Category Archives: social software

Friendster lost steam. Is MySpace just a fad?

People keep asking me “What went wrong with Friendster? Why is MySpace any different?” Although i’ve danced around this issue in every talk i’ve given, i guess i’ve never addressed the question directly. So i sat down to do so tonite. I meant to write a short blog post, but a full-length essay came out. Rather than make you read this essay in blog form (or via your RSS reader), i partitioned it off to a printable webpage. If you are building social technologies or online communities, please read this. I think it’s really important to understand the history of these sites, how users engaged with them, how the architects engaged with users, and how design decisions had social consequences. Hopefully, my essay can help with this.

Friendster lost steam. Is MySpace just a fad?

I do want to highlight a section towards the end because i think that it’s quite problematic that folks aren’t thinking about the repercussions of the moral panic around MySpace.

If MySpace falters in the next 1-2 years, it will be because of this moral panic. Before all of you competitors get motivated to exacerbate the moral panic, think again. If the moral panic succeeds:

  1. Youth will lose (even more) freedom of speech. How far will the curtailment of the First Amendment go?
  2. All users will lose the safety and opportunities of pseudonymity, particularly around political speech and particularly internationally.
  3. Internet companies will be required to confirm the real life identity of all users. At their own cost.
  4. International growth on social communities will be massively curtailed because it is much harder to confirm non-US populations.
  5. Internet companies will lose the protections of common carrier which will have ramifications in all sorts of directions.
  6. Internet companies will see a massive increase in subpoenas and will be forced to turn over data on their users which will in turn destroy the trust relationship between companies and users.
  7. There will be a much greater barrier for new communities to form and for startups to build out new social environments.
  8. International companies will be far better positioned to create new social technologies because they won’t have to abide by American laws even if American citizens use their technology (assuming the servers are hosted outside of the US). Unless, of course, we decide to block sites on a nation-wide basis….

glocalization talk at Etech

Last week, i gave a talk at O’Reilly’s Etech on how large-scale digital communities can handle the tensions between global information networks and local interaction and culture. I’ve uploaded the crib for those who are interested in reading the talk: “G/localization: When Global Information and Local Interaction Collide”.

This talk was written for designers and business folks working in social tech. I talk about the significance of culture and its role in online communities. I go through some of the successful qualities of Craiglist, Flickr and MySpace to lay out a critical practice: design through embedded observation. I then discuss a few issues that are playing out on tech and social levels.

Anyhow, enjoy! And let me know what you think!


When American called me up to tell me i’d made Gold, i groaned. It was official – i spend too much time in airports. This is of course magnified by the fact that i spend too much time praying that the person sitting next to me is at least relatively sane, doesn’t smell too badly, isn’t carrying some sneezable illness and doesn’t cry during takeoff. Of course, i have had good experiences on flights. In fact, i’ve had great ones. When working for V-Day, i sat next to a woman interested in what we were doing. I told her all about what was going on and at some point, we exchanged business cards. She sent me a check for thousands of dollars to support the cause. Of course, what i’d really like is to have more great ones. I love running into people i know in the airport or finding other interesting humans. I will never forget when Jimmy popped up his iTunes to find that Clay was somewhere within the airport. Or when i Dodgeballed that i landed and found Iggy had too. Or when i plopped down next to Jesse Jackson. Strange moments.

Social software *should* be able to help but there are so many barriers to this. You need to articulate too much and who has time? Still, as broken as they are, i’m interested in exploring the tools that might lead to entertaining interactions or at least to the development of better systems to do so. One of the ones i’m curious about is AirTroductions. Yeah, it kinda has dating overtones to it, but i’m still curious if it’d ever work. At the very least, who else is en route to Etech or SXSW or IASummit when? I have to imagine that lots of folks i know will be passing through the same airports in the next month. Anyone else willing to give it a try just to see?

Note: one of the options is: “someone who won’t talk to me at all (I just want to read/sleep/work).” You don’t have to be stuck sitting next to a chatty person even if you want someone to share a cab with at the airport. You also don’t need to change your seats to use the service – i intend to use it just to find out who else is in the airport with me.

Bradley Horowitz is blogging!

Bradley Horowitz (one of my bosses over at Yahoo!) has the most interesting things to say about the emergence of social technologies. Because we felt as though he should share this brilliance, Jeremy and i have been on his case to blog for quite some time. Now he’s gone and done it! Yay!!

