Creating Users

I’ve long thought that successful social software requires as much attention to designing for user motivation as it does to implementing those insights in algorithms and clean user interface.

I’m not the only one of course who has thought that. It’s an active area of study and commentary. From Jacques Bughin of McKinsey who studied contribution patterns for German video sites to Nick Yee who studied user motivations in MMORPG’s, users come to social sites with and for different objectives.

Of course this study leads to detailed recommendations designed to increase contributions – such as recognizing contributors with differential privileges to reputation systems based on contribution ranking. Contribution is only part of the puzzle though. One of the trends that seem to be emerging is the power of weak ties and their role in building social networks and contribution behavior.

The first inkling I had of the role of weak ties was Danah Boyd’s misunderstood essay “Viewing America..”. While the essay looked a class differences in FaceBook and MySpace usage, the underlying driver for the difference is friending patterns. As the work of Dr Will Reader – nicely summarized here and here – suggests many of these friendships may be based on acquaintanceship (weak tie) rather than close friendship.

The importance of these weak ties in building social sites becomes clear when you examine a diagram from the McKinsey study. It shows 2% of Flickr’s and 6% of YouTube’s users being responsible for 90+% of their content.

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Both seem low – and fly in the face of Forrester Study that predicted successful sites have a 13% contribution rate. What’s going on?

While I think the McKinsey numbers are partly the result of artifacts from the definition of ‘contributing content’ and ‘user’ the underlying truth is that the type content plays a role in the motivation contributors have. Both sites host content that is far easier to consume than to contribute. I would suggest that part of the reason to contribute is that this disparity enhances the number of weak ties that connect with the content. In other words part of the motivation to contribute is these sites to access users who do not contribute.

Some might call this audience – but it’s not so simple because these users contribute to the sites success if the site designers provide (as Flicker and YouTube do) ways for non-contributors to show their approval by rating, voting, commenting and linking/embedding – all of which help establish weak ties between the creator and the consumer.

Jeremy Liew in writing about Nick Yee’s study lists 3 factors that motivate both contributors and users:

providing mechanisms to recognize achievement
create an ambience of social engagement
facilitate engagement around entertaining or humorous material and situations

Taken together these studies suggest that the relationship between content contributors, site visitors and content is a complex interplay in which the content is only part of the motivation for a site visit – for both contributors and consumers.

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