in social & community

Gardening Tools for Social Networks

I had a bunch of interesting conversations with people at the recent Future of Web Apps conference in London. This is more and more my favourite thing about conferences… talking to people and seeing what you end up talking about repeatedly… what are the themes that just emerge from the zeitgeist, with or without any particular curation on the part of the conference organisers.

One of the conversations I found myself having repeatedly was to do with social networks and issues of scaling. That they can just get too diluted, too noisy, too predictable – that they kind of degenerate over time as you add more and more people to your network or as people’s behaviour cycles over time.

It seems to me that a big part of the problem is that whilst a lot of attention is being paid to the problems of adding more and more to your network, we’re not paying enough attention to cultivating our network. We don’t have good gardening tools for social networks.

One set of tools that I would find most beneficial is some kind of reflection of my recent and historical behaviour in the network and the behaviour of others that I’m networked too. As we know, what we *think* we do and what we *actually* do can be two very different things – and both of these sets of information – the perceived and the actual, are equally important. But I don’t get much opportunity to see ‘the real’ in my social network interfaces, short of being told how many ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ I have, for example. This is not particularly useful stuff.

When thinking about this, the closest example to the kind of thing I’d like to see is the ‘Trends’ page you get if you use Google Reader.

Google Reader Trends

What I like about the ‘Trends’ page on Google Reader is that it gives me a whole bunch of ways to cut through the way that I’m consuming my RSS reads, and also what people on my feeds list are doing – who is updating more frequently, who is inactive.

What would something like this for me in a Social Network environment? A few things I think.

Firstly, it will give me the opportunity to reflect a little on my own behaviour in this network – how noisy am I? (Particularly interesting if you can compare it to other people). Are there particular times that I’m more or less noisy (not sure whether that would change my behaviour at all, but it is interesting to be more aware of it). Are there particular people I’m communicating with more regularly than others? Are there types of functions or interactions that I’m engaging with more frequently?

Secondly, it will give me an opportunity to reflect more on the behaviour of those in my network – who are the really noisy ones? Who are the really quiet ones? Who starts conversations that I tend to engage in (responding, saving, favouriting etc.)? How closely are people in my network related? Are there any interesting patterns in the way that they communicate?

A really simple example of one of these kinds of tools can be found on Dopplr and also Jaiku, and it’s just a list of people ‘who I might know’ – using the network effect to help me find people that I might have overlooked connecting with because – as my social network has reached critical mass – the idea of finding new people to add to my network is often less than exciting (what MORE noise!). Avoiding these ‘adding’ tools though can mean that I’m missing out on people who would add real value to my network… so we need ways to overcome this.

Dopplr - People you might know

What am I looking to these tools to help me achieve? Basically, I want more information to help me ‘fine tune’ my social network so that I can make better decisions about who I include in my network so that I can continually fine tune it in a way that gives me the best ongoing value over time.

This is leading me to think that partly what is amiss is that for many social networks, ‘friendship’ is too much like an on/off switch.

When I get a message from Twitter to say that someone has added me, there is a very short routine I go through to decide whether to add them back or not:

1. do I recognise the name? (If yes then more likely to add back, assuming it’s a happy recognition)
2. do they have an obviously spammy name? (If yes, then ignore)
3. check out their twitter page – do they have interesting looking messages? how frequently do they twitter?
4. check out the following:follower ratio. The most appealing ratio is where there are more followers than following, but this isn’t a necessity. However, if your ratio of following to followers is anything more than 20:1 then it’s highly unlikely I’m going to be choosing to follow you.

And, that’s on a good day. On a really busy day where my inbox is very full, if condition 1 isn’t met then quite often it’s straight to the delete button.

This isn’t necessarily the best way to make these decisions. A few times, because people who are following me (who I chose not to follow back) have persistently engaged with me in conversations (that I’ve found through the @ tool, we’re talking Twitter again, sorry!), I have actually gone back and started following them – and my social network has been all the richer for it.

By and large though, once I make this decision, then that’s it. Done. The decision is never revisited again.

Something about this feels kind of wrong to me… really what I’d like is another place. A place where I can put those people who I don’t really know about or who I’m not sure about, or who I haven’t had the time to give enough attention to yet. I’m not quite at the point of thinking I have all the people I need in my social network… I’m still happy and excited about finding and adding new people, if they’re the right people. And I do kind of worry that I’m missing out on these opportunities because I don’t have another place where I can kind of monitor who these people are and whether they’re going to fit into my social network in the longer term… at the moment, they just kind of disappear completely off the radar.

Similarly, sometimes people just get really noisy or really irrelevant to me (it’s not you, it’s me, I’m sure!), and I want a place to put them too. I don’t to just cast them off completely, just a little ‘time-out’.

Is this as simple as ‘tagging’ or ‘categorising’ people, as some have suggested? I’m not sure.

My gut reaction is that having the ability to tag your contacts would be very useful and I’d definitely love to see it. I don’t think it’s the answer to this problem though because we know that people are not particularly good at tagging. If I hardly have time to bother finding out if someone is suitable to add to my ‘following’ list then am I going to have time to ‘tag’ them? I can see some people in my social network being very well tagged, and whole other sections being completely neglected. This is a broken, but it’s also terribly human.