In his opening post, he addresses how sites like, and Flickr will scale, talking about value creation and the need to recognize that not everyone needs to be a producer for these things to work. In triangle form, this means:

Anyhow, check out his blog to read more brilliant insights…

[Oh, and all of you bloggers out there… get your bosses to blog… it’s quite a hoot!]

a funny dodgeball moment

Last night, i landed at Oakland and decided to announce that i was there so that i could switch Dodgeball back to SF and hear what folks were up to even though i was feeling quite asocial. Just as i received a confirmation email saying that people got my message, i got a message from an old friend announcing his presence at OAK. Now, normally, i don’t drive to the airport but i was running uber late last week so i called up this kid and asked if he was just arriving and if he wanted a ride back to SF; he was totally taken aback and laughing – he had just come back from an interview with Red Burns (ITP, where Dodgeball was created). It was particularly hysterical because while i’ve passed him on the streets in SF, i really haven’t hung out with him at all since college. (Why is a longer issue involving issues of confidence and head space.) Driving back to the city, catching up, he got a call from a girl i used to hang out with freshman year in college – she was living in the city and wanted to see a movie. The end result was that i got to catch up with a whole group of college folks that i hadn’t seen in years. I have to admit that it was utterly wonderful to see this group and realize that i am back on solid ground again.

While Dodgeball has certainly been useful in social settings, this was the first time i had the opportunity to see it be useful beyond just the basic bar hopping scenario. It reminded me of a time when two friends realized they were in an airport together because they saw each other’s music on iTunes. I think that funny points of synchronicity is only going to get more interesting as technology become mores infused into society.

discrimination in gaming: World of Warcraft bans queer community

I had finally broken down and ordered World of Warcraft to check out the social dynamics. I still detest gaming but i decided that i wanted to know what is going on. And then the news broke that Blizzard bans (advertising) queer safe space (on WoW) on the basis of it being sexual harassment. Even though i agreed to check out WoW, i cannot support an organization that discriminates on the basis of sexuality, especially when it’s for idle curiosity. I will be returning my game to Amazon once it arrives and i will not be joining WoW.

I’ve already heard on numerous occasions that there is intense homophobia within the chatrooms on WoW and this had already made me quite uncomfortable. But Blizzard’s response is just disgusting. How can they call a queer-friendly guild sexual harassment given that this is an attempt by the queer community to create space? Furthermore, there’s so much sexism in the chats (aside from the creatures) that no one from Blizzard can actually argue that they are preventing sexual harassment. I can’t help but wonder about the state of other forms of discrimination and prejudice within the system (particularly since “race” is critical to the narrative of WoW). That said, i don’t care enough to find out – i can’t justify spending personal money on a company with these values.

This is a nice little reminder that most gaming companies are not actually progressive in any way shape or form. I respect the importance that gaming has had in youth culture (and for adults for that matter) but it still pains me to watch systematized prejudice executed in code and culture. Yuck yuck yuck.

For those who are curious, there’s a great discussion over at Terra Nova. Tx LawGeek.

Update: Jason Kuznicki has a fantastic Open Letter to Blizzard Entertainment that does a much better job than i do addressing this issue. As has been noted over and over again, queerness is an identity not just a set of sexual practices. By silencing people’s identities and not allowing people to have bigot-free spaces, Blizzard is upholding a level of discrimination that far outweighs the _potential_ sexual harassment that might occur if people’s sexualities were known.

help me restore my Flickr data

Unfortunately, last week, an error occurred over at Flickr resulting in the destruction of my Flickr account. (Don’t worry – this won’t happen to you!) Although the team did everything they could, they were unable to retrieve recent contacts, groups, favorites, tags, messages…

I need your help in getting data back, particularly in terms of contacts… If i used to be your friend/contact, can you take a look at your account and re-add me? If you sent me a message via Flickr, can you send it again? If you had a photo that i favorited and you remember, could you remind me? If i was in a group with you, can you let me know?

The Flickr team is working hard to make sure data boo-boos never happen again, but you may want to know that you can order DVD backups of all of your photos in case you tend not to have second copies of those photos.

I’m so sorry for the hassle…

Attention Networks vs. Social Networks

(originally posted on centrality)

Network analysts often speak about (un)directed graphs. In essence, this refers to whether or not someone you know knows you. If reciprocity is required by the system, it’s an undirected graph. The vast majority of online social networking tools assume that users are modeling friendship and thus if you’re friends with someone, they better damn well be friends with you. As such, they use undirected graphs and you are required to confirm that they are indeed your friend.

Well, what about fandom? Orkut actually put the concept of fan into their system, but in order to be someone’s fan, you had to be their friend first. Baroo? I’ve noticed that Friendster introduced fans, although it is not consistent across the site; the system decides who is celebrity. I can be a fan of Pamela Anderson but i cannot be a fan of Michel Foucault or Henry Jenkins. While i can understand that the former is clearly a Fakester, the latter is actually a real academic with a Friendster Profile that i genuinely admire (far more than Ms. Anderson). Even on MySpace where bands have a separate section, i have to add them to my friends; i cannot simply be fans.

The world is not an undirected graph and very little about social life online is actually undirected. Many social relations are unequal; they are rooted in directional graphs – fandom, power, hierarchy. So why do we use undirected models?

