Web 2.0 Expo: Stowe Boyd on Building Social Applications

Attendee Notes: Abby Shaw (abbyshaw@earthlink.net)

This 3 hour workshop provided a walkthrough of the current state of “social applications.” There were about 700 people in attendance and the discussion was lively.

A Social Application is one designed to guide human behavior into paths and patterns, to counter prevailing ways of interaction. These can also be called Social Tools and can be defined as software intended to shape culture. In the “post everything” world, the environment of the social application can be called the ‘new third place.’

The individual is the new group. Social tools speak to the perspective of “me first.” The sequence goes: Me to Mine to Market (see drawing below)
In this case, Market is not just buying and selling, but “something” that is being exchanged. The goal of social applications is to make that sharing more liquid.
While the standard computer interaction is as a large central service dictating the terms of the interaction, the social tool, in order to be successful, must operate differently. This difference can be called “bottom-up belonging.” “The edge dissolves the center.” The dominance of the person and the person’s needs in the market success of a social application leads to a situation where the traditional “large central service” can no longer dictate the terms of the interaction. Only the person’s satisfaction with the interaction can drive success. In this sphere, usability is not just a good idea, it is an absolute requirement.

Satisfy the person’s needs first, then get to the market, then get to the payoff. These edge-in approaches to markets are degrading the power of the center (e.g., the death of newspapers, the decay in television viewing).

“Belonging” comes from a person-to-person relationship, not from an organizational affiliation. Formal affiliations are declining (see Robert Putnam’s book, has “bowling league” in the title.); fewer people are becoming Kiwanis. What’s taken the place of these organizational affiliations are “ad hoc affiliations,” in which people join together to accomplish a shared objective and then disengage. This distinction calls for some defined terms:

• Groups are defined, have boundaries, may have rules, are “symmetric”(?)
• Groupings are assemblages of people with similar interests.

Social tools provide mechanisms to enable groups, groupings, affiliations, etc.

(See notes for more on comparison between traditional “domain” oriented applications and those oriented to serve the needs of the individual.)

Many popular web tools are semi-social or asocial. iTunes, for instance, is a big, impersonal database. Aside from the ability to create compilations, there is no person-to-person interaction. (One workshop exercise was to imagine what a social version of iTunes would be like.) Other asocial or less social sites are Best Buy, and Pandora (now adding changes), and other sites that have added social elements after the fact are: eBay, Amazon, Netflix, and BaseCamp.

These add-ons are ineffective, as the social aspects are not core to the tool’s value, and additional social features are hard to continue to add as needed. It is better to build for the social needs from the ground up.

When developing a social tool, keep in mind that the desktop environment is the world that instant messaging has made. For many, their workstyle is based on a new type of interruptive collaboration. The model is one of being available to help move the whole group’s work along, rather than sticking to being personally productive. This difference in workstyle is creating some generational and cross-industry conflict right now. Is it better to give up some personal productivity to move the network’s productivity forward? Group productivity is a new target: called (by fans) “the 21st century paradigm.”

In this model, the value of the network is the number of connections (? Not sure I agree…?). IM and mobile IM (texting + Twitter) have replaced email for some workers – people under 25 regard email as a tool used by parents and schools – a medium of authority, not collaboration. In fact, kids, always on their cell phones, tend to ignore their voice mail. Ray Lane, COO of Oracle, asked about the requirements for the success of a collaboration product, once said, “Sometimes an entire generation needs to die off before change can happen.”

NOTE: Social tools do not replace the need for or urge towards off-line meat-space interactions. (Personal note: among the mobile, I’ve noticed that texting is replacing IMing for some people – the power of mobility is very strong.)

The social architecture described is completely different from the standard domain architecture now in use, which is mostly based on and centered in the design of the central database, with functions radiating outward. Now, the user experience needs to be the basis. For instance, people don’t want to run a database query, but they do want to ask a question – what they want is to temper the query through a social interaction.

The “mine to market” interaction can contain the payoff: the recommender can be paid for the recommendation. (As is an insurance agent.)

Audience Question: What about the perception of corruption, of co-opting if the advice is paid for?

