What social platforms get wrong about relationships

Lately, I’ve been confounded by a desire to tweet about music. Because it’s not 2008, I decided to start spending more time with Cymbal.

Since the demise of Rdio (RIP), there hasn’t been a great place online besides forums and random slack channels to talk about music. The problem with most of these existing places are the difficulties involved in joining conversations, memes, and the cultural mores of networks that you join too late. Twitter is a lot like this, but it’s a wide enough that can sort of ride your bike along the highway while everyone talks.

I’ve written a lot about lukewarm social networks over the past few years, because they have a lot to show us about experimentation, social design & cultivating community.

Cymbal is a social network where you can post songs and talk about them with other people. It’s relatively straightforward. Rather than breakdown the app (you can download it yourself)

The death of news feeds is overrated. I can understand the ill-effects of having a ton of information to consume and how easy it is to lose people when someone overposts. Cultural mores related to overposting, coupled with the addition of tools like muting and hiding give consumers a way to control feeds better.

Fire hydrants are better for discovery. Much like social recommendations are bad for hiring purposes (and yet, companies insist on using them) they’re also bad for diversifying your user base. The reason? Friend patterns often reflect people’s broader friendship interactions. I call this the wedding party test. Look at the wedding parties of people’s photos on Facebook and you can get a sense of how not-diverse most people’s social circles really are. I’ve stopped being surprised by it, but this anecdotal theory points to the reason so many niche networks borne around a broad topic need a way for people to engage, connect and find out what people are talking about whenever they’re interested.

Apps that punish users who want to spend too much time on the app are killing off potential active users because they don’t have enough friends to coax into using the new platform.

Having experimented with dozens of new networks over the years, I’ve gone from shouting to the rooftops to convince friends to participate, to simply existing on them and being surprised when I run into people I know elsewhere. It’s nice to be able to connect my Twitter friends — the ones who aren’t real-life friends — on a network where we can talk about a specific thing or where you get the opportunity to engage with a third-degree connection on a more personal level besides knowing each other through someone else.

These sorts of connections are harder to cultivate in an always-on, notification crazy social landscape.

1. Not more people. More ordinary people.

Right now, new networks coax influencers in the hopes of generating buzz and legitimacy. While they’re adding new features fairly often, the challenges of crafting a new network means speeding up the reasons to make people come back. Without connections to interesting people who actually engage regularly at the content we share, you’re simply not going to have reasons to keep posting on a network with largely redundant features of other networks.

Influencers & brands alone won’t generate the sort of buzz you want.

2. Your own network isn’t enough

I like my existing friends there isn’t enough compelling content to make those sole connections the reason you keep showing up. Unless you live in a hip area where you can convince enough friends to use the tool. Your future app won’t work appealing to the 1% of your area, when it’s meant to be a network. You need people to discover each other around common interests that might be harder to find on mature networks like Tumblr or Twitter.

3. Deciding what you want your network to be when it ‘grows up’

The challenge of a product’s growth from plaything to maturity involves design decisions centered around who you’re trying to reach. You can’t appeal to everybody, even though it sometimes feels that way. Some of the best tools are in the graveyard of deadpool, regardless of how beloved they might have been by a subset of users. (RIP Rdio)

These are limited use cases by one person with a relatively constrained network. I think the best use cases for a new network are giving people who aren’t being heard an opportunity to share with others in a relatively unfettered environment without a ton of noise. Central to this premise is the need for better discovery.

Modern social platforms are overly designed compared to their Web 1.0 predecessors. The best communities in real life and online, work together organically. Self-policing can help, but it requires a kind of moderation that comes from good cultivation early and constantly reevaluating the mores of what the community will deem in-bounds or out-of-bounds.

At their best, networks give us unparalleled ability to reach and connect with a diverse array of people, but where they fail is providing users with the rapid ability to craft the community that might have been displaced on a larger (or dead) network. Therein lies the opportunity space for successful communities that thrive and benefit their hosts.

What It Feels Like (Right Now)

Whack-A-Mole Game

I was talking to a friend at lunch today and lamenting how I still hadn’t written anything about Charlottesville, and the general tension that many Americans are feeling right now. Part of my desire to say very little in writing, was related more to feeling like the nuance necessary wasn’t possible via Twitter or perhaps without knowing where I’m coming from.

A tweet from a friend wondering aloud why so many people felt emboldened to share their political beliefs on social media during this time, is what convinced me to speak up. For days, I’ve come close to writing posts talking about growing up in a de facto segregated school district; being born and raised city that was affected (and still is) by the divestment of cities in the 1960s and 70s.

Part of my voracious appetite for American Studies relies on a need to contextualize how things got to this point. For me, the journey began with simple questions about migration, and trying to understand stories that didn’t get explained in depth during my school years.

The best way I can think to explain how I feel is something like this. America has always felt to me, much like a game of Whack-A-Mole. You just can’t be sure who is going to see you as an actual person, versus some kind of caricature, idea or something else entirely. The exhaustion of having to consistently justify your right to exist in certain spaces surely adds to the complexities of whatever thing I’m attempting.