Of course, there are many systems that have directed graphs. I can read blogs by bloggers who who don’t read me; blogrolls are directed. I can have friends on LiveJournal that do not reciprocate. I can subscribe to feeds of people that i admire without forcing them to do the same. I can make a Flickr user a contact simply so that i can watch their photos. I do all this because i know the world is not undirected.

Part of the problem is that we’ve built a model off of social networks instead of attention networks and there’s a very subtle difference between the two. Attention networks recognize power. They recognize that someone may actually have a good collection of references or be a good photographer and that someone else may want to pay attention to them even if their own collections are not worthy of reciprocation. Attention networks realize that the world is not an undirected graph.

There are many good reasons to use attention networks in systems instead of social networks. Do you really want to force people to get permission to subscribe to public material of someone else? Do you really want to put people through the awkwardness of having to approve someone that they don’t know simply because one person respects the other? Of course, the awkwardness of social networks does not disappear simply by having directed graphs. Reciprocity is still an issue whenever the networks are performative (visible as a statement of connection). This is most apparent in the blogging community where people feel insulted that they are not included on the blogroll of a blog that they read regularly. Thus, people feel the need to perform a relation of someone that they do not read simply for good social measure.

Attention networks are far more visible when people actually use the network for some purpose. Friendster networks are meant to be performative first and foremost. There’s minimal cost to having more friends. It may foul up your gallery searches but, really, does it make a difference if you see 4,325,935 people instead of 4,311,266? Attention networks like LiveJournal and Flickr combine the network with the subscription process. You want to keep your Friends page clean and to only get information from people you care about. Of course, LJ also recognizes that there are times when you need plausible deniability. It allows you to create a separate group of LJ folks that you actually watch (separate from your “friends” list). The subscription process is inherently a process of attention relations, not friendship.

Of course, the computation needed for directed graphs is much greater than for undirected graphs. Is that the main reason that most services require reciprocity? Even when it’s not the best mechanism for the system? Or are there other reasons why folks are obsessed with undirected graphs?

the power of social structure in World of Warcraft

Earlier this week, i was talking with Joi about his “research” on World of Warcraft. He was telling me about how some of the social norms get maintained by members in the community (and particularly within guilds) and how newcomers learn the social structure.

The thing about World of Warcraft (and many other MMORPGS) is that people who fail to work within the social structure get penalized. Most tasks cannot be done without collaboration. Guilds are the formalized version of groups that gather to complete tasks and the most effective way to achieve within the system. Achievements have a measured component – leveling, possessions, honor points, ranks, etc. Pissing off one’s guildmates is foolish because it results in being left out of quests and other group activities needed for advancement. Also, since most quests require groups to work together seamlessly, people practice. They also get to know each other and joke around because the level of intimacy is super helpful in team building. Personality compatibility is necessary both within a guild and also essential when guilds team up with one another.

Joi told me about a teenager who was fucking off and how members of the community reprimanded him. He told me he thought it was a fantastic environment to learn sociability, to learn team work and to figure out how to compromise. The structure and incentives were so explicit that even the most socially clueless individuals could work out what they needed to to do advance.

I’m very proud to be a feminist, but a pro and con of feminism is that it destabilized social structure. There was a time when women knew what they were expected to do. They could hate it, resent it, rebel against it, but the norm was there. Those norms were hugely oppressive to women but they also provided a framework to work within. Today, we have no structure and i live in a mecca of people trying to “find themselves.” How do you build an identity from scratch without having it pre-defined? For many, this seems to be a hard task. Personally, there are days when i revel in my ability to escape gendered norms and then i dream of being a Hollywood-image 1950s stay at home mom. Even in my chaos, i realize the power of structure.

I think that it’s fascinating that some gaming systems have worked hard to create a formalized structure such that people know their positions and can visibly see how certain actions help them ascend. Are we building structures in our virtual lives because they are easy to compute? Because we desperately desire a structure where we know the rules? What does it mean that many active gamers were the types of individuals alienated historically for being socially deficient? What does male dominance in gaming mean given that men historically defined the social structure? Is it possible to build structure that is not oppressive?

what is “social software”?

“A lot of programmers, seem to me to think that the whole point of social software is to replace the social with software. Which is not really what you want to do, right? Social Software should exist to empower us to be human… to interact… in all the normal ways that humans do.” — Jimmy Wales

Clarification: Sorry for the earlier version without the full context – i didn’t realize how badly it would read. I didn’t mean to suggest that Jimmy thought that social software should be about replacing the social with the software, but that he was criticizing what had emerged with the techno-centric development of tools meant to help with socialization in the last couple of years. I’m soo sorry for implying anything else (and thanks to the wonderful commenters for making me realize that i boobooed).

Anyone who wants to hear the full audio of Jimmy’s talk should check it out here