5 books that have influenced how I think about online interactions

In a series of 3 posts, I’m sharing some books that I’ve found useful on the topics of community management, online interactions, and leadership and team culture. In this post, I recommend 5 books that cover various aspects of how we behave online from different types of interactions to how structures influence our activities and more.


1. “It’s complicated” by danah boyd

I really enjoyed danah boyd’s dissection of the various beliefs about how teenagers use social networks – indeed, it was probably my favourite book of 2014. But it’s not simply an internet explainer/debunking of scare stories for the worried parent. Yes, each chapter addresses a topic of potential misunderstanding – from online identity, to privacy, to the naive belief that the internet is a great leveller. But, boyd frames many of her arguments in relation to the 4 affordances of online networks – the behaviours that the various online tools make possible.  I enjoyed considering persistence, visibility, searchability and spreadability as key factors in sharing content online – and have started a series of my own musings about these affordances.

Continue reading

Social intelligence – and what’s missing in online interactions on social media

Social intelligence is the ability to navigate complex social relationships and environments – something key to being a successful community manager or facilitator. However, on reading recently about some of the components of social intelligence proposed by Dan Goleman it struck me how poorly we optimise for many of them on social media.

Goleman proposes that there are two broad categories of skills that comprise social intelligence – those of social awareness and those of social facility. Social awareness includes paying attention to others so that we develop empathy, attunement and cognition, whereas social facility is about how we regulate our own interactions with others – including how we present ourselves and exert influence.

Could some of the problems that we’re seeing with anti-social behaviour online be attributed to two related issues? 1) Platforms being better optimised for social facility traits and 2) Technical limitations that seriously restrict social awareness online. I unpack these ideas in this post.

Nerd, dork, geek or dweeb? Where do you sit in the Venn diagram?
Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dullhunk/3350940973/

Continue reading

What does community mean when we focus on personal identity online?

Did anyone else see this article in The Atlantic that asks “What is community”? It explores what community comes to mean if we focus on personal identity – in politics, online and in our relationships:

“….Facebook and Tumblr and Twitter and Snapchat and their many fellow services emphasizes identity through a combination of consumption and performance: On Facebook, for example, one’s favorite music and one’s favorite news sites and the memes and jokes one shares suggest, in the aggregate, not just what they like, but who they are.”

I’d argue that things are a bit more nuanced than that – sharing of information in the right context can lead new connections, and that it’s only by revealing something of ourselves that we are able to build meaningful relationships to others. The detrimental effects of focusing on identity seem to come when we hold identity as a rigid, immutable concept, instead of one that it able to change based on new knowledge and experiences.

What do you think? Do we have spaces online where identity can be more fluid? What is the role of the community manager in issues of identity? How would you define community?

The role of gratitude in creating communities

Recently, I listened to an interesting podcast interview about gratitude. Something that really resonated with me in terms of community-building was a discussion of how gratitude creates a sense of belonging – a key element in communities. The interviewee mentioned the classic example of a Buddhist giving thanks for an item of food and realising how many different people went into bringing that item from the field to the kitchen table. In a global, interconnected world none of us can say we’re truly independent – we belong to a complex network of many other people.

But aside from making you realise that you didn’t achieve or obtain a certain thing entirely on your own and that you’re part of a wider ecosystem, I think there are two other points relevant to community-building:

  1. Gratitude as a concept for me had gotten somewhat lost in the word “sharing” which perhaps gets overused when talking about online exchanges. Yet if we unpack the action of healthy sharing within a community, it’s both the offering of a skill, piece of information etc and the giving of thanks for it. And if you’re thanked for your offering, you’re more likely to feel appreciated and you’ll probably contribute again in the future. Gratitude also signals that your behaviour was appropriate for the community – which helps to clarify belonging.
  2. The exchange between the donor and the recipient builds a specific, two-way interaction between two community members. i.e. giving thanks makes the interaction bi-directional, and therefore stronger than if it had been a uni-directional gift-giving. You feel like you belong because you have an actual reciprocated tie to another person.