Even with those constraints, I’ve (mostly) not allowed myself to be impeded by whatever barriers other people impose. I can deal with the present and future, knowing that incremental progress happens and perhaps, future generations will deal with these issues less than I’ve had to, much like I deal with totally different challenges than my forebears. Nonetheless, had I realized sooner that I needed to be more realistic about my options in the face of an industry that would not always see me as the ideal they sought, would have saved me a lot of grief.

I just wonder when will enough? At what point do we concede what’s happened in this country and accept that people deserve a fair opportunity to participate fully in our communities? I

A few weeks ago, I gave a talk in Vancouver at a design conference. One of the things I did, was admonish the attendees to go home and start asking better questions, to figure out what our ethical boundaries are and no longer spend our times creating systems that harm simply because someone else told us to do it. What does that mean? There are thousands of policies, projects and systems that get designed by regular people everyday based on faulty research, incomplete understanding of audiences, and aren’t always designed for the people forced to use them.

For every public utility company that charges people extra to pay on the phone versus on the internet, every city website that doesn’t work for ordinary people, and watching people fumble with UIs that weren’t designed for the wild, means that we’re costing people time and money. In private scenarios, not much can be done, but when we’re dealing directly with the public, there’s a responsibility for someone to ask the question — why? — and to track down a solution.

My frustrations aren’t about politics. It’s about policy. Politicians come and go, policies outlive them. I have no illusions that even successfully fixing policy will end the negativity we’ve seen from top to bottom, but it’ll enable a lot more people to get a fairer shake out of life.

What will we leave behind?

If you’ve been following me lately, you know I’ve been on this renaissance of playing skeeball, a bowling-inspired game that’s been around since the early 20th century.

Reading publications from 1909, you get a sense of the way the world thought of itself. We’re not great at seeing far in front of ourselves as humans, we only see what’s in our view. Maybe this is the reason we’re so bad at long-term planning and why future generations are consigned to look back on the past and ask, “what were they thinking when they did this?”

At design & content conference two weeks ago in Vancouver, I challenged the audience to ask themselves what the future would look like for each of us. Not just in our everyday lives, but through the work that we do each day to encourage, enliven and empower others through mission-driven work that doesn’t just pay lip service to the ideals and tenets of positivity, but through demonstrating real, actionable change.

After my talk, someone asked me “what am I supposed to do? I think about this stuff sometimes and I get overwhelmed.” I replied, “when you go home, find some organization that might be able to use your help, tell them what you can do and ask if there’s something they need.” 

By bringing these ideas to light, I’m not implying that I’m somehow above the problem. I’m right here in the muck with everyone else. I’m only trying to highlight what I’m seeing as I move about the world, because it’s clear that not enough people are saying the things that many of us are thinking.

What to do next

I’ve been contemplating my own direction lately. I am very interested in the work at the intersection of where design, policy & code meet. It’s clear in a variety of ways that not enough people understand the underpinnings of what goes into designing the tools of the future. Not enough people are thinking about broader communities and how all people are impacted when we design for the ideal few.

I’ve been thinking about the design of things for a while. But not just the form factor, the actual ways that we build systems. Reading the history and how dark patterns are part of our everyday structures means that we’re all complicit. How do we solve for this? We have to arm ourselves with the knowledge that things are wrong, they’re screwed up and that by not embedding that into the ways that we make things better means we fail.
Working on products is interesting, but focusing on the facets that go overlooked sounds more compelling. What would it look like for designers to work in underserved communities tackling large-scale challenges? Right now, we apply a lens that’s largely focused on business, economics, and growth-oriented thinking. These assumptions apply faulty logic, often ignore history and don’t consider the structural challenges that impede progress at all levels.
Stop burying the lede
For all of the mentoring I do, I’m not so great at communicating my experience. I can do it one-on-one, but because so many people have different things they find “impressive”, I find myself often having to recalibrate my message in dramatic ways to fit whatever needle I’m threading through.
Often, I’ve thought this issue is a consequence of living in a small Midwestern city rather than somewhere much larger where my relationships I’ve cultivated through speaking and the internet writ large would perhaps come into play. I realize you can’t do it all by yourself and I’m at the point where I’m kind of doing everything the hard way.
I’m retrofitting my bios and other websites over the coming weeks to do a better job of communicating my value, what my interests are, and what type of work I’d like to be doing. For instance, I know I don’t want to be a professional speaker. It’s cool if that’s your thing, but for me, I just find speaking incredibly draining. I speak at 5-7 events a year and that’s more than enough.
I enjoy hands on work. I care about the process and distilling big ideas to people whether they have a broad technical knowledge or (more likely) not. Government moves a bit too slowly for me long-term, so it’s clear I need to be in a space where innovation, creativity, and imagination are valued rather than stifled or buried.
This is really the start of a semi-public conversation about my own direction. I feel like a lot of people do a good job of telling you where they are, but not how they got there.
Maybe this will prove useful to someone.