Social by design
The sell-out event, Beers & Innovation 6: Social by Design, took place on 14 November 2006. Large numbers gathered to discuss social software design, development and innovation and, of course, to drink beer. Elena Egawhary reports
The sell-out event, Beers & Innovation 6: Social by Design, took place in the rather stylish Albannach bar in Trafalgar Square on 14 November 2006. Large numbers gathered to discuss social software design, development and innovation and, of course, to drink beer. Head of the editorial department at Guardian Unlimited, Neil McIntosh, chaired the discussion managing to maintain the flow of conversation between NMK's three expert speakers and their audience. Elena Egawhary reports.
Context is king
AOL Europe's Meg Pickard kicked-off the evening speaking of the many ways that social media "give the web a human touch." Touching briefly on the idea of "social by stealth" networks (Last.fm, Pandora), Meg went on to describe the current shift from identity-based to topic-based social networks as a shift in importance from content to context. Identity-based social networks (Friendster, MySpace) were said to focus on personality, whereas for topic-based social networks (Flickr, YouTube) the topic is the most important element, providing a context for socialising. She also noted the potential for hybrids of the two models to emerge and function successfully.
Continuing the theme, Tim Morgan of Mint Digital, discussed their brainchild, Islandoo.com, a social network that falls fairly comfortably into Meg's hybrid category. Devised initially as a casting resource for Channel 4 reality show Shipwrecked, Islandoo has amassed, in the space of 10 weeks, over 21,000 regular users, all competing for the privilege of being reality TV stars. Tim discussed how the Islandoo community (described as a creative, alpha-type bunch) seems to regulate itself with users who attempt to cheat the system being considered 'uncool.' He described how the community functions off-line, with Islandoo parties taking place, users going on holiday and even falling in love. Tim's message was: "If you provide the right motivation, then the community itself will take the lead and set its own destiny."
Users are individuals
Philip Wilkinson, co-founder of Crowdstorm, noted the large amount of social software available and argued that the difficulty of attracting and keeping users' attention should be addressed. Suggesting a variety of ways to tackle this problem, he said that social networks should not try to change user behaviour, users should be allowed to browse and not forced to interact. He emphasised the importance of good usability prior to getting users' attention as well as stressing the necessity of standing-out and balancing speed with quality. Philip's final recommendation was never to forget that all users are important and that they should all be liked individually.
Following these pearls of wisdom a lively discussion ensued.
3D sites such as Second Life were discussed, with Tom Coates of Yahoo! arguing that, despite some initial doubts, he now thinks they could be the next generation of social networking online. This enthusiastic endorsement was somewhat tempered by the observation that Second Life requires people to be physically present at the same time if they wish to communicate. Although not a problem for IBM, which apparently holds virtual meetings on Second Life, it was said to restrict the average user's ability to socialise.
Rob McKinnon of London Ruby User Group raised the issue of the potential for social media to facilitate political or social change in the future. A number of sites currently facilitating social movements were mentioned such as superchannel.org and South African site Positive Connection, an online dating service for people with HIV or Aids. This was an issue that exercised many minds throughout the evening and perhaps did not get as full an airing as some had hoped. Rob has elaborated on this discussion in his blog.
Good socially bad graphically
George Nimeh initiated a debate surrounding the importance of design in social media environments citing MySpace as a classic example of a poorly designed yet successful social networking site. Tom Coates replied that design in this context referred to a site's usability rather than its artistic visual aspect. Both have continued this discussion online.
Brands: don't try to own the conversation
The final topic discussed was the use of social networks as a form of marketing by brands. Focussing on the idea that such networks treat a community as a disposable commodity, it was argued that this discouraged customer loyalty, as users get very little return on the time they invest: once the marketing campaign is over, the site is usually shut down.
This linked to an earlier question about what would happen to the Islandoo community, once casting was complete and Shipwrecked went on air. Tim Morgan replied that a decision had not yet been made, but that the community was keen for the site to be maintained. Tim didn't see a problem with social networks being used by brands, arguing that marketing campaigns do not set-up a community, rather the community must want to contribute. Therefore if people enjoy using the site, then they are getting a return on their investment.
Meg Pickard viewed this problem differently stating that brands should create value for their users by engaging with them without trying to "own the conversation."
If the discussions on the evening and subsequently on various blogs are anything to go by, it would seem that Beers and Innovation 6: Social by Design certainly stimulated a number of exciting and engaging debates which are still ongoing.
To see what's still 'brewing' visit:
About the author
Elena Egawhary is a journalist and writer.