In 2006 I started using this graphic to explain social scaling and functionality around social tagging systems (then the x-axis was “times an object tagged”), as it helped bring to light the reality of what was to come from use. But increasingly I also used it to explain general social software maturation that echoed social software development work I was doing in 2002 and even patterns seen many years earlier in my work with social software.
As the number of people using a service increases over time and the number of activities in the system increases over time the system changes drastically. The needs, frameworks, and interactions (both social and services) change drastically. Not understanding what is coming has so many organizations making tool and service choices that have them quite stuck as they try to progress past the second stage. Not only did they not see this coming nor did those whom they paid handsomely to guide them through.
Lack of Understanding Begins Where?
“We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” ~Albert Einstein
Much of the lack of understanding with social software today is mistaking what seem like simple Web 2.0 tools and not understanding the depth of thinking and understanding from a technical, interaction design, and deeper understanding from a social science perspective of what is needed. Many Web 2.0 services rarely get into the 3rd stage of “Mature Social Tools”. When you bring this understanding into organizations and their needs for vastly improved communications, social interactions, collaboration, and efficiency needed the Web 2.0 model doesn't really get you far, nor help you prepare for what will come. (It is not that Web 2.0 offerings are not capable, it is that if they are even moderately successful they are dealing with many millions of users and keeping their offerings running with more simple social interactions and needs has them completely occupied).
Claiming your tools and services are like Web 2.0 tools and having them actually be rather equal to the lack of depth Web 2.0 products like Facebook have, becomes a pill filled with poison that once swallowed will release over time. The problem is less with to do with Web 2.0, but how things progress within fixed populations beyond the capabilities and needs (limited by volume and scale of resources needed to handle the volume of Web 2.0 services). Think of the fishing industry and the practices needed for fishing at massive industrial scale and optimizing skill of fly fishing and sustainability.
The Axis of This Model
Along the y-axis is the number of people participating in the service. As this increases the need for individuals to manage relationships and interactions increases. Along the x-axis are the number activities, which can be: Conversations, media shared, ratings, documents, short and long writings, annotations, organizing (curating) what exists in the system, etc.
Optimally the service will have growth that progresses in a relative balance between people participating and activities over time. If the balance has many people and few activities (or range or activities around subjects or tool types, see the differentiation between collective and collaboration, which doesn't include community/group distinct needs) the system will be really narrow and seem like their is little activity or action and perceived value dissipates and the usual result is decreasing visits and use. If the services has a relatively low number of people participating and a lot of activity the outcome is usually a very narrow view and lack of breadth of understandings, which limits the perception of what subject matter or activities types happen there.
What Are The Scaling Stages?
This stage is firmly set in the simple (a passing or deeper knowledge of Dave Snowden's Cynefin framework will understand the framing help). All social tools and services start their useful existence with personal value. They are offering where people place what they know or see where they can come back to it easily, as well as share with others, who will / may eventually find it. This clarity of understanding the personal impact was really clear when Delicious started. Joshua Porter actually called this the “Delicious Lesson”. The personal also helps initially frame what you have interest in and captures it, provides seeing others to connect with to initial share with and follow, provides a means to hold onto connecting with people, and hopefully allow people to see this in their own contextual lens. There is very little social interaction as things start out. It takes work of planning, engaging, and managing the initial social interactions. Community managers (instigator and evangelists) are essential for helping people into this first stage and get the whole moving toward the next stage. Problematically many services under provide for the needs and capabilities of the personal needs, not only for enabling initial uses, but for more valuable needs as the services mature. Seeing and managing who a person connects with and why along with actions taken in the system (accounting for time, cycles, and patterns) is a real need which helps people not only use the services but see the value they get from it.
This second stage still has most of its focus on the simple, but toward the edges of the next stage that shifts. Once the service gets more people using it and the activities increase things move from a heavily personal focus to one that is more social. The social interactions are more serendipitous than planned interactions as people aggregate and interact mostly through stumbling onto are being guided to subject mater areas of interests, groups or areas where conversations and objects related to the subject are shared and conversations around them happen (social objects).
In this stage the interactions between people are often echo their connections to people and interests that exist prior to using the services. The information flows are still rather manageable, but start edging into flows with some serious volume and velocity at times, which creates and information density to me dealt with. As the activities increase, particularly across groups and subject matter affinities and needs the need for tools to help with various roles people have (either roles that emerged, take on out or need or adeptness, or are have been assigned) is needed. The roles, other than admin and guide, are still mostly light. The managing of information and connecting it to where it is needed is what surfaces here as activities grow.
As time increases and the people participating and activities increase (as expected) things shift to being simple to more complicated given the number and variance of people interacting with each other. Managing connection and what is shared with whom starts to be seen, as does the reality that open social platforms can greatly hinder social interactions (no matter the culture) as the realization that there is something to Robin Dunbar%s [magical] number. As this happens the impact of the organizations overarching culture starts to have an impact and the selection of the tools and services for the social interactions comes in to clarity, whether the right choices were made and implemented to easily integrate with it or clash.
Mature Social Tool
The mature social tool stage the complicated realities of human social interactions comes into play, as well as the need for managing and filtering information flows. Most often organizations hit this stage in 6 months to 2 years. The lovely “if information is important it will find you” theory falls from a working practice to myth here as does they never valid 1/9/90 rule. Information and connections with people get lost and fuzzy. Keeping what is needed and valuable near is essential. It is here most often that people managing the services and tools in organizations state, “What they hell did we do? Do we have the right tools and services?” Many times the answer is no they don't have what they need as they didn't see this part of the picture and reality coming. Also they didn't plan budget and resources for this (it was supposed to just work, right).
