Affordances of social software

Posted: August 8, 2007 at 8:52 pm in community, design, socialsoftware

Following up on my last post, let’s spend some time discussing what makes certain social software sites easier to adopt than others. I’ve written about technology affordances before, but I think the affordances of a given social software site have a huge impact on its adoption. We’ll start by analyzing why I found LiveJournal so easy to adopt.

I started using LiveJournal because I wanted to read the posts that my friends had “locked” so that only their LiveJournal friends could read them. I figured I would create a free account, get accepted as a friend to those people, and that would be it. But as I started using it, I discovered more and more ways in which to use it.

LiveJournal made it easy for me to keep track of all the people whose LiveJournal posts I wanted to read. Instead of having to go to each individual person’s page, as I had been doing, I could just go to my Friends page, and get a list of what my friends have been up to organized neatly into reverse chronological order. To expand my network was also trivial. When I clicked on a person’s name, it took me to their LiveJournal profile which listed all of their friends, making it easy for me to find other people I knew.

LiveJournal gets several other details right in helping me figure out what to do. For instance, if you look at the Friends page, on the left side, it shows me my main options: Recent Entries, Archive, Friends, User Info, My Website. There are other options in various menus, but the primary ones make it clear that LiveJournal is for writing my own posts, and for reading my friends’ posts. Also, LiveJournal allows me to jump into a comment thread wherever I feel comfortable, which reduces the anxiety of public “speaking”.

Making things easy is vital in getting me to do something. Blogging software is a great example. When I first started my web page back in 1994, I had a section devoted to ramblings. I only posted every few months, though, because the cognitive overhead of having to create a new HTML file every time I wanted to say something was too much. It’s not hard to create a file, but it meant that I was doing something other than trying to write my thoughts. Once I switched to blosxom, it was slightly easier because I just had to create a text file, but when I switched to WordPress and could start blogging with one click, things got much easier.

Good software should make it obvious what I should do first, and make it straightforward for me to accomplish something useful. LiveJournal has all sorts of things that I don’t use, like communities and tiered permissions, but that’s okay because I still get value out of it from the things I started using from the beginning. WordPress is unbelievably customizable, but I was able to start putting up posts quickly, and only look into customization when I want to try something new.

I mentioned in my last post that I couldn’t figure out what to do on Facebook. Now that Jofish friended me and has given me some tips, I can see there was a bootstrapping issue, as none of the people I had friended were using Facebook extensively, so I had no examples of how one might use it. Facebook also suffered because I did not (and still don’t) have a compelling reason to use it, as contrasted with other new technologies:

  • With LiveJournal, I wanted to read my friends’ locked posts.
  • With WordPress, I wanted a better blogging system with comments and trackbacks.
  • With RSS, I wanted to keep up with dozens of irregularly updated blogs.

I’m still not quite sure what the compelling reason might be for using Facebook, although Jofish’s comment that it’s “a tool to communicate with/between late teens/early twenty somethings in or recently graduated from college” is probably closest.

Twitter is another technology I’m not sure I see the case for yet. Twitter’s big moment this year was at SXSW, where it seemed like everybody started using it. The conference setting was a perfect scenario for Twitter, as everybody wanted to know where everybody else was, so the quick updates to an always accessible communications channel enabled swarming behavior. And it seemed like there was a tipping point as enough people used it that everybody started using it because everybody else was using it. I’m still skeptical of its use in normal life, but examples like Charlie using Twitter to meet up for dinner may convince me eventually.

So what characteristics does social software need to make it easy to adopt?

  • There needs to be a compelling reason to use it. I listed a few above, but there has to be a goal that convinces me it’s worth investing the time to figure out how to use it.
  • The easier it is to accomplish the goal, the better. If the learning investment is lower, the reason doesn’t have to be as compelling.
  • Make my friends’ actions visible and copyable. In new environments, we learn by imitating others. If I can’t see what others are doing, I’ll probably do nothing.
  • Make it useful even if not all of my friends use it. If the first step in making it useful is getting all of my friends on board, I’m never going to invest the effort. I think Dodgeball suffers from this problem.
  • I’m sure there are others – what are your suggestions?

P.S. Unsurprisingly, these points reflect the design principles I espoused in my Ambidextrous article.

5 Responses to “Affordances of social software”

  1. Bats Says:

    Heh… was my adding you to Facebook part of what prompted you to write this? No idea myself why I bothered to do that–I guess I figured that if anyone had started the tEp network there, it would be you.

    I agree with your views, in terms of the usefulness of LJ (concatenating friends postings), and not really finding a purpose (so far) for Facebook. I’m wondering if this might become a generational teetering point for my tech-savvy peers. Similarly for text messaging–I have started to use it pretty regularly, but at a get together of ~10 tEps at U5 & Rebecca’s, I was the exception for the post part.

    However, back on the Facebook topic, I did get a kick when a former coworker (now in California) added me to her list out of the blue. Also, friends from UW (Dan & Daniel, Engineer Girl) are on that list.

  2. Anca Says:

    I totally agree with you about affordances and usability enhancing the desire to use a particular technology. However, I think the particular feature sets and usability of these sites are derived from their initial goals, which drove the development approach.

    LiveJournal, Flickr, MySpace and others are social networking sites that grew out of helping people accomplish a particular task that happens to be much more fun when you are doing it with other people.

    Facebook, Friendster, Tribe.net and even LinkedIn are sites that grew out of the desire to build connections with each other and talk and link up. Now all those sites are adding features like blogs, customized pages, answers sections, RSS feed aggregators, time-based organization of things you’re looking for, and, in the case of Facebook, “applications”. Fundamentally, though it’s harder to figure out what you can do there because it’s mostly “just hang out”.

    Twitter is a hybrid that falls more in the second category than the first, since being the only user of Twitter doesn’t get you any benefits, whereas you could be the only LiveJournal user you know and still have a great blogging tool that allows you to get stuff out to the world.

    Hmm, there’s probably more to this that I’ll have to ponder – like where do thing like Yahoo/Google groups fit in, and maybe even eBay…

  3. The Ectoplasmic Connector » Blog Archive » Categorizing Social Networking Sites Says:

    [...] This is part of a response that I wrote to Eric Nehrlich’s post, ” Affordances of social software”. [...]

  4. Nate Westheimer Says:

    As you read with my nextNY post, I’d include “Effects my offline life” on that list. For me it’s about the value it affords to me. On that note, Facebook is more like a badass Plaxo for the college/alumni crowd. It helps us stay in touch with people we otherwise wouldn’t, and share things with them (photos, notes, etc) we ordinarily wouldn’t. There’s value in that because it means there are more people you’ve kept in touch with when you go visit another city or need a reference to a company.

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