My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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how to solve problems with social networks

According to David, Eric Schmidt from Google said: “Social networks will get better as we figure out what problem they’re intended to solve.” In an attempt to learn from last week, i will try really hard to not take that literally and imagine that he meant to say that “social networking TOOLS will get better…”

But even still, there’s a bit of backwards logic here. Why are we asking: what can social networking tools solve? Why aren’t we asking: what problem do we have that social networks give us insight to? I remember when i first got involved in technology creation, there was always a technology-first, problem-second approach. A technology was created and then everyone was rushing around trying to put it to use. I find it very entertaining that social networks (which weren’t invented, but modeled) are being put to the same process.

The thing is that social network representations require nuance. We can either try to solve the nuances universally (not going to happen) or try to figure out what problems we’re trying to employ social networks in and figure out how to negotiate them there IN A CONTEXT. The latter is going to be far more successful. Haven’t we already learned that each YASNS models a different social network anyhow (and no, FOAF is not the answer here because the different models are often because people are segmenting their networks differently in order to represent different facets).

I don’t believe that social network tools will get better as we find our problems. I think that social networks will get embedded into tools simply because they help us solve specific problems. The focus won’t be on the network, but on the problem solving.

(::cringe:: I’m almost approaching activity theory here. Must stop.)

Clarification based on good question:

Q: What’s the diff? Either way you’re holding a hammer and looking for a nail, no?

A: The difference is key. When you are focused on building social networks just to build them, you make very different design decisions than when you are trying to design a tool the utilizes social networks as a concept employed to solve a task problem.

The difference has a lot to do with the amorphous discussion of what social network TOOLs are and what social networks are. They aren’t the same thing. RIght now, there’s no hammer. Just the shadow of a hammer, which doesn’t solve the same problems.

Furthermore, when you have a hammer, you try to find nails. You turn things that shouldn’t be nails into nails. This is a really really really bad thing when you’re dealing with people and their relationships. Instead of accidentally breaking the wooden post cause you thought it was a nail, you break people, their relationships, their trust and their willingness to participate.

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15 comments to how to solve problems with social networks

  • Why are we asking: what can social networking tools solve? Why aren’t we asking: what problem do we have that social networks give us insight to?

    I’m not sure I see the difference — either way you’re holding a hammer and looking for a nail, aren’t you?

    In any case, I also don’t see anything wrong with looking for a nail. Or with saying that we’ll develop better hammers once we figure out what the nails look like.

    -neilfred

  • mike

    I think what social networking sites should be doing for me is helping me connect to people the way I would normally, (i.e. a friend introduces me to someone they know at a party, etc.) but do it better than I could in real life.

    In other words, I want craigslist, but filtered thru 2 or 3 degrees of people I know. *that* would be important to me.

  • plz help me some body hacked my passward
    for sending me my passwar my other contect id is qaiserjalil@hotmail.com

  • danah on Schmidt on social networks

    Find boyd rant, set off by Eric Schmidt’s “Find the problem for the tools we have” notion of social networking software: The thing is that social network representations require nuance. We can either try to solve the nuances universal…

  • The difference is key. When you are focused on building social networks just to build them, you make very different design decisions than when you are trying to design a tool the utilizes social networks as a concept employed to solve a task problem.

    The difference has a lot to do with the amorphous discussion of what social network TOOLs are and what social networks are. They aren’t the same thing. RIght now, there’s no hammer. Just the shadow of a hammer, which doesn’t solve the same problems.

    Furthermore, when you have a hammer, you try to find nails. You turn things that shouldn’t be nails into nails. This is a really really really bad thing when you’re dealing with people and their relationships. Instead of accidentally breaking the wooden post cause you thought it was a nail, you break people, their relationships, their trust and their willingness to participate.

  • ready-fire-aim in social network services

    with more social networking tools than you can shake a mouse at (see Judith Meskill’s list for proof), there are bound to be some real losers. so far, i’m not sure if there are any winners, but that remains to…

  • ready-fire-aim in social network services

    with more social networking tools than you can shake a mouse at (see Judith Meskill’s list for proof), there are bound to be some real losers. so far, i’m not sure if there are any winners, but that remains to…

  • Strategies for Social Network Toolmaking

    danah says:When you are focused on building social networks just to build them, you make very different design decisions than when you are trying to design a tool the utilizes social networks as a concept employed to solve a task problem.This is th…

  • When you are focused on building social networks just to build them, you make very different design decisions than when you are trying to design a tool the utilizes social networks as a concept employed to solve a task problem.

