Archive for the ‘Community’ Category

To Bundle, or not To Bundle, that is the Question

October 21, 2010

I just got an unusually formal email from Google, saying that Google Groups is dropping a lot of functionality.  Specifically, they will no longer support customized welcome messages, pages or file storage for groups.  Essentially, they are going to stop pretending that they are competing with Yahoo Groups, in favor of trying to do a better job on mailing lists and forums.

They are quite clear, however, that you can still have group files and pages — it’s just that you should do files through Google Docs, and pages through Google Sites.

On the one hand, this actually makes a good deal of sense.  One of Google’s big problems is that they have lots of systems that are overlapping, or often completely redundant.  Having two separate file-management systems is a bit silly, so refactoring and merging them makes sense.

That said, I worry that they’re missing a key aspect of group identity.  Saying, “You can upload a file, and make it accessible only to a group” is not the same thing as saying, “You can upload a file within your group”.  The functionality may be the same, but the perceived user experience is very, very different.  Context matters, especially when you’re mucking with communities.

And frankly, I find myself disappointed that they claim to be focusing on mailing lists and forums, because that’s not the interesting problem.  I would far rather that they focus on community and identity, which are really the interesting problems that have not yet been well-solved.  Forums are a good use case for those, and it’s possible that they’ll do a lot of good along the way, but I would much rather get a really great, shareable and repurposeable group-management system than just another mailing-list operator.

So we’ll see.  What do you think?  Does this change sound good, bad or indifferent?  Is Google going in the right direction, or are they missing the boat?

The Rise of the Un-Person

February 23, 2009

On Friday, AllFacebook reported about current moves to kick convicted sex offenders off of social networks.  On the one hand, I understand the motivation behind this — people are terribly worried about online predation.  On the other hand, I’m increasingly disturbed by this trend.

As with most such, the beginning of the legal story was innocuous, or at least fairly sensible, with moves such as keeping convicted offenders away from schools.  This seems pretty rational on the surface, at least when well-applied, keeping them away from temptation and the danger away from kids.

But over time, the idea has expanded, and gradually become, if not always irrational, at least a lot less consistently grounded.  Some laws are requiring offenders to register publicly, so that parents can know about them.  Still justifiable, but shakier ground: everybody has to live somewhere, after all, and most places are somewhere near children, so the fact that they happen to be in the same neighborhood isn’t an indication of malign intent.  And it opens up a lot of likelihood of harassment of people who aren’t doing anything wrong.

(There are lots of other arguments as well, not least that the definition of “sex offender” is now very broad, covering everything from really scary predators to people who are just guilty of a dumb teenage mistake.  Not to mention the whole question of how we should treat someone who has genuinely reformed.  It’s thorny stuff.)

These new moves into the online space expand the argument even further.  It seems innocuous if you think of Facebook as simply a kids’ hangout where nothing important happens — on that logic, the risk is high and the cost in freedom low.  But that is, at best, a misinformed short-term view.

There seems to be little question that the online sphere matters more every year — indeed, almost every day at the moment.  Facebook is no longer just for kids: it and other social networks are increasingly crucial for everything from finding a job to staying in touch with your social circle.  On current trends, within ten years it’s going to be getting hard to have a life in this country without some social networking.

Which raises the question: what justifies cutting someone out of those networks?  Currently, it’s done casually, indeed sometimes frivolously by the network providers like Facebook.  But as these networks become ever-more important public utilities — as they become public space, as much so as the park you might go for a stroll in — it becomes a much more serious punishment, and one that can’t be applied arbitrarily.

Or to look at it another way: at what point does cutting someone out of the social web turn them into an Un-Person, whose life is more restricted than any released felon’s has been in the past hundred years?  We’re not there yet, but I can see that day coming.  And I believe we’re going to need to come to grips with the question soon…

Tightly vs. Loosely Knit Networks; or, The Echo Chamber

February 19, 2009

As I’ve observed before, the social network of Facebook tends to be a bit different from that of LiveJournal — the norm is to accept many more friend invitations.

The result is a more loosely-knit social network.  Whereas in LJ it is very common to have a pretty tight-knit network, largely composed of people who you know rather well, Facebook is leading towards friending a lot of people who you only know slightly.

I complain about that a bit, especially in asking the question, “Do I really care about these people?”  But I’m finding one real benefit to it: it has less of an echo-chamber effect than LiveJournal does.

The thing is, a closely-knit group tends towards a bit of groupthink.  That isn’t to say that everyone has exactly the same opinions or ideas, but the group itself, as a tight community, develops its own strictures.  Certain ideas predominate; those to the contrary tend to be a little quieter.  This can lead to an unhealthy belief that everybody, by and large, agrees with you.  (Locally, I often refer to the “Massachusetts Reality Warp” — many people locally really don’t understand how different this state is from the average.)

Facebook, I am finding, can be refreshingly different.  Granted, it tends to have less deep thought and opinion expressed than LJ — but when it does, it’s a fine opportunity to look outside one’s social shell.  No, you may not have seen this person since high school — but that means that they live outside your local echo chamber.  Engaging them in conversation can therefore be a much more productive chance to learn and teach, since you’re not preaching to the choir as much as you might be doing in a tighter-knit community.

