Friday, September 24, 2010

Social is an emergent property

Emergent property Yesterday Anne Marie Cunningham and I got into an interesting conversation about social bookmarking.

We have used different approaches to social bookmarking with students (Anne used diigo on a voluntary basis, I used delicious driven by assessment) but we both observed a similar outcome - lack of sustained uptake by students (and most colleagues, with a few notable exceptions who become hot converts). As part of this conversation, I suggested that the failure to be won over is related to the failure to move from isolated to social practice. Social behavior is an emergent property. The question is how can we encourage users to achieve this advance?

In my opinion, the failure to progress and persist is partly related to failure to build a suitable network and partly related to the architecture of the software involved. Network building occurs on Facebook because of explicit "Friend" suggestions, and it works on Twitter because conversations are transparent by virtue of the @reply and can be joined. These are two different architectures but both work for users who stick around longer than an initial cursory trial of the service. Clearly the runaway success of Twitter and Facebook tells us something. Services with good social architecture will thrive, while those with poor social architecture will eventually die. This is potentially bad news for fans of delicious, diigo (and CiteULike?).

Of course there more to it than that. Services also need to provide a needed function (which is clearly the case for bibliographic tools for researchers) even if this is not intuitive - who knew they needed Facebook? - but be simple to use and sufficiently transparent that users don't need to read a manual or go on a training course (I'm looking at you Mendeley).

So here is my thesis: In a free attention economy, Gresham's Law applies and bad money drives out good. Facebook and Twitter are inherently worse than diigo and delicious because they have poorer functionality, but they win because they promote network building. What you do about it is largely a political decision based on your own beliefs - try to impose a leftist command economy or settle for a pragmatic rightist free market. To my surprise, I have done the latter, which is why we have gone down the PLN road and why I have invested heavily in Facebook pages in recent months.