How does this translate into practical actions to take? It could be that you always acknowledge contributions to your community/group – even if that’s just a thank you for leaving a comment. It could be publicly thanking by name members who have contributed content of value in the past week. Or it could be specifically “rewarding” members who contribute more than most with badges, a Q&A with them about their role, or some other way of deliberately increasing their social capital.

What role(s) does gratitude play in the communities that you belong to?

7 fundamentals of design – and how they apply to online spaces

In “It’s complicated – the social lives of networked teens”, Danah Boyd considers the four affordances of online networks (the first of which I’ve discussed here). An affordance is a term that originates from the field of design, and recently I’ve been reading “The Design of Everyday Things” by Donald Norman, where he starts by explaining 7 fundamental design ideas. Here I consider how each can be applied to online spaces.

i) Discoverability

Usually when the word discoverability is used about the Internet it refers to how easy content is to find – either due to SEO or the intrinsic properties of the site hosting the content. Discoverability when referring to design is something different – it’s whether it’s possible to figure out how to use an object by interacting with it.

Online, many of the sites that we interact with use at least some features in common that guide us in how to use them. These might include navigation bars in the top and/or the sidebar of pages, dropdown menus and possibly even hover text with additional explanatory information. However, as we all know from experience, some sites are better than others at indicating how exactly to move between desired pages, or where particular features are located. For example, Facebook has been criticised many times over the years for not making its privacy settings easier to find and apply.

ii) Affordances

The affordance of an object is the possible use for that object once a user interacts with it. The key to the definition is that interaction is needed – an affordance depends on the qualities of the object and the capabilities of the person using it. A website might use a specific type of video player, but if users with certain browsers or smartphones cannot view the videos then the affordance of watching video is not available to them.

In terms of content shared in online spaces, Boyd lists persistence, visibility, searchability and spreadability as the four key affordances. However, if we go by the definition above, others such as the ability to participate in a conversation via a comment thread might also be included.


Drinking coffee, reading a book – but not with coffee poured from the pot on the book cover! Image credit: author’s own.


iii)  Signifiers

How do we discover what affordances are possible? Signifiers act as signs to indicate affordances. Online these could be a call-to-action button within an email, descriptive images in a carousel that invite you to read a particular news story, or a coloured section of a page indicating where you should look. They could also be a particular icon – such as the Facebook “thumbs-up” showing when you too can “like” a piece of content. Or they could be social sharing buttons, encouraging the reader to spread the content more widely.

Another good example is the “slide to unlock” text on the iPhone lock screen. Not only does it tell you what you need to do to operate the device, there is also an arrow indicating which direction you need to swipe in, and the text illuminates repeatedly letter by letter in that direction.

Signifiers don’t necessarily have to be deliberate to give away information about their environment. For example, as Norman points out, a bookmark doesn’t just indicate where in a book to resume reading; it also indicates how far through the book you are. Similarly, online, the number of likes or votes that an item of content has received may indicate how enjoyable the content is likely to be, but can also act as a signifier of how likely the content is to have been shared – and therefore how often it might have been seen.

iv) Mapping

Mapping is used to indicate the relationship between two sets of things – such as switches and the corresponding lights that they control. It’s often used when designing controls and displays.

Natural mapping is particularly useful in online design because it takes advantage of actions that we’re already familiar with – such as swiping through something to delete it and swiping down to refresh a smartphone page and pull more content into the window.

Another example of mapping is social network timelines, which typically show older content at the bottom and more recent activity at the top. One of the complaints about Facebook tweaking newsfeed settings is not just that it changes which content appears in your newsfeed, but that Facebook’s algorithm violates their instinctive mapping. The content no longer follows a strictly chronological sequence – older, more popular content may sit above an update made 5 minutes ago by a different friend.

v) Constraints

Providing constrains on what is possible with an object can help to clarify how to use it and what it’s for. For example, the handles on scissors constrain the user to only be able to fit one digit into the top hole, while she can fit all the remaining fingers into the larger, lower hole.

