Making social software work for real people

I spent a fun day working at Leslie’s house in the countryside yesterday. It was a gorgeous crisp winter’s day, and we spent the day debating and developing ideas for a particularly knotty client problem, while eating delicious sausage sandwiches and being hassled for grapes by his chickens.

What is probably more interesting is that about an hour of the day’s discussion focussed on social software. More specifically, me trying to explain social software to my colleagues, some of whom are self-confessed luddites. Rather than talk about the technology or some clever principles, I instead decided to just demonstrate three well-known applications: Flickr,, and

They didn’t get Flickr at all; it just raised privacy concerns. “Why would you want to share your holiday photos with strangers?” They understood, but couldn’t see the benefit in their lives as they “don’t bookmark many websites anyway”. however really clicked for them, because they could immediately see the benefit – “a tool to find new music that I’ll probably like”. “Like Amazon, but better.”

This got me thinking a bit about where all this Web 2.0 stuff is going, and how we are going to make it work for real people?

The trick for me is to remember that nobody outside of the protocracy is, or ever will be, interested in this stuff. Also, we must realise that there is a generational gap in understanding of how your social network can be leveraged.

In the research I’ve been doing recently in the UK, younger people are impatient for this stuff. They are already doing some of the things that social software enables, through clumsy improvised methods, mostly using text. Remember though that because they want it doesn’t mean they find it clever or sexy. “It’s just how things should work isn’t it?”

Older people though (generally over 28?) see anything social in very friendsreunited terms, and worry about their ability to maintain even more relationships. “I’ve got enough friends.” They have trouble with the concept that (apart from networking tools like LinkedIn), most social software is about the infocloud generated by the relationships, not the relationships themselves.

So how can we shape this stuff to make it acceptable for the mass market? My first thoughts are:

  • Make the social network an enabler, not the thing.
  • Barriers to participation (rating/tagging) must be very low or non-existent.
  • Make it very clear to the user how they are insulted from the weirdoes.


I’m not sure that big fonts have a bearing either way.


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One Response to “Making social software work for real people”

  1. csven Says:

    I believe that terminology and maturity are at the heart of many issues. Explaining benefits starts with effectively communicating. Sensible use comes from experience; some of it real world.

    I’m what one might call an older protocrat; I speak the technical jargon, but my social vocabulary is often different from that of younger people. I’ve also been around the block – and the world – a few times, so I have some real world “social” experience. I noticed differences in both terminology and social maturity when I returned for a second bachelor’s degree and found myself amongst a different generation of people accustomed to technology but still developing social skills.

    For example, while I hesitate to use the word “friend” because that implies something more than being an “acquaintance”, most younger people seem to use only the one word and use it liberally. In fact, it’s used so liberally that its meaning is diluted. There’s no good reason to dilute this term.

    Interestingly, while younger people can be very careful about their terminology when talking tech, when dealing in non-technical terms, they are – afaic – sloppy. Don’t blame the older generations. They mostly just have trouble with the technical jargon. Blame the young ones for making “social networks” nonsensical to people with mature ideas of what being social means. The idea of meeting in a park somewhere with some “friend” one knows only from having traded IM’s is ludicrous to older people but all too common for young ones. So sloppy social vocabulary meets social immaturity among the technically-savvy young; while insufficient technical vocabulary meets more restrained social practices among the more cautious older generations.

    If you show an older individual Flickr and how they can share family photos with the world, you start to get into issues regarding privacy. I’d point out that more and more young people are beginning to understand that posting a bunch of pictures on a MySpace page can be a bad thing. They’re learning, but up until recently prudence has been lost on many who use these services. Many simply don’t realize the potential negatives. We’re entering an age where Reputation is increasingly important. Some college kid sharing drunken pictures online (some of which might show illegal activity) is not a good way to earn reputation capital and is likely to lose job prospects. After all, if a company hires this person, will they be sent to a foreign country and be just as careless? That’s a serious issue for a multinational.

    Perhaps when the terminology becomes more appropriate and meaningful and commonplace to a broader audience, and common sense in the use of these social apps becomes the rule and not the exception, then the issues you raise will diminish.

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