fruition (this will be a future blog post). Many services allow for just sharing with those you grant to be your followers (like Twitter, Flickr, the old Yahoo! MyWeb 2.0, and Ma.gnolia private groups, etc.). This selective and segmented group of friends needs a little more examination and a little more understanding.

Granular Sharing and Following

Unequal AccessThe concepts that are needed to improve upon what has already been set in the Spheres of Sociality revolve around breaking down sharing and following (listening) into more discernible chunks that better reflect our interests. We need to do this because we do not always want to listen everything people we are willing to share with are surfacing. But, the converse is also true we may not want to share or need to share everything with people we want to follow (listen to).

In addition to each relationship needing to have sharing and listening properties, the broad brush painted by sharing and listening also needs to be broken down just a little (it could and should be quite granular should people want to reflect their real interests in their relationships) to some core facets. The core facets should have the ability to share and listen based on location, e.g. a person may only want to share or listen to people when they are in or near their location (keeping in mind people's location often changes, particularly for those that travel or move often). The location facet is likely the most requested tool particularly for those listening when people talk about Twitter and Facebook. Having some granular categories or tags to use as filters for sharing and listening makes sense as well. This can break down to simple elements like work, play, family, travel, etc. as broad categories it could help filter items from the sharing or listening streams and help bring to focus that which is of interest.

Breaking Down Listening and Sharing for Items


Where this gets us it to an ability to quickly flag the importance of our interactions with others with whom we share information/objects. Some things we can set on an item level, like sharing or just for self, and if sharing with what parameters are we sharing things. We will set the default sharing with ourself on so we have access to everything we do. This follows the Spheres of Sociality with just personal use, sharing with selective groups (which ones), share with the collective group or service, and share outside the service. That starts setting privacy of information that starts accounting for personal and work information and who could see it. Various services have different levels of this, but it is a rare consumer services that has the selective service sorted out (Pownce comes close with the options for granularity, but Flickr has the ease of use and levels of access. For each item we share we should have the ability to control access to that item, to just self or out across the Spheres of Sociality to the mob, if we so wish. Now we can get beyond the item level to presetting people with normative rights.

Listening and Sharing at the Person Level

 Others Settings
Granular Listen/FollowYesNo
Granular ShareYesNo
Geo Listen/FollowYesNo
Geo ShareYesNo

We can set people with properties that will help use with default Sphere of Sociality for sharing and listening. The two directions of communication really must be broken out as there are some people we do not mind them listening to the selective information sharing, but we may not have interest in listening to their normal flow of offerings (optimally we should be able to hear their responses when they are commenting on items we share). Conversely, there may be people we want to listen to and we do not want to share with, as we may not know them well enough to share or they may have broken our privacy considerations in the past, hence we do not trust them. For various reasons we need to be able to decide on a person level if we want to share and listen to that person.

Granular Listening and Sharing

Not, only do we have needs and desires for filtering what we share and listen to on the person level, but if we have a means to set some more granular levels of sharing, even at a high level (family, work, personal relation, acquaintance, etc.). If we can set some of these facets for sharing and have them tied to the Spheres we can easily control who and what we share and listen to. Flickr does this quite well with the simple family, friends, contacts, and all buckets, even if people do not use them precisely as such as family and friends are the two selective buckets they offer to work with (most people I know do not uses them precisely as such with those titles, but it provides a means of selective sharing and listening).

Geo Listening and Sharing

Lastly, it is often a request to filter listening and sharing by geography/location access. There are people who travel quite a bit and want to listen and share with people that are currently local or will be local to them in a short period, but their normal conversations are not fully relevant outside that location. Many people want the ability not to listen to a person unless they are local, but when a person who has some relationship becomes local the conversation may want to be shared and/or listened to. These settings can be dependent on the granular listening and sharing parameters, or may be different.

Getting There...

So, now that this is out there it is done? Hmmm, if it were only so easy. The first step is getting developers of social web and social software to begin understanding the social relationships that are less broad lines and more granular and directional. The next step is a social interaction that people need to understand or that the people building the interfaces need to understand, which is if and how to tell people the rights granted are not reciprocal (it is seems to be a common human trait to have angst over non-reciprocal social interactions, but it is the digital realm that makes it more apparent that the flesh world).