Tweets are an obvious example of an online constraint – only 140 characters are permitted for each tweet – and this is clearly signified by a counter that displays how many characters are still available to the user. A tweet therefore affords the user the ability to share small pieces or text including links to other media.

vi) Feedback

Feedback is important to help us understand how to interact with objects and what effect our actions have had on the object or system. Too much or too noisy feedback, however, can be distracting and impair the ability to use the item smoothly. Online feedback might be in the form of additional information appearing on a page. Or it could be a pop up window indicating that an action has successfully occurred or that there has been an error that the user needs to know about.

One of the challenges with feedback online is that it can also be used to encourage engagement and that can make for a frequently interrupted experience. For example, a popup window may not only be used to tell you about something that you did, it might also be used to point you towards content that may be of interest, such as a promotion, a survey, or even an online chat bot to help you with your purchase.

Another interesting issue about feedback is that new users typically need more than experienced ones do – and what is initially helpful can quickly become annoying as a user becomes more comfortable with a product. A human teacher will tailor their feedback to the needs of a learner, but we need to make sites sensitive to how much a user already knows.

vii) Conceptual model

A conceptual model is how the user understands a system to work and is important for giving the user a sense of control (think how frustrated you get when you can’t figure out how to setup the new TV!). With a clear conceptual model, discoverability is enhanced – the user can figure out how to do new things or try variations on existing things. She can also evaluate the results of the actions that she takes.

An example of a conceptual model online is the idea that content spreads on Twitter by being re-tweeted and that this provides a good mechanism of attracting new followers. This model may suggest to the user that she should experiment with what time of day to tweet, how often to tweet and what types of content to share in order to be retweeted more frequently.

Better by design

Next time you’re struggling to figure out the settings on your favourite social network, or enjoying an app or website, consider how each of the above principles has been applied (or not). I’d love to hear in the comments about any great or ghastly experiences you might have had!

The four affordances of online networks. Part one: Persistence

Barely a month goes by without some change to the features and functioning of the major social networks that many of us now use on a regular basis. Just this week, Twitter announced that it’s indexed all tweets back to 2006, meaning that they’re now easily discovered via search. Twitter’s also been experimenting with inserting tweets in your newsfeed that were favourited by people you follow, as if they were retweets. And conversations were made more prominent via threading, which links together comments about an initial tweet. If we look to Facebook, two of the biggest changes have been the shift to the timeline profile, as well as constant tweaks to the newsfeed algorithm, including how often – and where – content from Pages are shown.

Each new change is met – somewhat predictably – with complaints from users. But what if the basis for those complaints is not simply that adapting to new ways of doing things requires effort?  What if these changes are actually fundamentally altering the “rules” of these networked spaces that many users now consider to be their online living rooms?

In the introduction to her recent book “It’s complicated – the social lives of networked teens”, Danah Boyd outlines the concept of “affordances” of online platforms. An affordance is a characteristic of an environment that makes certain types of behaviour possible. It doesn’t determine directly what will happen, but people using that space will need to work with – or around – that particular feature, and so their behaviour will be shaped by it.

Boyd describes 4 affordances that affect what we do in our online networks: persistence, visibility, spreadability and searchability. These affordances provide a useful way to think about our relationships to the content that we share online and, by extension, to how we interact with each other around that content.  In a series of posts, I’ll take a look at them in more detail, specifically with respect to how our social networks keep changing.

Persistence – how long your online content lasts

We’re coming to realise that pretty much everything online is persistent now – not just static pages, blog posts and so on, but also our activities on social networks. For example, we know that Facebook is storing not just our visible activities such as commenting on, and liking, our friends’ posts, but also the data about what we decide not to post, or delete. Tweets are all being automatically archived in the Library of Congress, and are also available to select research institutions working with Twitter to study the behaviour of users.

