Defining Life with Social Media

Social media has done it’s part in bringing you closer to others almost instantly, but has left me pondering some fundamental questions about friends, connections, and conversations.

The aspect of sharing has become convoluted and overloaded. I can share many different types of information, ranging in sensitivity. I can share things privately and publicly, but I don’t know what those terms mean and who they are relative to. I also don’t know who owns in the information after I share it: me or the recipient or both? Any argument or conclusion that one could arrive at has many counter-claims that are, in many ways, equally as valid.

I don’t even know what a friend is. Someone I talk to on a daily basis? Someone I have deep conversations with? Did I meet them at a coffee-shop or at class? Through a significant other, maybe? My friend list on Facebook is a sea of faces, each one blurring in and out of memory as I scroll through them. The word list sounds robotic — like I actually have a database of the people I care about in my head. No one really does this.

Real conversations are ones you have face-to-face, but what about the advent of video chatting? Google is attempting to blur the line — you can have a conversation with someone in real-time with one click. These conversations can be enriched with a whiteboard or a movie or other forms of media. Microsoft is also blurring the reality of a conversation. The KINECT software allows several people to have virtual hangouts, where avatars can watch games/movies together as if they were in the same room. Except that everyone is at home in their pajamas.

Today, social media sites should attempt to meet two goals:

  • Create definitions for what a friend (and related terms) are for you, and
  • Develop new technologies to make these definitions more distinct.

There are several benefits for social media sites to latently define the sensitive terms of friends, sharing and connections. First, the sites can create technologies around the terms they define. Imagine an application that provides you more notifications about friends and family but less on acquaintances. It seems intuitive that you would care more about the people you interact with more often. The converse of this could be that people may want to learn more about people they are unfamiliar with. In observation of people on social media sites, it seems that the services they provide are meant to augment your experiences in real life, not act as a contrast. Think about it: when you first go on Facebook, you look at the news feed. At that point, you see who you are likely to care about, based on what your core friends care about. What if that service were expanded to manage stories about friends/family versus acquaintances? This can be possible only if there was a definition of the three groupings in the first place.

A second benefit aside from well-defined technology is that sites could provide a more personalized experience internally within the social graph the site defines. Twitter provides real-time connections with everyone whom you follow, but the stream can become cumbersome to read after being an hour away from it. There could be as many as 100-1000 new stories, depending on how many people/organizations you care to know about. If Twitter automatically understood the patterns of people you followed, perhaps more relevent tweets could be bumped to the top, and other tweets could be accessible after the “top tweets” for your immediate attention. When you send a tweet to someone, that tweet could be filtered into a “friends” stream or “co-workers” stream. If Twitter knew the relationships you actually cared about, the site could suggest followers based not only on who you follow, but also on what tweets you “star” or “flag” as important. On the same vein, the site could also suggest who you should remove from your stream so you can have a more concise experience.

A third benefit follows from the second: your experience of the web outside of social media applications can be enriched if the applications can plugin to whatever you choose to experience. Social gaming is becoming a hot commodity, with multi-billion dollar revenues. Zynga, a popular social gaming producer, has bet millions on the idea that social media can fuel competition/cooperation within the games it creates, thus driving traffic to the media they provide. If Facebook could inform Zynga about who a friend was, you could get better suggestions on who to initialize a game with. For example, you could play a Zynga game and their “suggested competitors” would be a list of your friends who play other Facebook games. Suggestions are informed by not only your friends list organization but also their activities/behaviors on the social site in general.

Most of today’s sites are putting the burden on the user to create definitions of what your friends are, but there are tools being created to help you with this task. Google+ has created circles for you to create groupings of people you are connected with. By default, you have circles for friends, acquaintances and family. Google has made it clear: there is a distinction between these three groups, and you should be conscious of this fact. Conversely, Facebook (mostly in response to Google+) has made its list feature more prominent — you can put friends in lists that you define. By default, everyone is lumped in the “friends” list. If you believe in Google’s assertion, not everyone you connect with is a friend, so Facebook is taking perhaps a too liberal approach. Twitter does the least of the three big social media sites — everyone you know is a “follower” or someone you are “following”. Yes, you can make lists of people, but that feature is not stressed. Clearly, every social media site has a different agenda on how to help you manage your friends, and none of them seems like an optimal solution.

In the end, perhaps it will be a service like Katango that sits on top of the social media sites that will answer the call of created defined boundaries of people. The intrigue of this solution is strengthened by the service’s ease of implementation, scope of impact and low learning curve. The service should be easily connected to the existing sites, using APIs that are already provided (like the connect function). Maintenance should mainly need to be made by the user on the service itself, not on the site. If Katango was incorrect about the friend lists I selected, then the service should alter its response without making me change my social network on Facebook. Such a proposed service should also make an impact via the three benefits I mentioned above:

  1. New, computer-imaginative technologies should manifest itself from the usage of social media data;
  2. Your experience of the social media site should feel personalized because of the service; and
  3. Your experience of the web as a whole should feel personalized as well.

This an exciting, trail-blazing time for both designers and users of social media technologies. Designers have the opportunity to create new, user-centered experiences for people. People can strengthen connections they care about and rekindle relationships that they want to explore more. The key ingredient in this space is innovation.

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