The web wasn’t designed to be made of pristine brochure pages. If you’ve ever tried to manage a web project, you’ll know that each version of each web browser displays pages just a little bit differently, making perfectly-rendered designs impossible. What’s less obvious is that the web’s style system was designed to be separable from the content on your website. Anyone can choose to view your site in the style of their choice. A website is not a publication: it’s living, breathing content.
To an arts professional or marketer used to the fineries of print publishing, these aspects to online life might sound scary. Instead, I’d argue that they’re an opportunity. The web, unlike any other communications medium, is endlessly remixable, reprogrammable and reshareable. There’s no doubt that your website should be the centre of your digital presence. But for your audience, it’s not the destination; it’s an information source that feeds into their notification stream. Users want to find, share, discover and remix your content – why fight them?
Tony Stubblebine has written a great post about the lessons he’s learned from Twitter, which was created at Odeo while he was working there. This advice stands out for me:
Have you ever looked at a piece of social software and thought, or worse, blogged, that it was worthless? Here’s a trick for evaluating social software in a way that isn’t going to make you look stupid six months down the road: assume it’s valuable if people are using it. Then try to figure out what value they’re getting.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people be dismissive about Twitter, or Facebook, or another well-loved web tool because they didn’t understand it. I’ve even been guilty of it myself – but it’s not productive. Much better to figure out why people love it and learn from what you discover.
I believe a truly decentralized social web is required to fulfill the web’s potential as a platform for business collaboration, and I’m very interested in helping to push the technical and conceptual boundaries in that direction. I spend a lot of time on this blog writing about that, but I think it’s also important to remember that a huge amount is possible using the technologies, standards and ideas that we can currently pick up and use.
Creating a new web tool, or adapting one for your own use, can be a bit like pitching a movie: a lot of people come to me and say things like, “it’s like Delicious meets Youtube, but for the iPhone”. That’s great, and can result in some very interesting ideas, but I think it’s always best to go back to first principles and ask why you need the tool to begin with. My post The Internet is People addressed some key points on this:
- Your tool must plug into an existing network of users, or be useful for user 1 (the first user to sign up). Delicious lets you save your bookmarks into the cloud; Flickr lets you easily upload photos so other people can see them. Both services come into their own when you connect with other users, but the core of the site is useful before you’ve done so. Facebook is different, but it had the Harvard real-world social network to plug in – and it now acts as a useful aggregation of your other activity on the web, which arguably is useful for user 1.
- You can’t build a site and assume people will come and use it. It’s a lot of hard work, even when the technology is ready for launch; you need to lead by example, constantly adding content and using the site as you would like it to be used. Not to mention the hours you have to put in promoting it elsewhere.
The feature set itself should be tightly focused:
As each tool should focus on one particular network, or at least type of network, I’d argue that the exact feature set should be dictated by the needs of that network. Educational social networks might need some coursework delivery tools; a network for bakers might need a way to share bread recipes. The one common feature in any social network is people; even profiles may not be entirely necessary.
I mention at the end of the post that these principles were the guiding ideas behind the design of the Elgg architecture. They’re now the principles behind the tools and strategy I develop for my clients.
In this blog you’ll find lots of talk about new technologies, innovative approaches and the ethics of social media. These allow us to build interesting new tools, but they always sit on a firm foundation: the Internet is just people connecting and sharing with each other, and the purpose of web tools is to make that as easy as possible.