Are your Facebook communities largely the same as your LJ ones, or are you widening your circle?  Have you found opportunities there to broaden your horizons?

The danger of implicit “conversation”

February 18, 2009

Today’s news headline (well, if you look past Facebook’s reverse-course on its Terms of Service) is that Tumblr has an anonymity problem.  It’s not surprising, but it serves as yet another reminder of how dangerous anonymity can be in fostering abuse.  Moreover, it illustrates the way that the new model of deriving “conversation” automatically may be kind of broken.

(Disclosure: I don’t know Tumblr very well.  I’m only picking on them because the news article is illustrating a general point that I’ve been thinking about lately.)

Tumblr, like so many new-fangled systems, kind of tries to do an end-run around traditional conversation.  It links together things that seem to be related, and treats them as a kind of meta-conversation.  This basically treats conversation as an emergent property of postings.

The problem is that the conversations fostered here lack many of the tools that good conversations require.  In particular, by deriving the conversation implicitly, they are also deriving the community implicitly.

That doesn’t really work, because community is more than a one-way operation.  You aren’t part of my community simply because you want to be: you are part of it if I say you are.  Tumblr, and tools like it, miss the crucial distinction.

Any moderately mature conversation system deals with this, by providing very explicit tools for managing your community — the ability to ban a specific person from commenting is the most elementary and critical feature such a system can have.  (No, CommYou doesn’t have it yet.  This is one of the reasons it’s still only in alpha: I consider the feature necessary before it goes to beta.)

It remains to be seen whether the implicit-conversation systems can get this right.  I suspect that, in order to do so, they’ll have to sacrifice some of their beautiful “it just works” emergent properties, and start providing more explicit community-management capabilities like the rest of us.

What do you think the community capabilities of these implicit tools will wind up looking like?  Do you think that implicit-conversation tools are going to manage to scale up to the ugly real world of the Net, or will they (like so many social systems before them) get toppled by the harsh reality of abuse?

Filtering and Politeness

January 20, 2009

Another interesting conversation from Siderea got me thinking about the concept of “friending”, what it means and is going to mean, and the fact that filtering — currently a relatively exotic concept — is going to become crucial in the years to come.

One of Siderea’s points (more in the comments than the main post) is that, in this new social-networked world, the default is probably going to be making yourself “available” via social networks.  That is, a “normal” person will be expected to be on one or more of these networks, and moreover the social norm will be to accept friend invitations from — well, practically anybody you know in real life.  Not accepting such an invitation will be considered a bit rude.

On the one hand, I definitely see where she’s coming from: I can see this particular trend of ubiquitous friending starting up already.  It’s common to friend people you haven’t seen in twenty years, and with whom you share little in common.  And I think she’s right that, for many people, refusing a friend invitation is perceived as a deliberate rebuff.  Certainly we’ve all seen the occasional drama that ensues when someone is unfriended.

That said, I can’t imagine that this is going to continue without changes.  It just plain doesn’t work.  The reality is that, while I may not want to offend these people by refusing the invitation, I really don’t care about them very much.  I don’t mind them being around in some loose sense and paying attention to me, but I’m not going to spend attention on them and I’m not going to share my most intimate thoughts with them.

So it seems like a middle ground is needed, and that middle ground is probably filtering: putting your “friends” into different buckets.  For the LiveJournal users in the crowd, this is totally unsurprising — LJ has supported filtering for years, both in the form of custom friend groups and simply in the asymmetrical nature of the thing.  (That is, the first level of filtering is, “Sure, you can read me but I’m not going to bother reading you.”  This is quite different from Facebook, where friending is always symmetrical.)

In practice, I already do filtering via custom friend groups.  In particular, I almost never unfriend someone, due to the drama potential.  But I only have time to really follow about half of my friends on a regular basis.  So I have a filter — a custom friend group — that I actually read all the time.  When I decide I don’t care quite as much about someone, they get transferred out of this filter.  They are never slapped in the face with it, so it allows me to preserve the social niceties, but it allows me to focus my precious time and attention on the people who matter most to me.

Other services are starting to catch on, but it’s slow.  Facebook now has a concept of custom friend lists, but it’s new and support is still spotty.  Twitter lacks any such concept, but it’s notable that some of the new Twitter clients have as a major selling point the ability to layer a weak form of filtering on top of it.  I suspect that, in the long run, all social networking tools are going to have to provide filters, often rather strong filters, in order to be usable in a world where people gradually wind up with a thousand people on their “friends” list.

How much filtering do you currently do?  Do you treat your friends list as really just friends, or do you let mere acquaintances on?  Do you really read everyone you friend?  Do you manage your services differently?  (Certainly I treat LiveJournal and Facebook very differently, since I’ve found them to have different social conventions.)  Where do you see this as all going?  We’re in the middle of some big changes in how we manage our social environment, and it’s fascinating to speculate about where that’ll end up…