    Yes, and (it seems to me) this is precisely why it’s a correct and sensible statement that the tools will be better once we figure out what problems they can best be used to solve. It’s so true a statement as to be obvious, perhaps even vacuous.

    That is, as you say, we don’t have a hammer, we have a shadow of a hammer. Only once we know what nails look like can we hope to build an actual hammer… But that doesn’t mean we can’t start building hammer-like things now.

    Instead of accidentally breaking the wooden post cause you thought it was a nail, you break people, their relationships, their trust and their willingness to participate.

    Okay, so this is more the issue, I suppose. You’re saying that we can’t afford to simply experiment by making tools and seeing what happens, we need a more disciplined approach. We need to think about what problems we *should* be using these tools to solve, and then build the tools accordingly, rather than building the tools and then adapting them later once the uses start to become more clear… Is that it?

    It seems to me that technology has rarely worked the way you suggest, and I don’t believe it’s simply because that’s how technologists tend to think. I think it’s because it tends to work. Most tools are developed evolutionarily.

    Also, I’m still not really sure what you’re advocating. Just more research and less development of tools until later? I mean, even if in some sense it’s foolish, I don’t see the harm of these people going off and building the tools — until someone figures out the killer app of social networking (or perhaps any one of the many possible killer apps), probably nobody’s business models will really pan out, but so what? (That’s one of the things I like about orkut over friendster — friendster is trying hard to figure out how to make money, whereas orkut doesn’t need to make money.)

    Meanwhile, I’m glad that you’re researching this stuff! 🙂

    -neilfred

  • What software ISN’T about people?

    danah is right – of course – that without CONTEXT – none of this matters.

  • One comment about all of this is that these so-called tools are much more comparable to complex, immersive, machines that only people with relatively extraordinary skills can modify. These aren’t hammers and they aren’t being designed so that everyone can have a couple lying around or borrow one from a friend or lose it and buy another.

    I think the general design of the current social network sites is comparable to things more on the order of train systems (I guess then, where the social part is that you are trapped on the train with other people).

    While there may long be a need for some of these things being massive rigid systems like trains, I imagine that the really interesting point will be when more of these vehicles are on the order of bicycles and skateboards. (I am at least looking forward to plastering stickers all over my YASNs!)

  • Irina

    So what ARE social networks? The field of social network research is relatively young and rarely deals with very large social networks (it is a formidable problem both in social theory and in mathematics). There have been however fascinating studies of the web as a network (it can be argued that the web is social. Personal web pages were a form of a manifested social network long before blogs and YASNs). Then Google appeared and did something interesting to the network of web links – it introduced a huge random element in who visited a particular page (yes there were other search engines and the random element always existed, but we now associate the word “google” with the word “web search” and that is important), it also made web-links far less useful than they were before.

    LiveJournal(and the like) and the blogosphere are a different set of manifested social networks. In fact, as social network tools they IMHO are far more successful than YASNs. Maybe this is the case because LiveJournal and other blogs are tools for something else (self-expression) as well as manifesting social networks. (this could be an argument for social network tools as add-ons to other functions rather than stand-alones).

    However, I disagree that technologists just build before asking what something can be used for. In fact, there are more problems with technology pigeonholing the user into “this tool for this problem”. Users often use tools for things designers never envisioned (e-mail is probably the best example for this crowd). So building something to solve a “problem” is no good either. I don’t think “broken relationships” are such a huge problem either. People break relationships through miscommunication all the time. Should we abolish communication until such time as we can figure out how to use it to solve specific problems too? I think people tend to be careless with things (technology included) but a given tool will either survive or not – it will survive if people find it useful, and that remains to be seen with existing YASN-tools.

    Instead, I keep asking why is it that people find YASNs fascinating (or spend so much time reading LiveJournals of strangers for example). The only answer I have come up with so far is fairly simple – they are people watching. I think many of us spend (waste) time looking at profiles of friends of our friends. More often than now these aren’t even familiar strangers. These are total strangers, and we get a but of a rush from that voyeristic nature of a glimpse into someone else without them knowing. That’s also probably why the Search Random option on LJ is so popular.

    So before we had hammers, we used all kinds of things to get wooden posts into the ground. Then we invented hammers, but not in a vaccuum, only after trying a few other sticks and figuring out that the one with a “head” at the end works best. YASN tools will get better when they figure out what it is they need to offer for people to find them useful. There isn’t much research that can tell them what it is (although it may be useful for future YASN designers to take a look at the research that does exist). Otherwise, YASNs as they are right now will eventually die off or morph into something else. Its exciting 🙂

  • Customer Centricity?

    Is the customer always right?