(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.