If the payment is transparent and the value is honest, then there seems to actually be more weight given to the recommendation – the recommender is a professional, with a stake in the game. A key requirement is that the recommender be known to the community, able to stand by statements, proven out in history – open, open, open. Reputation is fragile, and it is an attribute of a person, not an organization.
Another positive example of this is the Amazon affiliation payment – this is not seen as a corrupt business relationship. A negative example of this is a campaign where a corporation is pretending to be a person – as with the Toyota Tahoe campaign (see notes on later presentation.)

What is the abiding motivator?

The wish for “Things” is a red herring (as is the generic “Content”). “Places” and the “People” who fill the places are indicators, but not motivators. “Discovery of self” is the central, dependable motivator – the self is the “still point at the center of the turning world.” Validated by the Franciscan nun who runs the highly popular Vatican web site.

People are trying to discover themselves and you can’t do that without people, so people aggregate themselves into “groupings” (ad hoc assemblages) to engage in discovery.

Chicken and Egg

We’ve got this functionality and no people – how do we get them to come? (Persistent question across the conference – no brainer to me: if the functionality fills a need, they will come – if you need recommenders to jump start the functionality, pay ‘em.)

When does the network join you, instead of you joining the network? (koan, but very important question.)

A key concept: flow networks. Flow networks are those you set up so that things flow to you rather than your continually going to them. Twitter is a (weak) example. RSS news feeds is another example – and older example is any type of workflow automation (as ours for governance) or white collar factories automated paper and form processing workflows. We’re all familiar with being in the midst of a flow network – this concept differs in that, with the “me” at the center, it’s you inserting yourself into a flow network – a flow network that serves your needs, rather than extracting step-wise work from you.

The inexorable power laws

Boyd posts a critical comment in his (popular) blog and within a few hours gets a call from the CEO of the company discussed (Mark Andressohn, Bradley Horowitz). This is power. There will always be more popular people and this popularity (esp with flow networks) can translate into power. (The reach of an opinion is much greater due to social networks.)

Vox populi is always vox humana. And what’s wrong with this type of power?
There will be gaming, people will always try to game the system – but systems will emerge that counter the cheating, if it’s not wanted. You can Digg it out, for instance. Don’t feed the troll is a good technique. Delete the abusers. But the best defense is the mechanism of reputation and “swarmth.” (Swarmth is the reputational warmth an individual gets from the swarm.)

How do you measure swarmth? How do you reward it? (unanswered question – except for earlier note about using reputation to earn money for recommendations, which applies here – also see below.) Harnessing nets: using swarm intelligence (digression to define, using old tale of jar of beans and fair guessing game.) Boyd points out that all nets are not the same in value – and asks the question: Is swarm fungible? No, it is not. Research shows (wish I had citation) that your reputation in one system does not carry over into another. (NOTE: Very Important for Thought Leadership advisor qualifications – should be respected IN INSURANCE.)

When the power of influential people grows, they want money. There is a 10,000 hour rule (wish I had citation): across all human endeavor, it requires 10,000 hours to gain real expertise in something (about nine years of professional time, btw). And people should be paid for their contributions when they have invested in that expertise.

The next section of the workshop focused on walkthroughs of examples of applications and tools that were more or less social, with evaluations of the success of their design.


This is a social application that lurks and captures. You join and you are introduced into a musical neighborhood, first based on what you say you like, but ultimately based on what you are playing on your computer and your iPod. Boyd found out that his musical tastes are those of a 23 year old British woman in Manchester. He finds no overlap with the people he knows and associates with in other communities. This is a true ad hoc grouping.

Purpose is to find new music that you are likely to enjoy and to provide a place for you to review music for a receptive community. Two layers: people participate by doing what they came to do (play music, look for related music) and people participate by creating content that is judged by standing in the community. (See later discussion of view only and creator visitors, ratios, etc.)

On the Chicken and Egg question, they did this right from the start. First created interesting groupings, then let the participants drive the ongoing shaping – the participants define what is a “musical neighborhood.” Compare to the rigidity of iTunes categories. This is an example of an emergent taxonomy – and since it is outside of a hierarchy (using tags), it is an emergent ontology.

This is a social motif, with an underlying domain application. For instance, if you write about a band in your last.fm blog, the site checks the spelling and creates a link to the band page or the actual song. There’s a back and forth in the way the social tool is used. Network effect is created.

But even a winner makes mistakes: Why aren’t the tags the source of the groupings? (That’s what tags are for). Instead, the site uses old-style groups. And, frustratingly, you can’t search for groups that you know you would be interested in. There are some groups with exclusionary rules (have to be invited? Don’t allow anyone who likes Madonna to see this group?)


