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Social Media: Culture = f(UI) December 19, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in culture, facebook, game mechanics, interaction, Internet, myspace, social media, social networks, UI, web 2.0.
5 comments

Lightspeed hosted a summit for portfolio companies and friends of the firm in the fall, focused on consumer internet user acquisition. One of the panels was about building community on a social media site, and on that panel Angelo Sotira (CEO and founder of deviantART) noted that for social media sites, culture is a function of UI. (deviantART is the leading community for artists and their fans on the web, and is an Alexa top 100 site. [Disclosure: my wife did some consulting for deviantArt.])

I was reminded strongly of this when reading Judith Donath‘s paper on Signals in Social Supernets that was published in the special theme issue of JCMC on social network sites guest edited by dana boyd and Nicole Ellison:

Variation in the design of SNSs promotes the development of different cultures (Donath & boyd, 2004; Lampe, Ellison, & Steinfield, 2007; Lenhart & Madden, 2007b). On a site where creating a link involves little cost, users may amass thousands of “friends,” but an observer has no way of knowing which, if any, of these links represent a relationship between people who care about or even know each other (boyd, 2006; Fono & Raynes-Goldie, 2007). On Orkut, for instance, one simply clicks on a profile to request a connection, and being connected provides no special access or information.

On sites with higher costs for creating a link, the observer has reason to believe that the links represent genuine relationships. Members of aSmallWorld are careful to request connections only with others whom they are sure wish to be linked to them, since they can be banished for having a few link requests declined (Price, 2006). On LiveJournal, making the link is easy: It is one of the few sites in which this can be done unilaterally. However, linking is generally done to give someone access to part of one’s journal, and linked members’ posts appear on one’s own space. This makes “friend” a relatively significant signal, as friending someone both reduces one’s privacy and publicly connects one with that person’s writing (Fono & Raynes-Goldie, 2007).

The meaning of these links is also personally subjective. For some people, listing someone as a “friend” on a social network site is an indication of personal and positive acquaintance. Others are far more casual, willing to add friends indiscriminately (boyd, 2006). This has ramifications for the reliability of the profile itself. Viewers may trust the self-created content of a profile if they believe that its links are to people who know that user well, while links that they believe have only minimal connection add little credence.

SNSs are designed for different audiences. LinkedIn is for professionals. It has no photographs, the profiles are resumés of education and work, and the comments are in the form of testimonials from co-workers. Identity is firmly tied to one’s professional self, and there is limited ability to explore other people’s networks. MySpace, popular with young people, has a very different atmosphere. Its profiles feature photographs, music, and embedded programs, and users can explore the network far beyond their own acquaintances (although they can choose to make their profile visible only to direct connections). This open interface makes it a rich environment for the jokes, links, and software that function as information fashions (discussed below).

Identity in MySpace is fluid. Some profiles are real people, presenting themselves much as they would offline. Some are commercial entities, such as bands, charitable organizations, or celebrities; still others are fictional personas, made for creative experimentation or as fronts for spam. No single design is ideal for all sites. What is important is that designers be fluent in not only the fonts and colors that make up the graphical design of the site, but in the social costs and benefits that shape its emerging culture.

Once a culture takes hold on a site, it is very hard to change. People building social media sites should be careful to think through the implications of their UI (including such mechanics as keeping score and exposing popularity) as their choices will likely have long term implications that can’t be easily reversed by a subsequent tweak to UI.

I’d love to hear other examples of sites where the dominant culture is a function of UI.

UPDATE: Bokardo has a good related post on how changes to Digg’s UI changed its culture

Improving copy; an easy way to increase user interaction August 5, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in Consumer internet, copy, interaction, Internet, usability, viral, viral marketing, web 2.0.
5 comments

Wired’s August edition has a good article about how newspapers are putting their readers to work which is worth reading. But one section that jumped out at me has broader applicability:

A GetPublished! button features prominently on many Enquirer Web pages, and the submissions land in Parker’s queue. They almost never resemble anything commonly considered journalism.

“It used to read, ‘Be a Citizen Journalist,'” Parker says. “And no one ever clicked on it. Then we called it ‘Neighbor to Neighbor,’ and still nothing. For some reason, ‘Get Published’ was the magic phrase.”

Changing copy can make a huge difference in your level of user interaction.

Direct marketers have known about the importance of good copy for years. Good email marketers constantly test and refine subject lines to improve open rates. Many best practices in email marketing subject lines have evolved that are often directly applicable to other areas. The same is true of the best lead generation businesses who are constantly tweaking their landing page copy and form-fill flow to maximize the completion rate.

Copy can improve interaction rates in media businesses as well as these more transactional examples. Another example is in social media optimization (an element of search engine optimization). For example, this list of the top 101 advertising headlines ever written (top 10 excerpted here):

1. They laughed when I sat down at the piano – but when I started to play!
2. They grinned when the waiter spoke to me in French – but their laughter changed to amazement
at my reply.
3. Do you make these mistakes in English?
4. Can You Spot These 10 Decorating Sins?
5. How a “fool stunt” made me a star salesman
6. How a strange accident saved me from baldness
7. Who else wants a screen star figure?
8. Who else wants a lighter cake – in half the mixing time?
9. Free to brides – $2 to others
10. Free to high school teachers – $6 to others

may seem dated, but many of them follow the same rules for headlines that help your article get Dugg today.

Email virality and other forms of viral marketing can also often be tuned and improved through better copy. When dealing with email invitations from friends, more social messages may be more effective than the hard-sell/call-to-action type copy of the examples linked to above. For example, Flixster (a Lightspeed portfolio company) asks in the email subject:

Do we like the same movies?

while Tagged‘s subject line is

[Friend] has Tagged you 🙂

In both cases the actual copy is important, but more important is the fact that the companies constantly A:B test their copy to optimize and improve their conversion rates.

The takeaway here is that, although technology startups full of top notch engineers often look to improving the product to improve user interaction rates, sometimes something as simple as a change in words can have much the same result.

I’d like to hear from readers of examples of how small changes in copy improved their user interaction rates. [Note the call to action!]