Tuesday 29 June 2010

The spectrum of networks

In August I'm going to be on a panel at the BlogTalk conference where we shall be discussing the differences between social and conversational networks. This blog post is an attempt to clarify my thinking and get some definitions out there.

We all have a rough idea of what makes a social network. For me the important elements are:
  • Symmetric relationships
  • Expressing connections with people you already know
  • Messages default to private
  • A strong sense of who can see your data and in what context
On the other hand a conversational network is primarily based upon:
  • Asymmetric relationships
  • Following people you find interesting even if you don't know them
  • Messages default to public
  • Your data ends up in various different contexts and may be aggregated/remixed/reused all over the web.
This isn't a dichotomy but a spectrum. Services occupy points along this spectrum and often move across it as they add or remove features over time.

Neither extreme is better than the other and individual users may need to use a service in ways that defy the expectations of the service's creators. This leads to the situation where a conversational network like Twitter has protected accounts and a social network like Facebook lets you publish status updates that the whole world can see.

This is just a model, a way of looking at the world, but it has interesting implications.

For example the model shows me that I use Flickr more than PicasaWeb or Facebook photos because I mostly desire a conversational photo-sharing experience. I want people to aggregate/reuse/remix my photos so I use a Creative Commons license and join interesting groups that juxtapose my photos with other people's work or encourage blogs (like Global Nerdy or Londonist or martinfowler.com) to embed them.

Another interesting implication is that whilst most of the interesting people and most of the web's creativity is at the conversational end of the spectrum, most of the people are at the social end of the spectrum. This intriguing contrast was first raised by my colleague Paul Adams. He pointed out that the vast majority of people don't want to be on public display and this 1% rule leads to services where only a few create content which a lot more share/curate and the vast majority consume.
In fact this isn't a weakness of the model but a strength because that's the world we live in.

References and inspirations:

  • The phrase "conversational network" comes from this Jaiku thread.
  • A Buzz thread where Jonas Nockert points out that, given time, conversational networks drift towards the social side of the spectrum.
  • Fambit is an example of a service that occupies the social end of the spectrum.
  • A Buzz comment wherein Brian Cronmiller independently discovers the same phenomenon
  • Results from a South Korean study which point out that the Twitter network isn't structured like a conventional social network

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