5 Qualities that Make Social Software Social

I have single friends who try to meet people by going to bars. But the only thing you have in common with people you meet this way is that they are trying to meet people. Contrast this with taking a class, joining a club, of volunteering for a charity, where you meet people with a common interest and compatible outlook. Much more likely to hit it off.

Social software intrigues me, as it ushers us further down our path to becoming integrated cyborgs. What creates self-sustaining communities? What causes some corners of digital life to reach critical mass and become essential social outlets, while others wither and wander off? What makes these sites successful?

MySpace and their knockoffs strike me as attempts to meet people in a bar (complete with the assault of unwelcome music when you walk in the door). Flickr (photos) and Folia (gardening) are clubs for people with similar interests. I have fun hanging out in these clubs and enjoy the people I meet there. The first community-builder is: Pull together people with a common interest.

Closely related but slightly different is that hobby-oriented sites give people something to talk about besides themselves. For a while I used LiveJournal to keep in touch with my friends, until I got completely fed up with it. I like people better when I am not privy to their every insecure and narcissistic thought (and they shouldn't be subjected to mine, either). But when I keep up with my friends via Flickr, I see their projects, their trips, their outings and their adventures. Those are excellent conversation-starters. The second community-builder is: Plant conversation seeds, something to talk about or argue about that is outside the realm of psychotherapy.

Something that delighted me about Flickr from the first time I used it is the human-oriented, whimsical language displayed by the software. The site greeted me in a different language each time I logged in—how silly! When they brought their new messaging system online and I received my first message, I said, "Hey! A message!" I clicked on it, and Flickr displayed on the screen, "Hey! A message!" That this "photo management system" would talk to me like a goofy, light-hearted friend charmed me utterly. The third community-builder is: Set the tone; make it a fun place to hang out.

If you've played with Flickr or YouTube or LibraryThing, you've had occasions where you go to look up one little thing, which causes you to stumble onto another thing, which leads you to another thing, and then you look at the clock and find that hours have elapsed, making you wonder if you were abducted by aliens who then wiped your memory. By allowing you to stumble upon content, following tangentially related linkages, these sites invite you to explore. The exploration engages your curiosity and keeps you there for hours. Unexpected discoveries create a feeling of delight. The fourth community-builder is: Enable serendipity.

I have been puzzling over my own site, Invisible City, for years. My husband has posted a free print-and-play board game every month since 2000. We get an encouragingly consistent number of hits. The site has areas for visitors to comment, and yet... hardly anyone does. It's like performing a show every night to a sold-out crowd who never claps. The site is definitely missing something.

Looking again for lessons from Flickr, Folia, and YouTube, I have a theory: Community members need to establish their own identities and create their own contributions. In other words, they need a profile page and a place to post their stuff. Invisible City is more like a gallery than a community, because people can come comment on our content, but they can't display their own. Galleries provide a useful service, so there isn't necessarily anything wrong with Invisible City's format, but it will never become a hip hang-out unless it changes. The fifth community-builder is: Give members the means to showcase their distinct identities.

Meat-market social networking sites aimed at helping singles hook up will always be transitory, passing in and out of popularity like fads. A community-oriented site can grow and blossom into a self-sustaining organism with staying power. Looking at my own habits and preferences as a user, I observe that the following five facets facilitate the formation of communities:

  1. Provide services and features that pull together people with a common interest.

  2. Give them something non-narcissistic to talk about.

  3. Set the tone to create a fun place to hang out.

  4. Enable exploration and serendipity.

  5. Give members the means to showcase their distinct identities.

Do you have a fun site that you love to hang out in? What makes it fun and what keeps you coming back?