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On Facebook, Google, and Our Evolving Social Mores Online

By - July 10, 2010


(image ) I just reviewed this presentation from Paul Adams, research lead for social at Google (embedded below). He works on Buzz and YouTube, and presumably, whatever is next from Google, including the rumored “Google Me.”

His presentation is good, and worthy of your time if you are interested in the impact of social media on culture and business. Note, however, that it’s clearly biased against Facebook, coming as it does from Google. It’s in Google’s interest to deconstruct Facebook as a service, finding faults along the way, which this presentation does in spades.

In essence, Adams points out that Facebook lacks what I’ve come to call instrumentation. On Facebook we cannot manage our social relationships with any of the nuance that we do in real life. We don’t have the instrumentation, neither the tools nor the mores (more on that in a bit).

On Facebook, Adams points out, we have one big group of “friends.” Clearly, that’s not true in our lives. We have groups of friends, some of them with strong ties, some weak, some temporary, and many not friends at all, but colleagues, or family members, or members of a club or hobby.

Adams suggests we, as architects of what I like to call the conversation economy, should design for how we really interact with people, and I completely agree. However, it’s not that simple (Adams makes this point in his talk, but I’m going to take it a bit further here).

Certainly Adams – and his employer Google – see a significant opportunity in creating a better social networking mousetrap. But as he points out, it’s not just about making a better Facebook (though I’ve heard that “Google Me” is, in essence, attempting to be just that.) It’s about a wholesale shift in how we experience the Internet – the same shift many folks have mislabeled* as “the semantic web” – a shift toward designing the web around people, rather than pages, content, or even search.

The problem is, while I agree with the idea of designing around people, the truth is that we haven’t quite figured out what this design looks like. It’s rather like attempting to design an industrialized city while living in 1200 AD. Not only has the technology not evolved (power grids, modern plumbing, automobiles, communications networks etc.), but equally importantly, the social mores have not developed as well.

As I often say in talks to agencies and brands (just did four of them last week), we are in the midst of a significant shift in our cultural history, one similar as our move, as a species, from a largely agrarian culture to one based on the modern city. That shift took roughly 1000 years to occur. And as it did, we renegotiated nearly every aspect of our social mores – the values that we hold as community standards. You need a new set of shared and respected rules to move from a village of 150 or so farmers, who knew each other very well, to a city of 1.5 million inhabitants, most of whom don’t know each other, but live packed together in multi-story apartment buildings.

And we certainly did develop a new set of mores. In the western world, this culminated is what many call “Victorian” society, with elaborate principles of etiquette and relationships. In the US anyway, we’re still deeply effected by Victorian culture.

As we move online, we’re once again making a great migration of social mores, and this time it’s one not entirely tethered to physicality, location, or regional constraints. And this shift is happening far more quickly than the last one. Adams does a good job of outlining some of the new interactions that occur online – temporary ties to people we’ll most likely never interact with again, but who might have commented on our online review, or liked our picture on Facebook, or answered our product registration question via IM, text, or phone call.

This is uncharted territory, and we’re very early in the instrumentation process. We’re not certain, in advance of a given interaction, what’s right and what’s wrong, but we seem to know it when we see it. Adams’ advice is to design for how humans interact with each other, and at some core level I agree. But I also think we’re not always certain how we might end up behaving in this new world. So I wouldn’t want it limited to the mores we currently evince. That would be like designing Victorian London with the mores of a farming village.

Formation of new cultures like cities, or online communities, require that a process be, in the phrase of Kevin Kelly, a bit out of control. Attempting to design the future is usually fruitless. Instead, as designers (and developers, architects, publishers, brands…), we must pay close attention to shifting behaviors, listen and participate deeply, and design as fast followers to where this culture leads us. Sometimes, as with the original Facebook, we end up creating something that strikes a deep nerve for connection. When that happens, we are catapulted into a position of leadership, but we shouldn’t assume that adoption equates with finality. It’s way too early for that, and and I think this really is Adams’ core thesis.

What remains to be seen is if a company like Google is capable of this kind of design, or whether it comes from somewhere entirely outside our current field of vision. My guess is a bit of both. I am quite certain, however, that Facebook is already paying attention to this instrumentation problem. I expect many of Adams’ critiques will be addressed, and quickly, in future revisions of the Facebook service.

It’s certainly an exciting time to be in this industry, and in this society. They’re increasingly one and the same thing.

The Real Life Social Network v2

View more documents from Paul Adams.
*(The mislabel, to my mind, is that the semantic web is understood to be designed around machine readability, not people).
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13 thoughts on “On Facebook, Google, and Our Evolving Social Mores Online

  1. Great times to be part of this ever changing industry, indeed.
    I really liked your approach (and Adam’s thesis) on this. I agree with you, I think that trying to design a new behavior can be a dead end. We need to have our eyes open and learn and react/design as we learn from the costant shifting.
    I look forward to your keynote at the IAB Conecta 2010 conference and to meeting you in person.

  2. Bertil says:

    What Paul doesn’t mention, albeit it has been instrumental in twitter or Facebook success (and is heavily underlined in David Kirkpatrick’s book) is that not having to rely on instrumentation in communication is a relieve: I can tweet whatever I want (lately, against telemarketers, ironically enough) without having to face my teenager cousin stare “Why should I care?” or my grand’mother’s “What does this mean?”

    Maintaining that (and symmetrically, maintaining relevance in the Newsfeed) is essential, and Paul doesn’t give enough credit to Facebook for doing the later rather well, without too much input from the former (nor users’ declaring what is irrelevant to them either, is seems). To do so and live up to Paul’s insights, Google Me must have rather good suggestion tools for contextual (not unlike Gmail Lab “Suggest other people to send this mail” option) and rather clear information about who will be able to see, or who will be offered to see without effort. That might take some time, be hard to sell to Facebook, but will play into the company only likely failure.

