Designing social spaces

Lately I’m collecting a lot of design writing — these are great posts about building community sites.

Applying “A Pattern Language” To Online Community Design. I recommend this social web perspective on Christopher Alexander’s classic study of how towns and buildings function & how we create successful shared spaces. Excerpts:

A Community of 7,000: Communities that are too large are not effective. While this doesn’t mean you should limit the size of your overall website, you should consider ways of creating smaller sub-communities within the website if it is big. Creating sub-communities within the larger whole is one way to go about this. Another option is to limit exposure to the full membership… The purpose here is to make each member feel as though they matter in the grand scheme of things. If the user sees a membership roster that includes a 100,000 names, they’ll feel like a tiny fish in a huge pond.

Your Own Home: Everyone should have their own home in the real world, a place they can go to at the end of the day that’s safe and secure. In the online world, this would be the profile page. People want to customize their home, make it their own, host friends there, put their mark on it and let people know that this is their space and that it reflects their personality. In the online world, people want to do the same thing.

Short Passages: Moving from one profile to another should be quick and comfortable. You want members to interact with one another, and so the pathways between them should be inviting. Think of ways to encourage interaction between members along these passages. One way to do this is through comments on the activities of others.

(If you dig architecture or the metaphor of websites as buildings / living space, you may enjoy Design from a Diagram.) I found good advice about applying Alexander’s methods in everyday design work in Ryan Singer’s “Designing With Forces“ talk (52 min). He suggests that instead of starting out your site / product by making a list of requirements, we look carefully at the surrounding context and think in terms of the “forces” acting on it, e.g. “I can never remember to make followup phone calls,” “I hate data entry” or “I need to pick up a teakettle without burning myself.” It’s helping me sketch a cohesive vision for a web app today.

Metafilter’s Matt Haughey wrote up great community tips I keep returning to. MeFi’s always stood up as an example of a respectful, well-managed community with a high signal-to-noise ratio. From his introduction,

hate the term User Generated Content. I never use the phrase when talking about this stuff and I’ll never use it when writing about it. I consider it a pejorative that reveals a lot about the person saying it. It makes members of your site feel like dutiful robots, crapping content that you convert into cash.

Johnny Holland’s What’s Up With Social Objects?

Which is a more accurate description of gifting on Facebook: the relationship between two friends and the practice of giving gifts on birthdays, or the graphic of the beer mug? The more accurate description of user interaction would be that which explains the practice of gift giving, the symbolic act of presenting a gift, the Facebook tradition of recognizing birthdays, and the social space in which gifts are seen by others such that birthdays create a cause for a stretch of social interaction.

And tips on applying social interaction design thinking:

All content in the world of web 2.0 is communication. Yes, it is information and it informs. But it is created and left behind by countless individual acts of communication — with the intent to communicate. If you view social web content as information you’re still in web 1.0.

Designing for Social Interaction breaks down the idea of online “friends” into several types and gives tips for designing social web apps around them.

The average number of friends on Facebook is 130, and many users have many more. Yet despite having hundreds of friends, most people on Facebook only interact regularly with 4 to 7 people, and for 90% of Facebook users, 20% of their friends account for 70% of all interactions. We also see this with phone usage. We have hundreds of people in our phone contacts, yet 80% of phone calls are made to the same 4 people.

Our social web tools must start to understand the strength of ties, that we have stronger relationships with some people than with others.

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