Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Age of the Weak Link

A while ago a fascinating article by Clive Thompson ran in the New York Times, on the phenomenon of Twitter:
I'm So Totally, Digitally Close To You
In it, Thompson confronts the problem facing Twitter and many other Internet startups: at first blush, their services seem stupid. Blogging within a 140-character limit? That seems like nothing more than a recipe for trivia, a process of mind-numbing navel-gazing that would certainly be an exercise in tedium.

I remember my reaction when I first heard of Twitter: it seemed completely pointless. It reminded me of a German art film I once saw, mostly by mistake. The main character got on a bus, and during a stopover we in the audience were treated to a long, long scene in which the bus driver peeled his hard-boiled egg. "I bought a ticket so I could watch this?" I asked myself at the time. That's how Twitter seemed to me: a universe of people sending out status updates as they slowly peeled their eggs. Why should I care?

It turns out, though, that pretty much everyone has that reaction, until they've been using the service for a time and something starts to dawn on them: micro-blogging provides a special form of intimacy.
"... as the days went by, something changed. Haley discovered that he was beginning to sense the rhythms of his friends’ lives in a way he never had before. When one friend got sick with a virulent fever, he could tell by her Twitter updates when she was getting worse and the instant she finally turned the corner. He could see when friends were heading into hellish days at work or when they’d scored a big success. Even the daily catalog of sandwiches became oddly mesmerizing, a sort of metronomic click that he grew accustomed to seeing pop up in the middle of each day. This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting."
Turns out there's a term for this sort of thing: it's called "ambient awareness." Look around you, in whatever room you're in right now. If you're in the office, maybe you can hear someone down the hall, talking on the phone. If you're at home, maybe your dog is scratching itself, or you can hear cars out on the street. Those are all part of your environment; you don't pay attention to them, but you'd feel their lack if they weren't there. If you're in the same room as someone, your ambient awareness includes little facts about their current situation: what they're doing, how they're feeling (which you pick up from their body posture or facial expression), and so on. If you're in a relationship, you probably remember times when the two of you were together but not actually interacting:
"Social scientists ... call it “ambient awareness.” It is, they say, very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does — body language, sighs, stray comments — out of the corner of your eye."
In short, the Internet has developed a new means of maintaining social connections. No matter how far away you are from your friends and loved ones, you can -- through social media -- maintain a form of connection that used to require physical proximity. This is not, however, to say that Web 2.0 allows us to maintain an infinite number of close friendships. Rather, these media function best as extensions of the offline world:
"Many maintained that their circle of true intimates, their very close friends and family, had not become bigger. Constant online contact had made those ties immeasurably richer, but it hadn’t actually increased the number of them; deep relationships are still predicated on face time, and there are only so many hours in the day for that."
This backs up something I've suspected for a long time: that online social networks function best, not when they try to create a social world that exists entirely in virtual space, but as an extension and backup of face-to-face connections that existed prior to the creation of the online service. When you find something cool online, who do you forward it to? Your friends, and when they adopt the same service a social connection is expanded, not created. Any company that seeks, for liability reasons, to limit offline connections between online friends is clearly swimming upstream.

There is a place, though, for old-school virtual relationships: they fall under the heading of "weak ties," and they can be very useful:
"But where their sociality had truly exploded was in their 'weak ties' -- loose acquaintances, people they knew less well. It might be someone they met at a conference, or someone from high school who recently “friended” them on Facebook, or somebody from last year’s holiday party. In their pre-Internet lives, these sorts of acquaintances would have quickly faded from their attention. But when one of these far-flung people suddenly posts a personal note to your feed, it is essentially a reminder that they exist. ... Sociologists have long found that “weak ties” greatly expand your ability to solve problems. For example, if you’re looking for a job and ask your friends, they won’t be much help; they’re too similar to you, and thus probably won’t have any leads that you don’t already have yourself. Remote acquaintances will be much more useful, because they’re farther afield, yet still socially intimate enough to want to help you out."
Which is, of course, why services like LinkedIn are successful: they are founded on the very notion of weak ties, and try to make those ties professionally useful.

There are many lessons to be learned here. I would suggest that anyone who builds websites for a living should copy the article locally and re-read it from time to time. Just a few thoughts that occur to me now:

First, this scenario poses a tremendous barrier to entry for new social networking sites. If the value of a service like Twitter is not apparent until after you've been using it for a while, it's going to be very difficult to convince new users to come by and give it a shot. Sounds like Twitter benefited greatly from word-of-mouth marketing from a few influential early-adopters, but it also sounds like the service could easily have disappeared without a trace. There was no inevitability to Twitter's success, and it will be extremely difficult for anyone to follow in their footsteps.

Second, I love the paradox of Twitter's creation: if you don't know how good it is until after you've been using it for a while, then logically no one who was in on the initial development of the service new what they were building. They might have believed firmly that they knew what they were doing, but they didn't know anything until after it was up and running and they were able to experience it along with everyone else. In short, Twitter's founders got very, very lucky. No doubt we're all in for a series of articles profiling these "visionaries," and there's also a good chance that one or more of them will, with great fanfare, move on to a new startup that will be like Twitter, only better. And I can predict it now: those startups will vanish from the face of the earth, because Twitter's founders didn't know what they were doing when they built Twitter, and they won't know what they're doing the next time out. Lightning doesn't strike twice in the same spot.

I don't mean to pick on Twitter. I think this is true of any community-oriented site or service: you don't know what you have until people start to use it. Inevitably they will use it in ways you didn't expect or intend. In a nutshell, the v1 of any community site is likely to miss the mark. So the only thing you can do is plan from Day One for v2: build into your schedule and budget the expectation that you'll need to tear everything down and start over, three to six months after launch.

This is, of course, a huge challenge. It's hard enough to get one site off the ground, let alone build with the assumption that you'll get it wrong and will need to correct it later. But, naturally, "get it wrong" is not the right phrase to use if you truly embrace the idea that the community will define how your site is to be used. Better to think of it in terms of a provisional launch: first you launch the platform, then you figure out what the service should look like through iterative testing and measurement. Which is, of course, how products like the iPod were designed: first Apple launches them, then they release updates that refine the specs and feature set in response to customer demand. If it's good enough for Steve Jobs, shouldn't it be good enough for you?