    More details about that on my blog if you care.

  3. Samir Ansari says:

    As you said, “It’s rather like attempting to design an industrialized city while living in 1200 AD.”

    I think the Industry is not yet mature to do what we as human do offline? I mean the way we communicate, with whom we communicate, how much we communicate? That is what we decide!!! Applications like Facebook or Google Me or no matter what? Can’t do it in the shirt run.

    BTW, are you using tynt???

  4. Thanks you very much John!

    And we certainly did develop a new set of mores. In the western world, this culminated is what many call “Victorian” society, with elaborate principles of etiquette and relationships. In the US anyway, we’re still deeply effected by Victorian culture..

  5. Absolutely agree that there is still something missing in the design around the individual idea. The objective may be to satisfy each individual’s need to have a point. But, I believe people want to have a point in the context of a community – not in a vacuum.

    So the best way to achieve the objective is to focus on a purpose that already galvanizes individuals in the physical world:

    Katherine Warman Kern

  6. @Bertil good point. The key is the public nature of Twitter from the start, no? And the dust up around newsfeeds as well. I think now we’re ready to move to more instrumentation, but we don’t want to spend hours doing it…

  7. Amit says:

    Well put. I suspect Facebook will have better success reacting to growth, moulding its product and adding implicit instrumentations to smoothen social interactions; then anyone (including Google) will have in engineering a perfect product from the get-go.

    It seems to me humans are accustomed to evolution, and attempts to engineer perfect initial experiences tend to fail (as countless real-life ‘perfect society’ experiments attest). In a weird way, this is the equivalent of the uncanny valley phenomenon applied to groups.

  8. A friend of mine (who’s a couple years younger than I am, but a little older than Mark Zuckerberg) said that when he attended college all of the students had a book with pictures of all of the other students in it which they referred to as “the facebook”… — so in other words, the word had already entered the lexicon before Mark Zuckerbueg created the website.

    Of course MK was smart to use the Wisdom of the Language — at any rate smarter than a lot of people who still seem to have difficulty grasping the idea.

  9. Tom says:

    Important points here!

    To get to some fundamentals:

    At root all social groupings whether a band of hunter-gatherers or a global social organism… are products of what might be called Social Energy

    social energy:individual and collective decisions operating within the limits of  available resources and natural law which (quite literally) result in the product you see as a civilization. A decision here is defined as an idea + an action. Decisions can be motivated by any number of factors.

    (Money, btw, in this context can be seen as a necessary but inherently imperfectable technology for the storage and allocation of this social energy.)

    For a number of reasons there are difficulties in scaling decision mechanisms which relate directly to a loss of proximity (whether physical, psychological, social, etc.) that have been a problem since that move from hunter-gatherers.

    Perhaps the single greatest issue is the problem in the boundaries of biological altruism which have relation to Dunbar’s Number. (the natural group size so central to this discussion)

    The role of the Internet in addressing this problem is central and timely.

    I’d suggest that it’s at least possible that this scaling problem in biological altruism may be quite literally universal.

    Brief post on this here:
    The Problem in Scaling Altruism: Where’s the Intelligent Life?

    There’s a vital role that Internet capabilities offer not previously available. Loss of mis-design of this potential may be catastrophic.

    I make a specific suggestion:

    The Individually-controlled / Commons-dedicated Account*

    *A Commons-owned neutral platform for both political and charitable monetary contribution… which for very fundamental scaling reasons must allow a viable micro-transaction (think x-box points for action in the Commons). The resultant network catalyzes additional functionality for co-ordination of other ‘social energy’ utilization. (P.S. Its the most neutral and ultimately politically viable method for the public finance of elections.)

    It’s a simple idea. But so was the lightbulb… just heat up a wire until it glows.

    I could be a fool… and there are certainly significant entities for whom such a structure could prove disruptive… but maybe not so disruptive as they think.

    Nevertheless sometimes you have to shake things up a bit…

    Personal Democracy: Disruption as an Enlightenment Essential

    Decision Technologies: Currencies and the Social Contract

    Extinction requires only inertia.
    We’ve reached that critical point now where…
    Evolution requires tools…
    Carefully thought out tools.

  10. Aaron says:

    Good commentary, John.

    I went thru some similar introspection last week when analyzing the various ways people reached out with birthday wishes.

    Happy Birthday! Love, Your Wall

    What does how you wish someone “Happy Birthday” these days say about your relationship with them?

  11. What Facebook needs, is a ‘personas’ feature – everybody acts a certain way around different sets of people, you may have a certain bias when you are around family, than say when you are with personal friends or with those at work.

    There are things which I could share around with work colleagues and friends that I might not be too keen about sharing with family and kids at home – at the moment, Facebook does not provide a mechanism to separate these different aspects of a person’s personality. If we had the ability to create Persona’s, I would create 3 tags, Family, Friends and Work.. then whenever I shared a status update or video or link etc, I would be able to tag it with one or more persona profiles to indicate who could see it.

  12. Steve Flinn says:

    Social relationships are fuzzy.

    Relationships among people and content are fuzzy and need to be integrated.

    These relationships can be made to automatically adapt based on experience.

    The result is The Learning Layer. Available now at

  13. Jannik Lindquist says:

    Several of the comments shows a very sad lack of basic knowledge about Facebook.

    For instance, Jason writes: “There are things which I could share around with work colleagues and friends that I might not be too keen about sharing with family and kids at home – at the moment, Facebook does not provide a mechanism to separate these different aspects of a person’s personality.”

    This is just plain wrong. You can control very precisely who will see your status, image or album: you can direct what you post to a particular group of users or you can block a particular groups of users. Denying this is just plain silly – as is not knowing it in a discussion about Facebook