I think that an approach that supports being human better is to provide gardening tools. I don’t know about you – I’m not that much of a gardener, so when I do it I set aside a chunk of time every now and then and I do what I can to get things back into some sense of order.

Similarly, I think we take a little time every now and then to look over our contact lists, our social network, and to try to get it back into shape. Some tools that help us cut through these lists in more helpful ways than ‘alphabetically’ (which seems to be the default.. not really all that helpful).

It makes sense, of course, that social design has been focussed, until now, on helping us add people and communicate with people in our network. Now, as our online social networking becomes more mature, a really interesting challenge will be how to maintain the value of these networks as they scale. I think that these ‘gardening tools’ could be really helpful in that regard.

Would you agree?

  1. I completely agree. In fact, I see this as an open problem in a number of areas — bookmarking sites in particular. is great for letting me build my bookmark collection, but it’s terrible about letting me manage and re-factor my collection. Google Reader’s tools are a nice start, but are just that — a start.

  2. LiveJournal (which I guess you#d call a social networking site although the best description I found was that it was a ‘blog club’) lets you filter and group people to your heart’s content, so you can set up levels of privacy, or groups who have interests in a particular issue. You can filter what you read and who’s allowed to read particular entries. Mind you, most LJ people deal in usernames not actual identity, so you have an extra layer of privacy conferred through that habit.

    The fundamental decision (friend back?) is pretty similar to Twitter.

    The biggest issue I have is how on earth to integrate the anon-world of LiveJournal with the named-worlds, like Facebook; those issues overlap a little with issues of public vs. private space, so personally I want to control the mode as well as everything else, before I lose track altogether.

  3. When I think about the ideal set of tools for managing my list of contacts, or mass of bookmarks, the image that comes to mind is one that was brought up at FOWA: Tom Cruise in Minority Report, just moving his fingers and shoving heaps of stuff out of sight.

    Until we’ve all got special gloves and wall-sized glass screens in our homes, I think taking time out to cut back the hedges and weeds, combined with better systems and user-interfaces that allow more human-like ‘sorting’ will make things a ton easier.

    It also helps to remember that the garden is still very wild. Over the next few years there’ll be all manner of spades, strimmers and mowers brought to the fold. And eventually we’ll all be able to recline in our own paradise


  4. There has been some very interesting research on visualisation of email archives and contacts that touches on your need for “gardening tools”. The approach taken from these sources is using visualisation techniques for reflection and analysis of social relationships and patterns.

    Consult the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at University of Maryland page on Email Visualisation for a few such papers.

    I found the paper Contrasting Portraits of Email Practices:
    Visual approaches to reflection and analysis
    particularly inspiring.

  5. I like the idea of being able to “turn off” noisy tweeters for a while. It would be nice to turn down the volume sometimes rather than discard completely…

  6. Nice post Leisa. I like the gardening metaphor – works for me. I also like the idea of turning down the volume; which ever way you look at it, it’s all about control.

    Now if only I had more time for gardening… ;-)

  7. Once again, Leisa, you make a potentially esoteric topic easy to understand for the quasi-lay person. This was a fantastically cogent, well-thought-out post – thank you!

  8. Building up the network has been initially fostered for a some reasons (IMHO): create a critical mass of “eyeballs” easy to value and sell.. have a larger base of potential interactions and feedbacks to screen through and further enhance the appeal of the actual site.. then, clearly, from the mass you may want to extract the jewels…it would be nice to have an “emotional” ranking, something intangible to value, like when you had little stars or hearts near to the names in your agenda… :-)
    Then it would be easy to build up emotional networks, hubs and catalysts..interests, issues, politics, all filters already available or easy to implement…
    Ideally, it would be interesting to have somewhat of neural intelligence behind profiles and personal evolution..according to us changing over time, people get drawn closer to our social emotional centre or pushed farther..

  9. I think there may be another facet to Ambient Intimacy that calls for a second control next to volume, and that is Gain. Being able to turn down the gain would mean that only the most important and relevant, close, intimate messages would get through. Turning the gain back up would allow the noisier content to be appreciated again in its less contextually relevant but nevertheless entertaining and socially important way…


  10. The kind of tools we need are totally dependent on the type of network we’re cultivating.

    Twittering for me is quite a personal activity – and I want to feel free to express myself fully. I want to feel free to swear, to bitch about a meeting or just be plain silly. Facebook is similar – although I engage with it less and less often now. I was more broad in who I added at first and am now more circumspect in my posting. LinkedIn is purely professional and as such I behave in a different way.

    I also feel rude in turning down follow requests – which often leads me to have followers that I’ve forgotten about, particularly lurking colleagues. Occasionally they’ll mention a tweet in a way that suddenly makes me aware that my network is wider than the obvious. In this instance it would be useful to create circles of intimacy – although greater effort would then be required in the use of Twitter which might make it less attractive?

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