Isn’t it about time social networking got a bit more human?

I’ve started to write a weekly column, Online Anthropologist, for Smart Company. Here’s the latest…

Will introducing interactions that are more real-world help social networks increase engagement?

I’ve always, quietly, been a fan of social network Path. When it launched back in 2010 I wrote a post highlighting its features, whilst sitting squarely on the fence and making no predictions one way or another about its chances of success.

Since then, Path has gradually introduced more and more features, I’ve managed to persuade a few fellow nerds to join, and as a result I’ve found myself using it more and more.

Path became part of my personal experience of the fragmentation of social media. It’s the network I turn to when I don’t want to broadcast my life to anyone who wants to stalk me (twitter) or a bunch of people I didn’t like all that much back in primary school (Facebook).

Then in February of this year there was that well documented privacy issue, for which Path took the fall before it emerged that everyone else was at it too. Too late, the damage was done and Path copped the majority of the flack. Whether they have any chance of success after that debacle remains to be seen: they are, after all, still claiming ‘over 2 million users’ – the same figure they claimed back in February when the privacy story broke – and that’s hardly the hockey-stick growth figures that, say, Pinterest has been able to claim, or Instagram can boast.

But Path remains an innovator. The user interface was always one step ahead of the competition: a mobile-only environment, it takes the best of Facebook and photo-sharing platforms like Instagram and rolls them together. It’s super-intuitive to use, and super-slick to look at. Now, with Path 2.5, Path is starting to redefine the way we interact on the social web.

How so? Well, there are a couple of new features that are changing the game. There’s something that Path calls the ‘nudge’. Sound familiar? Sound a bit like Facebook’s slightly dodgy-sounding ‘Poke’? Well, it IS a bit like a Poke. But it’s better than a Poke, because where the Poke button is a kind of disembodied, vaguely sexual verb that both looks seedy on the page, and feels seedy to use, the nudge is altogether more sophisticated and grown-up. See, unlike the Poke’s school-boy dig in the ribs, it actually asks some pre-populated questions, prompting the recipient to take action. So you can ‘nudge’ your mate to ‘take a photo!’, or ask ‘where are you?’ or ‘what are you up to?’:

What’s so cool about that? Well, aside from giving users a way to get in touch with their friends without a) having to think of something to say or b) having to deliver a creepy ‘poke’, it makes the social experience that bit more social – that bit more real. After all, you wouldn’t, in real life, try to get someone’s attention by jabbing at them with a pointy finger.

Of course the other cool thing, from Path’s viewpoint, is that the Nudge is a way for them to get their user base to do the work of re-engaging with lapsed users on their behalf. Good move for a network that feels like its starting to stagnate.

The second game-changer is the invite function. Path have played with theirs so that unlike on Twitter or Facebook, you can now write a personalized note asking someone to join the network so you can hook up. You can even use Siri (I’m doing this on an iPhone) to record a message.

Hardly a game-changer, you might say: but think about it. When combined with the nudge, the invite makes the virtual interactions in Path that little bit more nuanced than those on other networks, that little bit more shaded rather than black and white. And this makes it a social network that is a little bit more human, a little bit more usable and, hopefully, a little bit more engaging. Whilst I’m not 100% sure the introduction of these cool new features will be enough to reverse Path’s fortunes, I AM sure that we will start to see more of these kinds of features on the bigger networks. It’s great user experience design, and something that businesses should both keep an eye open for when it starts to become more commonplace in social networking, and take note of when designing their own web properties.

This post originally appeared in Smart Company‘s Online Anthropologist column, written by Edge’s Head of Digital Richard Parker.

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Google introduces Knowledge Graph

Remember Wolfram Alpha, the ‘answers engine’, that looks up search queries from a knowledge base of curated, structured data? Probably not, because it’s traffic is pretty small. But when it was released in 2009 Google certainly took note.

Why? Well, because Wolfram Alpha is driven by curated data, it gets more and more powerful the more data is inputted. And Wolfram Alpha users can drop data sets into the engine to see what it makes of them. It’s basically super clever and super techie.

Google, always with its eye on the future, started working on its own enhancements – not directly taking a lead from Wolfram but certainly looking to improve the intelligence of its search. Hence Knowledge Graph.

Knowledge Graph is Google’s new database product which attempts to not only catalogue all the people, places and things in the world but also – and this is the cool bit – map out the relationships between them. By understanding the relationships between things, Google will be able to work out, for example, whether your search for ‘Lion’ refers to the animal or the Apple operating system.

You can read all about it here. Or take a look at the video embedded below:

We’ve had a little play and it looks pretty cool – we’re looking forward to seeing it rolled out fully. And we’d love to hear what you think.

This post originally appeared on the Edge website.

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Trike drifting

Right, basically I really want to have a go at this. Anyone know how?

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Brands love Pinterest

Pinterest

We’re loving Pinterest in my office. It’s a great tool for creating collaborative moodboards for inspiration. But brands are getting into even more of a lather about it than we are – and we can understand why. Here are six reasons that brands are going crazy for the internet’s newest darling.

