I spent three days last week at the Web 2.0 Summit, mostly in the lobby of the Palace hotel. The lobby served as the crossroads for the conference; all attendees passed through there and many never seemed to leave it! It was a great venue to catch up with friends and industry contacts among the attendees and lobbyconners.
It struck me that the conference lobby was like a social network in three ways:
Public Communication as Performance
At Web 2.0, if you wanted to have a private conversation, you would leave the lobby and find some place more private. In a social network, if you wanted to have a private conversation you would send a private message. But if you were OK with others seeing your conversation, you would stay in the lobby, or post a public message on the Wall/Comments. The Performance aspect of communication is seen both online and offline.
In ordinary life, you communicate with far fewer people than you’d like to. You forget, you get busy, and you don’t reach out to people that you’d like to talk to more often. But in the lobby of a conference, you’re always accidentally running into people that you’d love to talk to but don’t usually see. This is one of the biggest benefits of conferences.
Similarly, social networks bring up opportunities to communicate with people that you may not have connected with in a while. Perhaps you see one of their comments posted on a friend’s MySpace page, or you get an update on them from the Facebook feed, and are prompted to ping them. I’ve been communicating more regularly with ex colleagues and extended family because of Facebook.
Over the course of two days at a conference you’ll see the same people a number of times. After you’ve talked, there is only so much you can say the next time, so your interactions tend to get lighter weight. You want to acknowledge each other but not necessarily get involved in a long conversation. So you smile, shake hands, clap shoulders, bump fists, wink, wave, or kiss cheeks (gender specific!) instead. It is the same rationale that leads you to text a friend instead of call.
Social networks provide similar lightweight opportunities for interaction. Facebook’s poke is the simplest example. Although Kara Swisher thinks that many Facebook apps are childish, I think they are providing an avenue for lightweight interactions between friends. Whether you’re buying someone a drink, biting them to turn them into a zombie, hugging, slapping or tickling them, the subtext of “I’m thinking of you” is there.
People building social media companies and other companies that require user interaction should bear these examples in mind. It is hard to create new mental models of behavior for users. As always, if there is an offline parallel for the online behavior you want from your users, you’re more likely to succeed. These three elements of social network behavior have clear offline parallels.