Archive for July, 2007

Stop Social Networking.

Social networking is the latest and greatest fad on the internet today. Facebook and MySpace continue to post ridiculously high page counts – in the billions per day – and somehow manage to keep nearly all of their users checking back at least once a week, many of them several times a day. It’s the perfect market for advertising, probably the largest source of revenue available in web 2.0, and the best way to keep people hooked on your site.

All of this popularity has lead to a slew of social networking applications. Revisionist approaches to blogging, whether it be twitter or tumblr, are trying to make it easier for people to tell each other what they’re doing. Web 2.0 IM clients – complete with mispelled names, beta users, invitations, and ground reflections – offer slight benefits over traditional instant messenging and it seems like nearly every RIA I’ve worked on during the last year has incorporated some sort of “share this <whatever> with your friends!” feature.

Some of this is good. I read a great review of Twitter lately, and while I’m still hesitant to believe it’s more valuable than setting an away message, I might believe it’s valuable. But at the same time, a lot of this is bad, and we’re losing site of some important application development values in pursuit of the latest trend.

I think there are two principles of good application development being lost in all this social networking buzz. The first is to avoid remaking the wheel – don’t expect users to accept an application that doesn’t do a significantly better job than the one they’re already using. Pownce invitations have been flitting around our office like the flu this week. By next week, we’ll have all gone back to using our combined instant messenger clients (whether Adium or Trillian), because all of our friends and clients are on Yahoo and AIM, and Pownce’s file sharing feature isn’t enough to keep us interested.

The second is not to clutter your application with features users aren’t going to use. Your application might be cool and really useful, but if it doesn’t specifically relate to groups of people and the way they interact, asking us to participate in an online community focused around your application seems silly. Imagine if Google Maps had a “share this map!” feature, and it required us to create a login and password and then spam 9 of our friends with the map we’d just found. No one would use it, and that’s why it’s not there. Google maps does a great job of providing users with maps and directions, and that’s all it needs to do. Users know how to cut and paste a URL to send email to their friends – we don’t need a “share this <whatever>” button.

Last year I worked on an online book reader application as part of a team contracted to Random House. During part of the design phase, someone suggested adding features to allow users to comment on the books they’d read. The comments would show up inside of the book highlighting sections of individual pages people had commented on. Users could come back often to see what other people had said about the book and see comments on their favorite pages. At the same time, we developed the application in such a way as to make it easy for users to embed a version of it on their own web-page. If you were interested in a book, you could paste two lines of HTML into your myspace page and have the application installed. The commenting feature didn’t make sense – no one wants to flip through a book to find the comments and users simply weren’t going to check back frequently enough to read them. Since it was so easy to embed the application on a blog or myspace page, users were much more likely to post their comments on the blog – the application that already addressed a user’s “commenting” needs. The commenting features were eventually dropped and the application we developed was very focused and very successful.

I feel like I’ve seen this story repeated on just about every application I’ve worked on since then with varying results – we have an application that does X, but since social networking is “hot” someone tries to twist the entire thing to have a social networking angle. I can quite literally divide the applications that succeeded in gaining user acceptance from those that didn’t along the “unnecessary social networking” line – those that succumbed have almost all failed.

There are of course times when social networking DOES make sense. A great example is the Discovery Cancer Collage which my company recently worked on. The application allows users to upload images and videos and text about their struggle with cancer, similar to the way the AIDs quilt works in the analog world. The application has a real need for social features and meets a need that more ‘traditional’ social networking applications can’t. It uses social features to provide real value, and doesn’t force social networking as some awkward side feature.

The bottom line is that Facebook and MySpace have 98% of a user’s social networking needs taken care of. If you aren’t providing something that falls in that remaining 2%, social networking shouldn’t be part of your application. Don’t let your application’s focus stray just because of the latest internet fad, or your user acceptance will certainly suffer.

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July 24, 2007 at 12:32 pm 3 comments


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