Creating the pull factor needed for a successful social network

TechCrunch just put out an article by Alex Rampell titled “the power of pull”. In the article Alex makes the case that really valuable web applications pull you unconsciously toward them. You don’t have to remember to check them, when you sit down in front of a browser and start typing, those are the URLs that come out.

What creates the pull is a problem that I’ve pondered over for a long time. When BuddyPress functionality was being added to UBC Blogs I knew that it would fail to pull students in, but am still not able to articulate exactly why. It may have had to do with the “silent launch”, but I think the biggest problem was the lack of some key features, those features that provide the pull. Now that Google+ has launched (and I’m really enjoying using it), I’m wondering if it will be able to make the dent that will pull all of the people that I want to interact with into it.

Here are the factors that Alex listed in his article.

Alex’s Factors:

In the article he lists 4 ways to create pull:

  • Plan around events: People will be going to events, so build something that makes them check in with you first before those events.
  • Do something that has an offline analogy: Before Google, people would use phonebooks.
  • Answer Recurring questions: Questions like “where am I going” (Google Maps) and how much did I spend (Mint) answer some of life’s recurring questions.
  • Build brand and familiarity: People shop at Amazon.com because not only do they know it’s big enough to be trusted, it offers a familiar interface.

While I agree mostly with his list, it got me thinking about the sites that pull me and what it is about those sites that create the pull. I came up with my own list.

Here is my list:

Make not visiting your site something that will cause social harm: 

I check my Gmail and Facebook often because people may have left me messages and if I don’t respond to them I will disappoint or anger them. I will respond to Doodle’s for the same reason. Humans love to be liked, so if by not going to the web service a person will be liked less, they will go to it.

Provide Curated entertainment:

I get pulled to YouTube and TED.com whenever I want to watch an interesting videos, I get pulled to GrooveShark when I want music that everyone in the room will and I get pulled to Flixter and Apple Trailers whenever I want to see what movies are coming out. Although making a service that relies purely on content only works for a lucky few, any successful service needs to have something interesting to show their visitors.

Provide more than one engaging activity:

This is a piece that I have taken from my game design research. All popular recurring networks need more than one pull. This not only provides multiple incentives for any given individual, but also ensures that it provides incentives for a wider segment of the population. Facebook is an obvious example, but so is an LMS like Blackboard. There are discussion boards, course content and grades to check. One’s own blog dashboard is another, there are posts to write, stats to check and comments to moderate. I understand the problems of features creep and the danger of adding “just one more pull”, but I think there definitely is threshold of the number of pulls that one needs and the application should cross that threshold.

Create something that easily fits into a daily workflow:

Facebook’s big statistic is that 50% of its users check in once a day. An essential social app has to have something new to come back to daily. If you can somehow embed a utility in your app (Google Calendar, Dropbox, Basecamp are all examples of this) then users have to come back into your application. One needs to find a way to be on a user’s mind after they have left your application.

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Sure, this list mixes up traditional applications with social networking applications, but I think that is a useful exercise. Just having profiles that others can view is not enough (witness Google Profiles before Google+), I truly believe that there have to be some other pulls. As to what those pulls should be… well that’s the hard part.

[note title=”Bonus Thought: Does Google+ have enough pulls?” align=”center” width=”716″] My hunch is yes. It certainly provides utility with the chat, hangout and photos features. If you add the sharing it had quite a few pulls. The notification icons on top of any Google product also make the daily workflow piece super simple. The sharing and sparks (with a bit of improvement) will lend that curated content. [/note]

Why I think Google Plus is revolutionary

I wrote the post below on July 2nd 2009. It sat in my Evernote for just under 2 years now, but with Google Plus, Google just did so much of what I was talking about that I guess I should share it now. The rough draft that I wrote is below. I’ve put in how Google plus fulfills the pieces below that.

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//Stuff I wrote in 2009:

Coming up with the perfect Communication system:

These are all the avenues I use to communicate with others:

  • In person
  • Phone
  • Windows Live Messenger
  • Windows Live Messenger (video)
  • Gtalk
  • Skype
  • Email
  • Twitter
  • Blog
  • Facebook Chat
  • Facebook messages
  • Facebook Wall
  • SMS (text messages)

How can we classify these though?

Length:
-Short form: SMS, Twitter, Facebook Wall
Medium form: Email, chat, blog, blog comments
-Long form: Email, Chat applications, Phone, Blog

Fidelity:
-Face-to-face: In Person, Video Chat
-Voice: Phone, Skype
-Text: Email, Blog, Chat, Twitter, Facebook Wall

Urgency
-Urgent: SMS, Phone, Chat applications
-Important, but not urgent: Email, Facebook Messages, direct twitter rmessages, in person
-Neither urgent, nor important: blog, twitter, facebook wall.