For me, our reaction to the issue of persistence seems to be closely related to two of the other affordances: searchability and visibility. Basically, pretty much everything you post online is going to stay there “forever” in some form, even if just on some server at Twitter or Facebook. But what really affects the user is how easy it is for anyone else to find it. And this can depend on search tools, and whether the audience for a post is somehow changed after it’s shared e.g. by sharing that data with unintended recipients such as researchers or even new friends.

Do you know what medium you're creating your digital footprint in? What happens when you thought it was sand and discover it was concrete? Image credit: Flickr user Dave Mathis: https://www.flickr.com/photos/eldave/1455743875/

Do you know what medium you’re creating your digital footprint in? What happens when you thought it was sand and discover it was concrete? Image credit: Flickr user Dave Mathis: https://www.flickr.com/photos/eldave/1455743875/

Travelling back in digital time

And this is where changes to features matter. With Twitter’s original search tool you couldn’t go back very far into “Twi-history” and so the content never really felt persistent. But now, in addition to third party tools such as Topsy that allow you to go back through the archives, and Storify that allow you to preserve conversations, Twitter has now indexed all tweets back to 2006 making them discoverable within Twitter itself. What may once have felt like a forum for throwaway chatter now becomes something more lasting and possibly with more consequences.

Ditto Facebook where the obligatory shift to the Timeline-based profiles suddenly meant that your friends could search back through your archives if they wanted to, viewing the you of several years ago, possibly before you were even friends. In relationships, we’re used to sharing information about ourselves gradually, incrementally revealing our vulnerabilities. The persistence of our digital pasts presents us with a new way of getting to know someone – and one that is further complicated because it may only be representative of our online life, not of our offline actions.

What’s wrong with forgetting?

The popularity of Snapchat, where content is destroyed after it’s viewed, suggests that there’s a demand for non-persistence online. We need places where we can engage in the kind of less consequential, more fleeting interactions that face-to-face meetings have often permitted. In “It’s complicated”, Boyd argues that being able to experiment with different identities without major consequences is a key part of being a teenager, and I’d argue that adults need this opportunity too.

We’re often doing things for the first time, or make mistakes that we’d rather be able to forget as part of a process of learning. Where actions are held only as memories, they fade and may even be completely forgotten. What are the consequences of persistent online records where events can be revisited and even revealed to those who weren’t part of the original audience? And what happens when what was once perceived as a safe, somewhat private space suddenly becomes a more public one?

From persistence to privacy and onto visibility

Changes to social networks, and also the creation of third party tools, are increasing the persistence of online content. As we build up a larger and more searchable online history, what are the consequences? Do we react by more carefully controlling the access to our past lives? For example, a friend of a friend’s daughter recently moved schools and created a brand new Facebook profile  so that none of her new friends could see her interactions with her old school friends. Or do we still take comfort in the notion of privacy through obscurity?

Which brings us to the next post in this series, where we’ll consider visibility – whose eyeballs you want on your content.

Gone fishing – liking versus loving content online

In 2012, Robin Sloan created a very cute little app called “Fish“, a tap essay exploration of what it means to love something on the Internet (and well worth 10 minutes of your time to download and read it). Sloan argues that when you really love something, you pay it repeated attention; revisiting it, and noticing or re-appreciating more details with each visit. Loving a thing – as for loving another person – means that you want to keep returning to it and spending time with it. Whatever the thing might be – a poem, a song, a film, a brilliantly written essay – it’s had such a compelling effect on you that it’s more than just a glimmer of passing gold in the stream, it’s something you want to catch and keep.

And in the era of social media, it might also be something you want to share with others.

What is love?

So how does loving something work online? It seems to be both a question of behaviour – how we signify special affection for a particular item of content over another – but also a challenge for technology – how we save and revisit cherished digital content.