1. Pinterest is the fastest growing standalone site ever

That’s right. Pinterest just hit 10 million unique visitors in the US faster than any standalone site ever. That’s impressive. And Pinterest seems to have hit its ‘hockey stick moment’, where growth goes from steady to huge. Any mass audience gathered together in one place is attractive to brands, and Pinterest is no exception.

2. Pinterest drives traffic to retailers

According to Mashable (via a study by Shareaholic), Pinterest is driving more traffic to retailers than Google+, YouTube, Reddit, MySpace and Linkedin combined. When considered in light of the huge growth Pinterest is experiencing (see point 1), this is only going to get greater – and brands can leverage this traffic to sell more product online.

3. It is easy for brand sites to integrate with Pinterest

The Pinterest ‘pin it’ button is SO easy to add to a product page on a brand or retail site – via a little bit of code – enabling users to pin directly from the brand site and therefore drive further traffic. Brands can not only profit from Pinterest, but fuel its growth – a virtuous circle.

4. Pinterest attracts female shoppers

According to TechCrunch, Pinterest’s growth is being propelled by ‘18-34 year old upper income women from the American heartland‘. It might be a cliche to say that women like to browse and take time to enjoy shopping, whilst men are more mission-oriented, but if that cliche holds, then Pinterest is the perfect stepping stone to a purchase – offering a fantastic browsing experience with a link to a retail or brand site when the user is ready to take the final step and make the purchase.

5. Optimal design – in more ways than one

There are two points to make about Pinterest’s design. First, it’s device neutral – the flexible design means it’s optimised for smart-phones through to wide-screen monitors – meaning it can benefit from mobile traffic just as much as desktop traffic. Second is that the layout feels instinctively more like a shop window – encouraging browsing behaviour (see point 4) and delivering up users that are more ready to buy. What’s more, their approach is being embraced by the wider web, and starting to become more and more widespread – witness what Mashable calls the ‘Pinterestification of the internet’.

6. Focus on product

There are no two ways about it, Pinterest pushes products. You might think you’re just re-pinning a cute teacup that reflects your esoteric taste, but your pin will help others find that product and buy it. People are actively creating Pinboards that act as wishlists – for birthdays, Christmas, weddings, or just that end-of-month payday. Because consumers are driving this, they are almost granting brands permission to get in on the act. Consider this: consumers don’t really use Facebook to post pictures of things they want – clothes, kitchenwear, books, whatever – and so when brands try to use Facebook for that it comes across as forced and corporate. But on Pinterest the environment is all about posting products: it’s a win scenario for brands.

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Are consumers turning into bullies?

No bullies

I remember, back in 2008, preparing a presentation on social media and how it was starting to have a huge effect on customer services. Twitter was starting to gain traction beyond the early adopter/techie types, and brands were desperate to leap onto the band wagon. Facebook was already massive, and a relatively small number of brands were starting to use it well with others using it badly, and still more sitting on the sidelines, enviously looking in at the party, but too scared to get involved.

My advice to the client at the time was ‘you can’t afford NOT to get involved’. There had already been a number of famous cases of brands being seriously damaged by complainers who had taken their grievances to social media, and had been ignored by the brand in question. The internet had done its thing, and before the brand knew it the grouch had been turned into a cause célèbre, the public complaint and lack of brand action had gone viral, and the brand’s reputation was in tatters.

So far, so meh. Old news, right? Well yes, but recently I’ve been noticing, and getting increasingly annoyed by a new(ish) phenomena. Brand bullying. This is where some opportunist saboteur turns to Twitter complaining of poor service or poor quality or some other perceived snub from a brand, purely to see whether they can screw some free stuff out of said brand. They invariably use a holier than thou tone and seem to think that the world will side with them purely because they’re shouting, loudly and in public. And they’re not far wrong – ‘the internet’ is the ultimate champion of the little guy.

Brands often respond to this public airing of dirty washing by doing exactly what the opportunist wants – throwing a freebie at it. No matter whether the whinger was an incredibly brand-loyal person with a real grievance, and therefore worth responding to and nurturing, or someone who has heretofore demonstrated zero brand loyalty, if they complain long and loud enough, they’ll be looked after.

This pushes a button for me. It’s inherently unfair. And it actually goes against the internet ethos: the internet has given power to the individual, but (to quote Uncle Ben Parker) with great power comes great responsibility – and if the individual abuses that responsibility the power should be taken away from them. So I suddenly find myself in a slightly unlikely position, and questioning whether brands really do need to oil every squeaky wheel. Maybe there’s a better way. Maybe there’s a way to take the sting out of the complaint without giving in to the bullies. Maybe brands should stand up to them, sometimes.

This is obviously a much more delicate an operation than I make it sound, so really I’m throwing it out there as a question. Any social media managers out there care to weigh in?

This post originally appeared on my company blog, here.

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The fragmentation of social media

Broken Facebook logo

I’m a bit of a regular at Future Human events, and a few weeks ago I attended their session ‘Social Animals’ – exploring how (and if) social networks are changing our personalities. It was an interesting session for a number of reasons, but one of the big take away points for me was around the fragmentation of social media – the idea that a number of factors are beginning to chip away at Facebook’s monopoly of social media, leading to fragmentation of social media into lots of smaller communities and networks.

