I like how Google is always able to surprise me. Just when everybody has been writing off Google’s efforts in the social graph space (e.g. see one of many posts on the topic here), with Google Buzz not making so much buzz after all, they come out with a 216(!) page, commented slide deck which is based on years of Google research in the field and goes a long way explaining how online social networks will have to be designed to better map our real life social networks and be more useful.
Paul Adams, creator of the slide deck, and member of Google’s UX team, does a great job in taking real life examples to show the limits of e.g. Facebook when it comes to mapping offline interactions to online interactions.
In my opinion, these are the major take-aways from the slide deck with respect to where online social networks are headed:
1. Friend <> Friend: We Need A Better Way For Mapping Real World Relationships Online
Social networking sites like Facebook currently do not offer the tools to segment your friends into distinct groups and to allow you to communicate with each group in distinct ways. Paul makes the example of a young woman named Debbie and how the kids she teaches, and who have friended her on Facebook, are able to see the pictures from a night at a bar with some of her friends, she has commented on. The fact that people have multiple groups of friends in the real world [according to the research: 4-6 independent groups with 2-10 friends each, formed around hobbies, shared experiences, life stages], is currently not fully reflected in the online social network design.
2. Strong Ties, Weak Ties, Temporary Ties
A lot has been written about the theory of strong ties and weak ties (e.g. this is a good book I recently read on the topic). Paul explains how research has shown that we typically have 2-6 strong ties, i.e. people we communicate with on a daily basis. We are also able to manage up to 150 weak ties, i.e. people we keep in touch with but not necessarily speak to on a frequent basis. However, strong and weak ties alone are not able to fully capture the breath of our online relationships. Paul introduces a category called temporary ties, which basically include people “we have no recognized relationship with, but that [we] temporary interact with”. In my opinion this extension of the current framework will prove very useful; currently the information content from these relationships is lost: for example, a positive interaction with a friendly store assistant is typically not captured anywhere, but could be valuable for me or other people in the future.
3. Online Trust – Privacy Matters!
In my recent blog post, Three Pillars of Online Trust, I talked about how the rise of online social networks and the ability to leverage them, will impact the way we establish trust online. Paul makes the point that, with more information becoming available in online social networks, we’ll increasingly rely on our social graph to make decisions. He also points out some of the reasons why current review systems tend to be biased and/or broken. We also tend to be influenced by temporary ties, for example people tend to give the same review online as people before have given. People care about what others think about them and research has shown that anonymous ratings tend to be 20% lower than ratings where people provided their real name. Also, I agree with Paul’s assessment that the role of influentials is “overestimated” – I see some similarities to the way the role of strong ties was overestimated at first.
One of the most heavily discussed topics and definitely a dimension which will shape online social networks going forward: privacy. Paul says that “We think people care less about privacy because they misunderstand complicated privacy settings”. The big difference between online and offline is that online “conversations are persistent”. Paul points out that privacy and trust are linked tightly together. I agree with Paul that as a business, the way you handle people’s private, sensitive data, will impact the way people trust you and do business with you in the long term. Given the huge amounts of personal data already online and coming online over the next few years, I think data privacy and privacy management within companies who are active online should be a key item on every agenda.
Want to know more about it?
I believe that anyone who is marginally interested in social networks and understanding how they should be designed should take a look at the slide deck, posted here. Great job, Paul Adams. I can’t wait to read your book, Social Circles (coming out Aug 30, 2010).