Audience
-myself: delicious, notes, google tasks, word documents, reminders
-small audience: SMS, Email, Chat, Twitter direct message, phone in person,
-medium audience: Facebook wall, Twitter
-large audience: Blog

Temporal
-Synchronous
-Replies within short time frames
-Whenever
These are my rules for which apps to use, rules that I kind of instinctively obey because they are the most convenient. They are rules that I break all the time. They probably have differences and similarities to your rules. Why is that? Each of the services that we use has different social connotations to us. I might believe a Facebook message is for important things, but you might think it is just for fluff and never check it.

How to fix it?

Here is my proposal for the workflow of my dream communication device:

  1. Choose who you want to communicate with, person, group, all your friends, open internet (Which is what Facebook’s privacy changes have just done)
  2. Choose the urgency (this should probably be more granular than what I just set up).
  3. Choose the fidelity that you require (text, voice or video).
  4. Choose how synchronous you want it to be.
  5. Specify how long you want the message to be (for text this step could be automatic, just letting you know when you start to cross boundaries).
  6. From the receiving side, you specify how you want messages to come to you from certain people.

Now, the critical part of this system is that the receiver gets to define how they are notified about your intent to communicate. These can be rules based on your location, your status, the time, what your calendar says, who is trying to contact you. even who you are with. So for instance, all urgent messages from your close contacts are pushed to your phone which beeps or vibrates. If it is not urgent, it is sent to your desktop, where a popup can appear every hour detailing how many new non-urgent messages are waiting (this stops the smartphone syndrome of constantly checking email, facebook etc jsut to see if something important has come up).

//End of stuff I wrote in 2009.

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Some random images from my phone… no uploading required!
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Now for how Google Plus implements so much of this:

Choosing who:

Circles is 95% of the way there. Between Circles, individual people, people with the link, public, they’ve really made that part super easy.


 Choose the urgency:

Not implemented by Google Plus… here’s hoping they do.

Choose how synchronous you want it to be.

The difference between the chat and the sharing pieces.
 Choose the fidelity that you require (text, voice or video)

All in Google Plus.

Fidelity choices on Google PlusFidelity Choices on Google Plus

Specify how long you want the message to be:

Google Plus just does it automatically. I’m not sure if this one is relevant anymore.
From the receiving side, you specify how you want messages to come to you from certain people:

Google has at least made a start on it

Settings for recieving posts on Google Plus

The big thing is that Google Plus does this all in one space. No message box, chat box and email inbox, no separate places to rebuild your community again and again, just all in one application.

I think that’s kind of awesome.

dev.wpmued is live! Calling all WordPress in education developers to contribute.

At OpenEd09 I was part of a very necessary conversation. We were talking about different ways in which our respective universities use WordPress MU. The consensus was that in order for us to be truly successful we need to be sharing much more. Sharing our frameworks, sharing our plugins and sharing our hacks. Boone Gorges frames the conversation nicely here and talks about what is needed from developers. Enej and others responded by reviving the OLT Dev blog. However, Matthew Gold rightly said this:

But we need to build more lasting channels of communication soon, lest we miss some important connections

So here is my attempt to provide those connections:

WPMU For Education blog

The basic idea is an aggregation blog for “WPMU for education” developers. Jim Groom provided a blog from his WPMUEd domain so that a new channel, dev.wpmued could be created. I used the Add Link Widget with FeedWordPress to turn this blog into an aggregation of content from developers who are working on developing WPMU in education using the method that Jim and I came up with. I seeded it with a few of my often read WordPress MU in education blogs (myself, Jim, D’Arcy, Boone, OLT and CUNY Dev). Continue reading “dev.wpmued is live! Calling all WordPress in education developers to contribute.”

Social Media Classroom – Training wheels that don’t come off.

The Social Media Classroom is a web service created by Howard Rheingold that provides a space for students to engage in many of the most popular social networking activities out there. It includes blogs, wikis, forums, social bookmarks, user profiles and chat. The goal is to provide a very low threshold environment for students and faculty to learn about and to use social media as a way of augmenting the classroom.social media classroom

Scott Leslie set up an installation of Social Media Classroom the other day and offered for others to take it for a spin. I gave it a try and here is what I think.