Like, like, like /= love

On Facebook, a like is relatively cheap currency. Yes, a like has social value – it can indicate agreement, shared celebration, a public social declaration of approval, even that you appreciate someone’s humour – but once you’ve liked something, it’s often quickly forgotten and you’ve moved onto the next thing. Likes on Facebook are so lightweight in terms of your relationship with the specific item that you’ve liked, that you don’t even receive notifications on that post if anyone else interacts with it. They’re a fleeting interaction, a passing fancy. Notifications only start once you’ve left a comment.

Furthermore, there’s no easy way of going back and revisiting what you’ve liked; these momentary connections are only enduring love in the eyes of the algorithms that try to predict what you might like next…

Likes gain weight when more people pile on the praise, shooting the liked item up the newsfeeds of friends, but this doesn’t mean any individual *loved* the post, just that the peer group as a whole thinks it has some social value (and we’ve heard plenty in recent weeks about how Facebook is influencing this).

Rather like the boyfriend who brings you flowers, charms your parents and didn’t forget your birthday, this type of “social” content might be ticking some of the right boxes, but that doesn’t guarantee it’s setting your heart alight and that you’ll care about it 6 months from now.

The read later button that Facebook recently introduced may help with the bookmarking aspect of saving content to read later, but it still doesn’t allow you to star something to indicate both that it is worth saving and that it’s good.

Maybe you have to take the content off the platform for that because, once found, loving something becomes less of a social phenomenon and more of a personal one?

Favourites on Twitter also don’t solve the love problem. It’s not that they don’t have complex social meanings, but, as per Facebook likes, the action alone is not meant to be an enduring bookmark for the user. I have over 11k favourites – it’s never going to be an effective way for me to find that blog post about that thing.

Likes on Instagram are less complex – you’re just showing that you appreciate a photo, but it’s still very difficult to go back through the list of photos that you’ve liked and find a specific one.

Google+ offered the prospect that when you gave something a +1, you would be able to go back and find everything that you’d given a +1 to. Except that Google+ hasn’t really caught on as a competitor to Facebook and Twitter – without the stream, there’s not much fishing to be done in the first place.

How do you "heart" content online?  Image from Flickr user UnaMamaSnob: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mammasnob/8332953919/

How do you “heart” content online?
Image from Flickr user UnaMamaSnob: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mammasnob/8332953919/

Curation for your infatuation

So what to do about both indicating superlative content and saving it for later? Is the answer to both the social challenge and the technical challenge to be found in curation?

Making desert island lists of favourite movies or albums or meals has long been a fun game to play – imagining shrinking your record collection down into a few choice samples that you’d be forced to listen to forever is certainly one way to test how much you really like something. And continuing the obsession with lists, there’s now a trend for bloggers to create round-ups of the best posts from the past week (See the URLs of wisdom, for one!). But these are mostly valuable when a) you share similar tastes as the person doing the curating and b) their reading habits allow them to continue to identify new and interesting content rather than relying only on the same sources every week. Even then, it’s debatable that there are going to be 20 things you really love in a given week – to the extent that you’d want to keep going back to those items.

A new network being developed by Atlantic Media, called This, is based on the premise that each user only shares one link each day to something that they think is really valuable. But how safe would you play it if you could only cast a single daily vote that was meant to indicate all of your tastes?

Still looking…?

At least for the major social networks that I’ve considered here, finding content that you really love doesn’t seem to be the point. Social networks are more about promoting repeat visits to the site rather than to individual items of content, and so relationships with the content are encouraged to be fleeting and news-like. Tech-wise, most attention is paid to the upfront features that determine the visibility of that content, such as newsfeed algorithms or retweets, rather than encouraging archiving and making chosen items of content accessible later.

So does this mean the options to develop a more in-depth relationship to online content are skewed against us? Or just that we need to think more deliberately about how we separate out our likes from our loves, acknowledging that perhaps the things we love require us to create a separate place away from those we merely like?