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