It is also in this stage that it is really clear different parts of the service have matured at vastly different rates. Some of it is individual people maturing at faster rates. The accelerated maturity is not only with individuals but groups, subjects, use patterns, roles, etc. This inconsistency of growth is normal, yet it continually seems to surprise people. The reality is there are various types of people, whom these tools hit a need and map tightly to their activities and perceived way forward. Rarely does accelerated maturity of use have much to do with age (the myth that it is young people who take to these tools really becomes clear here as well). Matching lack of resources and pain because that with other solutions is a much stronger driver when the services ease those pains.
The mature social stage is also where the “best practices” considered and possibly used earlier surface as possibly not the best way forward and may have lead to things more problematic than not optimal outcomes. Each organization not only has its own culture, but sub-cultures, but its own ways of doing business on top of the social environment and cultural behaviors. Understanding what the levers and myriad of potential options the possible outcomes that come from their use is an incredibly valuable approach. Combining approaches and methods from these many options will enhance the complications, which needs the ability to have people who can understand and see the components and break down what influences can be attributed to where. It is very much an iterate, test, monitor, and iterate practice all while realizing what doesn't work in one scenario may be brilliant in others.
The value from much of the social web understandings derived from what people thought they saw in Web 2.0 offerings runs out and the practice of copying features and functionality from that realm has run its course due to limitations mentioned above. The practices and services are similar, but the massive scale that Web 2.0 services handle has them focussing on volume and quantity of interactions, not the honed qualitative needs in organizations. Facebook doesn't care that people are sharing important knowledge for other to benefit from as long as people are interacting and using their service. Sharing and honing those understandings and being able to refind them as needed in an organization is an essential and has deep value over time.
The mature social tool stage is where search is needed to find things and social search (in theory) should work well (that often isn't the case as search for the most part hasn't caught up yet). There is enough content and enough people interacting to see a rich ecosystem ready to see the benefit of these service become really valuable. This can happen, but it becomes difficult. There are no best practices that work here, there are guides and series of “it depends” scenarios and lenses to work through to good (if not hopefully better) outcomes. The number or roles and tools matching those role's needs are needed for many using the service, but at the same time keeping the interfaces easy to use as they were in the earlier stages (think of most role playing games that start with simple interfaces that are easy to use to accomplish what is needed, but over time and proven adeptness at using them more complicated tools and interfaces slowly evolve that match the mastery, roles, and skills needed (Lithium community platform (for outside the firewall) does this amazingly well, but doing this is something that takes incredibly deep skill and understanding).
It is also in this stage that information overload really can kick in. Connecting the information and knowledge to people and areas in the system that need it can become a challenge. What seemed to be a reality of a single culture in the organization is seen as more complicated with the multitude of sub-cultures with their own understandings, contexts, terms/vocabularies, and expectations. Not only do non-emergent taxonomies have problems here, but search does if it doesn't account for the social implications and influences underlying the content and needs.
By this point the realization that an open social platform didn't work there are now many smaller groups that are fully or partly closed off. The key is to embrace this understanding and work to build synonym repositories and bridges of understanding between the sub-cultures and divergent practice areas. The collective whole that is emerging becomes difficult to work with, but it can be done. The scale and needs that emerge out of this can begin to look like enterprise resource management services, but the components are not as stable and as predictable, they are human and social.
Focussing on the complicated components in all of this is a task. It can be done and taking the multitude of complicated steps, conditions, and interactions (software and social, as well as social software interactions) into account and breaking them down into smaller more manageable components through depth of understanding and experience can be done. Having not only a good understanding of broader social network interactions helps greatly, but understandings at the social interaction design level for the much smaller scale interaction needs is essential as well. The interfaces and needs of the service will be drastically different than what is needed earlier in the stages.
Even with some mastery of this stage the growth of people and actions over time will shift from being complicated to complex. Hopefully, the complicated needs are being identified and needs relating to the complicated needs are helping to address the issues at hand. Longitudinal understandings of use and patterns is needed to help iterate and meet needs.
Complex Social System
The complex social system is where things move toward emulating actual social systems in the world around us. Understandings that are central to urban planning and understanding healthy societies at scale, as well as using well worn research and theories for how the complex organisms known as societies interact. (Dave Gray has picked up on this and included it in the Connected Company post, which is worth your time to read.) There are few universal understandings of what people do that will consistently apply. The use and emergent uses of the services that happen in this stage will be quite different and the tools and patterns for managing things that worked in earlier stages will not work as well. External influences (influences outside of the cultures or are emergent and not planned) will impact use and value. Often it is these emergent uses that have the highest value, but they can also be problematic. It is also essential to understand how modifying the whole of the system and service to embrace these emergent patterns will impact.
There are no best practices and never will be. It takes identifying and understanding the individual influences (there are often many) and their place in what is occurring in small samples (rarely do large emergent patterns behave or happen consistently across the organization (although it can)) to get better clarity.
Knowing this stage is coming and being aware of the patterns indicate this emergent and divergent stage is really helpful as early as the initial planning stages. Indications where and how these patterns are emerging can be seen very early and they can be confused for mainstream use, which changes the whole of the system and skews it against easy considered use in the earlier stages. This isn't something to understand and worry about later, it needs to be something that is firmly in mind with people who not only grasp it, but can ascertain its existence and work through the myriad of considerations that will be needed to work through to best prepare and adapt for it.
Tools and services are not exactly here just yet. There are some that could be close, but it all is dependent on need, problems, and the underlying complications that lead to the complexity. There are also many examples for services identifying emergent patterns and behaviors and adapting for them or just letting them be. Things like hashtags in Twitter are an example of embracing the emergent patterns, but it was and is an edge user pattern. This past week Socialcast took the steps to further adapt their system to take hashtag and enable design patterns that helped it be far more usable and understandable to mainstream core users (I think I may know some people who worked on that and bravo all around).