Saturday, December 23, 2006

More social networking terms: features, functions, transactions and...

The social story thusfar...

This is the third in a series of posts about social networking/software, intended to put the current... er... enthusiasm... about making everything "social" into some kind of perspective, and to begin to assign some kinds of business and/or marketing terms and thoughts to the various processes and parts of social platforms.

The first two posts dealt with how we might measure the relative social value of various systems. It took me two posts to do it, since I use this space to think out loud, but with your kind patience, I came up with the following definitions:

Share of Participation: the relative value of participation in a particular type or brand of social activity by an individual or a group as measured by resource or influence

Social Share: how much of the total participation in social activities of a desired audience is aggregated to a particular brand or segment.

So "Share of Participation" might be seen as the social equivalent of "Share of Wallet," but measured in time, number of "units" of participation (entries, comments, etc.). And "Social Share" might then be an equivalent of "Mind Share" or "Market Share." The first measures how much of an individual or group's "social capital" is spent on a particular social network. The second measures how much of an entire, desired audience that network has captured. These are two very different numbers, their difference is incredibly important, and we'll get to that later in this post.

I've been commenting recently on Raph Koster's site on variousness related to his upcoming Areae... game? VW? Cyberverse? Who knows...  When I mentioned I was working on a blog post about the next issue in my series -- social functions vs. features -- Allen Sligar suggested that "social transaction" was a good synonym for "social feature." I like the term... but I think it's now a third thing I have to think about, rather than a synonym for one of the two I already had in my head. So here's where I am now:

1. Social Function = doing something for the purpose of "being social." IE, a dating site; the "MM" in "MMORPG." Communications technology per se. IM, email, etc. These have "social functions" at their core. You cannot "do" these things without "being social."

2. Social Feature = a benefit provided to users of the system that is only made possible through exposure to group-level actions. For example, Wikipedia and The Wikipedia is made possible by the efforts of many thousands of writers and editors. It enables "social creation" of the material, but does not require "social use" of it. A reader of a Wikipedia entry benefits from the social nature of how the entries are created, but is not involved in social interactions himself, per se. Similarly, all the tagging data that is entered into is part of a social system, but using it is not a social function.

3. Social Transaction (thanks, Allen, for the brain-spark) = I think, the exchange of social value, through a social feature of some kind. When I award you a Digg or, on eBay, a positive review... that's a "social transaction." I think that social transactions can modify and enable, improve and validate social features... but I'm not sure they're required for them. When I use a Wikipedia entry or browse through a couple hundred Flickr photos, I'm reaping the benefit of social features, but not engaging in a social transaction.

For a time, when I was thinking about these two (now three) things, I had it in my head that there was/were some "many-to-many" and "many-to-one" differences going on here; i.e., that "social functions" were primarily one-to-one and that social features enabled many-to-many interactions. But I'm not sure about that anymore. The social functions of many sites/services seem, now, to be many-to-many. There are poetry groups at MySpace numbering in the tens-of-thousands. They facilitate a social function. And the tagging features of, while entered in a many-to-many scale, can be realized on a one-to-one basis, for sure. So I don't think it's a numbers game.

What I do think, though, is that the difference between feature and function will end up relating back to the difference between share of participation vs. social share. I think that systems that have, at their hearts, some level of social function are more likely to aggregate a long-term, low-churn share of participation. While those that rely solely on social features may have a large social share... but it may not be particularly loyal.

What am I talking about. It's the difference between "audience" and "tribe," and it can be very, very tricky to figure out.

Let's take, for example, MySpace vs. World of Warcraft . Both have huge social share. Millions of people are doing "social things" on both. There's no arguing about that. But let's look at the differences in features vs. functions.

  • MySpace: Social features = blogging (page building), email, groups, forums, classifieds.

  • WoW: Social features = chat, IM, grouping, guild features

On the surface, it would seem that MySpace is "more social" than WoW. And, in fact, you can play WoW as a solo game, so it need not be social at all. But if you do play WoW in group or guild mode, or for the PvP experience, it has, at its heart, a "WoW specific social function," whereas MySpace does not.

I don't mean that each of the individual features of MySpace cannot fulfill social functions for individuals and groups... but those functions are ones that are easily portable. On WoW, however, that's not the case. If you and I are enjoying a game of WoW, but become irritated by some feature of it (say, the graphics) and want to "take our game elsewhere," we are basically hosed. You can't play WoW anywhere else. All the social features of the game are at the service of the social function: to play in a shared, fictional RPG experience.

On MySpace, on the other hand, almost all the experiences are transferable, and pretty dang easily. If a group of any size were to become disenchanted with any of its features, the functions would transfer. How long, for example, would it take to set up a blog, group, forum or classified for your MySpace group on another platform?

This is all leading to the last term I'm going to coin in this piece: social brand.

Just like there is brand in any part of marketing or advertising, I'm increasingly convinced that various social networking systems will have a social brand that presents to users a proposition based on the intersection of social features and functions. But where a traditional brand is something that is controlled by marketing departments and ad agencies, the social brand of a platform will be, to a degree, at the mercy of the users...

Except inasmuch as the developers of the system can understand the relationships of the features and functions (and transactions) they present to users, and the balance of how they are valued. Social functions are centralized and presented as definitional -- either by the creators or, over time, by the will of the users. Social features are used horizontally and are the ways in which aggregate value is accrued to the system.  Things to keep in mind, therefore, when developing a social networking system and trying to develop long-term social brand:

  • Are there ways to reinforce social functions in each feature/transaction?

  • If the use of a feature is easily replicable elsewhere, can I brand it somehow?

  • Are my users loyal to the aggregate, unique social function of my service, or to a set of features?

  • If I'm seeking to increase share of participation, should I be increasing services or looking to deepen my root social function?

  • If I'm seeking to increase social share, do I need parity with competitors in social features? Or a unique social function proposition?

  • Why haven't I hired one or more people to do nothing but manage these issues?

These are all very weird questions. We are talking about sites/services that rely on the interactions and content and data and information provided by users to create the value for the customers. Yeah, I know "user created content" is all over the place in the media and being discussed as such. Thing is, I don't see a whole lot of talk about how to manage these "users" more as employees or as products/services themselves.

Because... if the value your service is providing derives from work done  by users, you need to think of that work as an operational center. And you need to think of the people doing that work the same way you would a contractor, employee or  (insulting!) piece of equipment. It's not just "kinda neat" that they do stuff on your site that provides value. It's core to the biz.

We need to talk about this stuff more.

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