Who is going to this event? (West coast phenom) As a participant in this site, you can ask: Which of my friends/associates are going to this event? You can view events by people attending, you can see a discussion thread about a specific event. The site is focused on one thing: Events, and it is oriented around the social dimension. (Note: it satisfies the needs of all the visitors around event-oriented information.)


This is the most interesting large-scale social connection site (compare to Myspace and LinkedIn). In this application, you have many rich options that the others don’t offer: you can stream content from Facebook to an RSS feed, you can push updates to those interested and more and more. (LinkedIn is more limited – no stream, no blog, no pictures). Allows you to create layers of “mine” here in one place.

Photos, you can share things you find on the web.

Boyd used social networks to find more work in Europe – nothing from myspace, but 2 nibbles from Facebook and both well-defined groups that lead to new assignments.
(First mention of need to integrate all these multiple memberships, different instances of Me, different aspects of Mine. Call to Google to integrate what they buy. Also note Yahoo 360 as attempt to do this.)
Here is the social dimension of recommending cool stuff that people might want to buy. The role of being a recommender drives the whole site – this is not a catalog with a sidebar of recommendations as other sites are. Everything is tagged: people as recommenders, categories, things. The site drives you to participate by recommending. Individuals can become featured content by the richness of their contributions – which are voted on. (Voting is very important element of web 2.0 – Swarm intelligence )

You can see list aggregations automatically because of tagging.

Bad examples

Basecamp and federation of work

Federation of work is great idea – this is a bad site to support the concept. Why can’t I see all my Basecamp projects in one view? Independent of account. (work is an attribute of person, not project owner is his point.) I need a separate login for each project. This is stupid. This uses a pervasive static model, with hardly any flow.

I have no dashboard – and that’s stupid because a dashboard is obviously what I want. I can’t link to other projects – I must cut and paste. This is oppressive security. (what is a boundary case in this context?)

Identity issues

The real problem is in how do we share identities across tools? Multiple logins is an absolute barrier to the integration of the user experience. We need a more fine-grained control of identity, and we need to understand identity issues better: not just identity in the sense of permissions, but also in the control of identify exposure. Who knows what about who?

1. Trusted authority where you can register your identity
2. Being able to control your own identify exposure

Work is going on now with OpenID, which is a unique url that represents you and you alone. If adopted, this would provide a trusted ID authority where you can register your identity. (Many of the apps and tools shown at the conference and expo offered an OpenID registration option along with their native registration.).

Some discussion of the role of anonymity in the online world. Oddly, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (a group fanatical about openness) suggests in its guidelines that if you are employed by a company that will be sensitive (skittish was the actual word) about your expression of your opinions openly, then you should use an anonymous identity for open discussions. The use of an anonymous identity will undercut a key element of this social dynamic – your value as a recommender is evaluated according to the value of your opinions, and, unless your whole online life is through the avatar of your single anonymous identity, you will not be able to partake of this “halo effect.” (and even then, it would be tough to get speaking or consulting engagements.) It’s uncertain how meaningful and valuable recommendations are when they come from an anonymous source.

The halo effect is also called “personal bank building” (note, this concept is in opposition to the idea that reputation is not fungible.)

However, the problem of a single identity registration is necessary for the integration of flow applications. Once the id problem is solved, look for the flow applications to knit all this together.

Once there is a way to knit the whole together, you will see the collapse and the falling together of the different worlds. Except for the little, specific apps, you’ll see no more than 20 or 30 large social apps left. (To me, this is not yet clear)


This failure is an illustration of the need to get the tool past the tipping point. Outsidein was designed to be a hyper-localized social networking system. The need filled was “Who are the cool people who actually live near me and what do they recommend locally?” The site was launched too early. You could register, but the experience was: “Here’s Me, where’re the other people?” Don’t race to the market before you get the social dimension right – you will just have to relaunch and you’ll have taken a hit to your reputation that you may never recover from.

Wait for both the social features to be ready and for the concept to be fully functional. Without the social features, the site will die, because it will not have a way to spread. (Very relevant to plan for Thought Leadership)

It is a mistake to see content as static object that people will come to view: High Value Scenarios encompass all types of things, but there’s nothing that just sits there that satisfies a visitor’s need.