One of the panel at the event was Alex Halliday, founder and CEO of Social Go, an online service that allows users to create their own, interest focussed, social networks. He talked about the fact that lots of social networkers are not restricting themselves to the big networks – Facebook, Twitter etc – but are turning away from these mass, general sites to more close-knit communities, where users can unite around objects of common interest. Obviously Alex’s business model is built on this idea, so he has an interest in talking it up, but it rang true. With so many people getting their ‘social media training’ on Facebook – and becoming accustomed to social tools and user experience styles through it – it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that users are taking these skills and knowledge and using them elsewhere on the web – elsewheres that perhaps in pre-Facebook days were principally the domain of fanboys and geeks.

Obviously Alex is not the only one to be thinking like this. The inexorable rise of Facebook may have shifted our attention away from community sites, but they are thriving still – look at the Daddy of them all (if you’ll forgive the pun), the all-powerful Mumsnet. And what’s more, community sites are building in more ‘social’ features as championed by Facebook, Twitter and Google+ to make them more useful to users. Other commentators such as Jack Wallington over on Brand Republic’s Wall Blog have talked in more depth on this niche network phenomena.

Another angle to the fragmentation theory is the social network Path which limits each user to 50 followers and cites Dunbar’s number as its rationale for doing so (there is an upper limit to the amount of people that an individual can know personally whilst also knowing how each person relates to one another – and it’s a lot less than the number of Facebook friends most people have). I find this a lot more interesting, as its often cited as a reason that we will never have a truly global society, or true homogenisation – yes we may have the same brands on our high streets, but our cognitive limitations mean that we will never be exactly the same.

Place these two ideas (the rise of nice communities and Dunbar’s number) against a backdrop of stories about Facebook losing users in its most established markets, and some people start putting two and two together and making five.

I think its early days to make any sort of rash forecasts about the demise of Facebook at the hands of smaller communities – there have always been smaller niche communities online, and there always will be – that doesn’t mean people don’t want to talk to their larger ‘friend’ base as well as a group of strangers they are linked to through common interest. I also think Facebook will be remiss if it doesn’t up its niche interest game – after all, from a monetisation perspective, Facebook’s revenue comes squarely from knowing as much about its users as possible to allow for high levels of targeting. But I do think there is something to the Dunbar’s number criticism. I think eventually we start to feel overwhelmed by the numbers, and we either ignore a huge amount of people we’re friends with – only actively responding to and interacting with a relatively small sub-group within our friend lists, go through mass culling exercises, or in some extreme cases drop out of Facebook altogether.

I’d love to generate a bit of discussion around this as I find the way the internet is developing in front of our eyes – and the way it’s so hard to predict – fascinating. So let me know your thoughts and leave a comment below!

This post originally appeared on my company blog, here.

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Facebook’s Frictionless Sharing

It’s been a few weeks since f8, and I’ve been having a play with the new timeline functionality that Facebook is planning to  roll out, as well as getting used to the ‘frictionless sharing’ that Facebook has already rolled out with selected partners. There’s not much point in us writing about timeline – yes I’m running it, yes it’s aesthetically a great interface, yes it’s easy to use, yes there will be an inevitable ‘the sky is falling on our heads’ reaction when it finally launches – for about a week until everyone gets used to it, and yes, lots of people have already written about how great it is.

Instead, I’m interested in the ‘frictionless sharing’ that Facebook have been trumpeting and that is a result of the changes they’ve made to Open Graph.

Lots of commentators have already talked about the possibilities that Open Graph apps open up, and the effect they’re going to have on brands – how pages will become less important, how a brand’s updates will show up in feeds much less often and how therefore in order to connect with their audiences, brands need to start developing their own Open Graph apps. You can read about this elsewhere. The important thing to note about frictionless sharing is that if it heralds a new way of sharing content across the web, it means that the sharing of what we are reading, listening to or watching will increasingly become automatic – it will no longer require a manual action such as liking, tagging, or tweeting.

This is what I’m more interested in right now: the act – or rather non-act – of frictionless sharing.  Neil Perkin wrote an interesting column on frictionless sharing on NMA recently. He makes this point, which I shall quote in full:

“The fact that a piece of content is deliberately selected, judged, commented on and passed on by one of my friends or someone I follow attributes a certain significance and context to it. It’s a significance that I cherish. Social curation has come to sit alongside algorithmic and professional curation as a valuable way to distinguish signal from noise.”

I’m in full agreement with this – aside from the obvious ‘filter bubble’ issues around both social and algorithmic curation, I do get most of my daily intelligence (if you’ll forgive the pretension of the term) via social curation and this will immediately be devalued by frictionless sharing.

Why? Well, if I’m now not only being passed a ‘piece of content deliberately selected, judged, commented on’ by one of my friends, but also the stuff that one of my friends has read, listened to or watched, but thought was a bit rubbish and not worth passing on,then social curation is useless. After all, you wouldn’t necessarily buy a book just because you saw a mate reading it on the bus. You’d want to know whether it was any good first.

Facebook Graffiti

Photo (cc) Katie Sayer.

This post originally appeared on my company blog, here.

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