Yesterday, I attended a seminar on Social Media (arranged by University of Tampere but held in Helsinki).
I went there to listen to Herkko Hietanen launch a book Community Created Content (PDF, Amazon) written by him and the other Turre Legal guys. But this isn’t about the book.
There was another presentation by Katri Lietsala, a social media researcher from the Hypermedia laboratory of University of Tampere. She had a slide with the names of the usual suspects: Wikipedia, Flickr, YouTube, del.icio.us, MySpace, Digg, etc.
I observed that there is some overlap in the services provided by different sites but there are also significant differences in the public image of different sites. I asked if they had researched the image formation of social media sites. They hadn’t.
I don’t have answers, but here are some thoughts about the question.
Digg allows you to share links with others. So does del.icio.us. MySpace has social networking features and allows you to post photos of yourself. Flickr is for posting your photos and also has social networking features. Yet, these services are drastically different in terms of public image and associated impressions. Is this something that emerges accidentally or is it something you knowingly design for? Should creators of new services learn something?
Let’s look at the authors whose writing is aggregated at Planet Intertwingly. Many of the Planet Intertwingly authors share interesting URLs using del.icio.us. Not only do they use it, but they would be capable of writing their own link roll software and still choose to use del.icio.us. Clearly, using del.icio.us does not make you look uncool in this group. Digg, on the other hand, is not viewed favorably. In fact, it is viewed unfavorably enough to make an effort to block traffic from there!
The Planet Intertwingly authors tend to maintain control over their online presence by publishing at their own domains. Many even have written their own blogging software. These are not the kind of people who would outsource their online presence and URI space to MySpace. MySpace is where teenage girls post photos of themselves and leave the destiny of their URI space to Rupert Murdoch. However, the Planet Intertwingly kind of crowd is quite OK with outsourcing their photo management to Flickr giving up control of their photo URIs to Yahoo!. It is taken for granted that photos from serious technology events show up on Flickr. The tech cool of Flickr doesn’t seem to get tainted even though there are many users who are effectively using Flickr as a MySpace for 20-somethings and 30-somethings.
Is this all accidental or successful intentional targeting? Do Flickr and del.icio.us have something common in their design that Digg and MySpace don’t have? Should developers of new services design for particular outcomes or just see what happens?
Here are some things that come to mind:
del.icio.us and Flickr have a Google-ish no-nonsense graphic design in contrast to MySpace.
Flickr does not allow user to modify the graphic design. Many people who want mods have bad taste as witnessed on MySpace.
del.icio.us and Flickr have APIs that make developer types feel comfortable.
del.icio.us and Flickr solve problems that developer types could solve themselves but del.icio.us and Flickr do it so much better that rolling your own solution is not worth it. On the other hand, MySpace is an awful Web host for people who know how stuff should be done.
del.icio.us and Flickr are presented as tools for managing your own stuff (bookmarks, photos) so that they get shared with others. Digg and MySpace are overtly about trolling for attention.
In the seminar, a screenshot of Videoni.fi—a Finnish YouTube-wannabe copycat service—got the most laughs. This was due to the tag cloud being dominated by things like “woman”, “boobs”, “music video”, “cat” and “dog”. It appears that Flickr tries hard to avoid a low-brow “boobies!” reputation by manipulating “interestingness” and manually marking individual photos or users as inappropriate to suppress skin photos from public site areas even though the tag clouds elsewhere suggest that people would find those “interesting”. (Cat and dog photos are okay, though.) MySpace is obviously an exhibitionism platform by design and the main concern in limiting it is keeping worried parents and legislators at bay.
This is more effect than cause, but Flickr’s partners include Nokia—a company wanting to sell gadgets costing hundreds of dollars/euros to people who are old enough to buy them—whereas MySpace attracts the attention of the kind of old media companies who previously used MTV to manipulate teens into buying stuff.
I have a feeling that I may be missing something profound that is obvious once someone says it.