Last note on Yahoo: Yahoo provides a host of small-scale examples. Where’s the integration? Where’s the grand synthesis? Brad Horowitz asks Boyd to hang on and wait and see. What is the role of Yahoo and the larger companies in driving this integration?


The case of the missing market. Another try at the federated work environment: you put invoices in and send them via email: the recipient can log in and see a list of invoices. Very good for tracking, good for small businesses and freelancers.
But where is the market? You can see the “me” and the “mine.” The owners of the site had day jobs running a design agency, so they couldn’t help the site evolve and enrich – they didn’t have time to listen to the community’s feedback.
Why not charge a small percentage in exchange for acting as an online bank for the online payment of these invoices? That’s the linkage between “mine” and “market.”
Now a new site: lessaccounting.com has recently emerged, and its functionality eclipses blinksale’s. But still missing the underlying market. (Maybe it is all just ad revenue…?)

(book: Everything Bad is Good for You – Who is Steven Johnson?)

Stray Notes:

Place is an on/off affiliation marker.
Examples: Smalltalk (closed community) Message: Tech Writing, Slash ambivalence.
Dopplar (what is?) application: limited alpha, is a simple, does one little thing, whips passing in the night

Emergence and maturity of Tags as an indicator in a 3D taxonomy –aka Ontology: Who is David Weinberger? Community of tags idea.

Who is Andrew Keene? Book reference: “The Great Good Place” by Ray Oldenbury. Who is J.D. Lassika?
Who is Z. Frank? Who is Mike Arronton? TechCrunch

“Community” is a concept that refers to groups? Not groupings?
What’s the relationship here?

Building Social Applications
Stowe Boyd, the /Messenger of /Message, /Message
Conference description of session: Despite the widespread adoption of social applications –- social networking, file sharing, instant messaging, and blogs, to name only the most well-known—creating applications that foster social interaction is hard. It is altogether too easy to approach application development from an information management mindset and miss the greater social context: people interacting to accomplish personal aims, exploring their identity through social groups, and working in online marketplaces.
It is these three contexts—personal, group, and market – that form three complementary and distinct tiers of social applications. Users may opt to use an application for very personal reasons – signing up for a web filing sharing service to transfer a file to a colleague – but they become consistent users, and invite others to use the application, because of the social dimension: how well does the application support the users’ needs for social integration?
Effective social applications bring people into the foreground by making the social dimension intuitive and natural, and integrating information flow into the social. Information architecture must take a back seat to social architecture.
The workshop explores the principles of successful social applications, and presents a Social Architecture approach to model new—or remodel existing—applications. Examples of well-designed and successful social applications—including Flickr, Last.fm, Facebook, and Upcoming.org – are explored in the search for general characteristics and recurring design motifs. A number of badly designed sites are contrasted with “well-socialized” alternatives.
The workshop includes two group activities to explore the application of the approach in small team settings.
Creating social applications is hard. It's easy to miss social interplay and build information-centered applications instead. This workshop explores the key factors of successful social applications, and presents an approach to building them: Social Architecture. The workshop also includes group activities to explore Social Architecture in a team setting.
Conference description of presenter: Stowe Boyd: I am fascinated with social tools, and their impact on business, media, and society. I coined the term "social tools" in 1999, only a few months before I started blogging, and I have never looked back. Since that time we have witnessed the rise of social media, social networks, and all things tagged "social."
I spend most of my work life with companies that are building social applications, with specific focus on design, marketing, and strategic planning. I have a particular affection for start-ups, but I share my love with larger, more well-established companies, as well. The rest of my time is split between writing at /Message and speaking at various events, such as Reboot, Lift, Shift, Mesh, Enterprise 2.0, Office 2.0, Under The Radar, and Web 2.0 Expo, to name just a few from 2006 and 2007.

1 comment:

  1. You mention that both Blinksale and LessAccounting are missing the underlying market out there. Perhaps, but my guess is that they're doing quite well in the markets they are addressing. While you may see another market opportunity, but the fact remains that it may not be addressable -- only an effort to address it will tell. My guess is that margins are so thin that taking a cut on payments, as you suggest, would be a tough business to enter given how crowded it is already. Think Paypal.

    Anyway, one other observation is that I think we're only seeing the beginning of features and business models with the online invoicing applications. I know it's only the beginning for my company (SimplifyThis.com). Fasten your seat belt.


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