The Social Media Classroom does exactly what it says that it will do. The user interface is quite impressive, making thing really easy to jump into.  Sarah Perez on ReadWriteWeb said that “its ease-of-use and educational slant make its introduction an impressive and potentially game-changing move for the educational system as we know it”. I think she would be right, if it were not for some big obstacles that the platform faces. These are:

  1. It seems to be closed off and private by default (although this may have just been the system I used). If outsiders can participate (as has been shown by Jon Beasley-Murray, Jim Groom and D’Arcy Norman) magic can happen. We need to let the world see what students are doing in university.
  2. The “Social Media Classroom” is missing one little word in the title. A game changer would rather be a “Social Network Media Classroom”. Although students can edit their own profiles in the Social Media Classroom, there is no way to form groups or to add people to their network. The network is often the most powerful part of any social media applications and it is a terrible oversight to not include it.
  3. The training wheels don’t come off. This application is great for students who do not know of, or use social media tools. However, it sucks for those that do. They are not able to use their current networks or applications. Most people who have blogs would want to use their own blogs for a class. Or use their own social bookmarking service. These people (the ones who would be very useful in this environment as they could guide their peers and instructors in the use of social media) will feel alienated and resent having to use the Social Media Classroom. If an education-based social media application is ever to be successful it has to provide an easy way for experienced students to show others the tricks of the trade and for novice students to take the wheels off of the bicycle and use real tools when they are ready for it.

The bright side is that these are relatively easy things for the social media classroom to fix. Jim Groom is already taking care of the training wheel problem at UMW blogs with his BuddyPress, FeedWordPress, WordPress and mediaWiki experiments.  UBC’s OLT also has some of this in the works. I’m sure that Drupal is powerful enough to do the same for the Social Media Classroom. The network part simply takes adding some features and making it open… well that should be just flicking a switch.

The Social Media Classroom is a good service and I really wish that more people had taken Scott Leslie up on his offer of trying it out on his hosted server. If you are in education, check out Social Media Classroom. Despite all of my complaints above, I would still far rather use it than any course website that I have ever used (Blackboard or otherwise).  With a few simple, yet fundamental changes, it could just be a game changer yet.

Related from around the web:

http://www.elearnspace.org/blog/2008/08/20/social-media-classroom/

http://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=45674

http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/the_social_media_classroom_a_new_platform_for_education.php

What education will look like in 10 years

“What education will look like in 10 years” is the title of the talk that I gave at the UBC Terry Talks conference a few months ago. Terry Talks is a conference modeled after the famous TED talks and it was a raging success. In my talk I touched on the different ways in which I believe education is going to change. I spoke about how it is going to become more collaborative, more “real” and more open. I gave examples of places where all of these changes are starting to manifest themselves and drew some predictions of where things are going to go.

They don’t show my last slide, but in it is a big shout out to a few people like Brian Lamb, Jon Beasley-Murray, Jim Groom, Scott Leslie, Gardner Campbell, Alan Levine and D’Arcy Norman, all of who’s presentations, tweets, blog posts, comments and plain old conversations have helped to shape so many of my ideas and beliefs. I think that this stuff really matters and it was your collective influences that helped me to see that.

Here is my talk embedded below:
http://blip.tv/play/AerXPpPRSA
To see more of the talks you can visit the Terry Talks Website.

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Top learning tip… make friends!

I really think that  having friends in your class is one of my best indicators of success. Last term I had some classes where I had friends, I had classes where for many reasons I was unable to get to know anyone and then I had classes where I found friends around halfway through the term. These divisions were almost exactly reflected in my grades. Having people to discuss the content with, having people to study with, even just having the joy of seeing a friend be that extra motivation to go to a lecture made a huge difference for meHCI team.

This term things are much better. I know people in every one of my classes and it has truly made a huge difference to the way I feel about school. I want to be in every class, not just because of what I will be learning, but also because of the great social interactions that I will be having. I am so excited for an academic term filled with social-academic connections that will do wonders for my grades as well as for my overall happiness!

My team from CPSC 344
My team from CPSC 344

Swurl, get your act together!

I really, really want Swurl to be something useful. For those who do not know what Swurl is,  is a lifestreaming app that does a beautiful job of displaying all of your internet activity in one place. The timeline view of Swurl is facinating, it really does a great job of visually representing your online life in a pretty calendar. I find myself taking pictures and uploading them, just to make my Swurl look prettier. Not only does Swurl do a good job of displaying your life, but it also discovers your friends in other social networks and keeps a list of them for you to view their activity… zero work is needed on your part.

So what is the problem?

Swurl doesn’t give you a way to take things out of Swurl. Yes there is an RSS feed… but any lifestreaming app has that. What makes Swurl brilliant is not its ability  to aggregate your life… it is Swurl’s ability to make it visually stunning. Swurl provides no mechanism for taking that great visual feast and putting it in your own space. I guess their intension is for you to turn your Swurl into your primary web presence… but for those with established blogs (which is something that is highly likely for their primary audience of early adopters) the idea is laughable. 

I think that in order for Swurl to not get lost in the infinity that is the Internet it needs to provide a way for users to bring their beautful Swurl content into their own spaces, through embed code, or badges… or anything that works really.

Until that day comes though I guess I will have to be happy with links and being the only person who ever really sees my Swurl.

My Swurl: http://andremalan.swurl.com/timeline
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