Designing social software

I used to run a BBC community website and when starting out we designed it for specific users.  These users became personna’s.  We considered their interaction with the site, the concept, the product/brand!  However, we overlooked their interaction with each other using software which we knew was not ‘easy’ to ‘manage’ and would appeal to only a handful of people.  Still, we stuck to our brief to appeal to the masses and by implication novice users.  Over the 12 months of the project we had to shift the editorial line  to appeal to our hardcore ‘community’ – to the group of individuals who had themselves redefined our proposition with their writing.  The project was a success, but not the success it should have been because we did not design for the group at the outset.   We tried to overcome the social software we were using with our editorial proposition. 

Clay Shirky has helped to explain where we went wrong.   In Group as user: flaming and the design of social software he argues that the design of social software is too often conceived of as the social – technical interaction rather than the social – group interaction.   He uses the metaphor of designing for a box rather than for a door.  Sure, the technology is important in the way it is structured and presented for one to use, however, social change impacts upon the use of software because interaction with others is social:

The user’s mental model of a word processor is of limited
importance — if a word processor supports multiple columns, users can
create multiple columns; if not, then not. The users’ mental model of
social software, on the other hand, matters enormously. For example,
‘personal home pages’ and weblogs are very similar technically — both
involve local editing and global hosting. The difference between them
was mainly in the user’s conception of the activity. The pattern of weblogging appeared
before the name weblog was invented, and the name appeared before any
of the current weblogging tools were designed. Here the shift was in
the user’s mental model of publishing, and the tools followed the
change in social practice.

Following the example of flaming, Shirky argues that weblogs do not have the same signal to noise ratio as, for instance, mailing lists because of the nature of their ‘space’.  Weblogs are essentially private spaces from which you allow others to use [comments] or to refer to [trackback].  Mailing lists were percieved as individual posts in  ‘public space’.  Wikis work because they are at the other extereme altogether from weblogs, namely they are communally written spaces.  Individuals are, on the whole, not ‘there’; authorship is anonymous.

There are many tools that could be adapted once we consider designing for the group rather than the individual.  More democratic tools may help, such as rating systems, yet clear boundaries and statements of acceptable behavious are also key, again perhaps articulated by the group as it develops. 

What seems clear is that you need to develop flexible social software for groups.   It strikes me that while there are many diffrent groups around interest groups [e.g. art; karate; salsa dancing; cycling], temporal/ephemeral groups [e.g. meetings; holidays romances etc], geographical groups [e.g. neighbourhood watch], groups around identity such as race, gender, sexuality [e.g. women’s institute] – others? –  we could learn a lot about developing social software tools by understanding the dynamics of different types of  groups.  What are their drivers? What group psychology is there and how does it develop in different contexts?