Social Isn’t Dead

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Social Isn't Dead

It’s interesting to bring up the “term” social in the context of the tech scene these days. While “social” was once all the rage, many of my peers now consider it “uncool,” overused, or even maybe dead. One of the silver linings of Facebook’s less than amazing IPO is the decrease of the overuse of the term “social”. I think that social, however, will still be considered a very important and necessary feature with future tech products. If you are truly know whats up, I think you will know that social is the furthest from dead.

If I were to remove myself from all trending tech terms and all knowledge of current social products, I would defer to Wikipedia’s first two sentences: “The term social refers … to the interaction of organisms with other organisms and to their collective co-existence, irrespective of whether they are aware of it or not, and irrespective of whether the interaction is voluntary or involuntary.” – Wikipedia. I think this definition is a great description of what one should consider when unpacking the word in terms of products.

When I think of my normal social interactions, there is a huge spectrum of dynamic interactions. Social interactions range from intense to relax, in professional to personal environment, through well-known connections to strangers, with both private and public ideas, and through numerous other criteria. Thinking and charting human social actions creates a multifaceted dimensional matrix that becomes incredibly difficult to recreate in any product or service. Luckily for non-tech human to human social interactions, us humans can perceive our current geographic location and understand the context of our situation, which allows us to consciously decide what face we want to present or what information we want to communicate.

The beauty and the curse of any social interaction within tech products is that geographic and contextual restrictions do not apply. If someone is online shopping for a new pair of shoes, they can theoretically ask for opinions from their fashionable friend separated by several thousand miles of water. The first challenge is that social must recreate what a normal human being expects from that specific scenario. The second challenge is improving on that scenario and providing something that would not be possible without technology.

Because tech social scenarios don’t exactly reflect non tech social situations, any social features can be shrouded esoterically. Good product design should offer the ability for people to do whatever social functions that they may want to do, whether or not they know they would want to do it beforehand, WITHOUT violating the users’ trust and privacy. Social in products should help stimulate and encourage natural actions, but at a better stage, should encourage people to do beyond what they would normally do in human to human interaction.

Another beauty and curse of social online is that users have the ability to be the invisible man or a chameleon. Kietzmann’s analysis of tech products [1] breaks all social elements into seven components: identity, conversations, sharing, presence, relationships, reputation, and groups. According to his research, effective social products focus on specific elements within his “honeycomb” of social media interactions.

In my eyes, successful social products do not need to recreate all the Kietzmann’s elements that popular companies do in order to best utilize social features. As Ketizmann says, “However, this does not suggest that firms should insist on profiles that are complete or accurate. In fact, in an effort to protect their privacy, people tie different identities to the context of the different social media platforms they use (e.g., hobbies and pictures on Facebook might be different from those on LinkedIn). In some cases, though, identities remain anonymous. [1]

Setting aside Facebook for the time being, I’d like to focus more attention on tech products where social as a more of a complimentary, while at times still absolutely crucial, feature. For example, when I share something on Google reader, I am utilizing a relatively simple social feature. When I read something interesting, I frequently email it several buddies, and proceed to have an email discussion across it. The core product of Google Reader is delivering content to readers. Anything social adds additional bonus points that can enhance the experience. I can share interesting items, ask questions from peers, or simply discuss thoughts. In this scenario, my identity remains through email, which is easier for me because I only want to share and converse this topic with a predetermined group that I already have a strong relationship and reputation with. Google Reader users may benefit through an integrated social feature, and this is something that Google+ has repetitively tried to tackle. Unfortunately, the lack of G+ adoption has been a hindering factor, which may be a result of what I believe is a limit on the number of online identities that people want to create and maintain. Another factor of resistance may be the memory of Google Buzz – Google’s old attempt at a similar Twitter product – that accidentally led multiple levels of over-sharing.

It’s much simpler to create a social feature when people have established identities and the users themselves choose what to share, and with whom. GChat has an identity that is tied, again, to email, and all Gmail users personally decide whom they will Gchat. Zynga is very much tied to Facebook, just as is commenting on a number of Facebook integrated blogs and news sites.

How social features should be implemented beyond this starts to break down drastically. As Granovetter studied [2], there are many, many benefits that occur for people once they start socializing beyond their close ties and start sharing and interacting with weak ties. The most famous example is how finding new jobs and career changes tend to most commonly occur between weak ties. I’m super glad that companies like Google and Bing are continually trying to innovate and expand on this. I just don’t know how exactly it is going to exactly work.

I heard a Bing social commercial the other day that advertised the benefits of social search. If I remember correctly, their example was someone who looked up kite surfing, connected with a friend who is a frequent kite surfer, and ended up saving money and having an awesome friend outing. That sounds awesome. What sounds less awesome is something like this.

E-commerce websites still have tremendous room for social improvement. Barring reviews, which are fantastic, there is still areas for improvement with sharing and asking for peer recommendations. I know many shoppers who would value the opinions of certain friends about specific items, such as a good book or snack recommendation, but would obviously not want to email and ask 50 friends. On the flip side, e-commerce sites obviously can’t blatantly publicize purchase history with the hope that one out of many acquaintances of friends will give feedback.

I don’t know what social feature will solve the above problems, but I look forward to seeing companies create some awesome solutions.

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