Tuesday, November 9, 2010


A Google researcher on social networks has a fascinating slide show on how social networks operate in real life. In particular, one of the interesting punch lines is that people don't have a single group of friends, but they have lots of multiple (largely disjoint) groups of friends from different parts of their life, with whom they want to communicate different stuff. More importantly, a lot of social network type software doesn't work well for taking this into account.

The bit that really stuck out to me was his description of how people avoid being online on things like instant messenger and skype:

This is my wife, this is a friend of a friend, and this is someone I'm not sure I know. So people have this list, and they are worried that someone they don't want to talk to might see that they are online and say hello. So they turn themselves invisible. Everyone in their list sees them as offline. This is broken. This is a broken user experience. It's broken because the people they care about, people that they would welcome a chat with, also see that they are 'offline.'
Very well put. This is in the category of 'things I'd never stopped to consider, but when pointed out seemed both brilliant and obvious'. It is broken.What I think is really interesting about this is that tons of people must do this. But I'm sure that most of them a) don't consider whether this problem is likely very widespread, and b) just view it as a bad reflection on them - they feel guilty for wanting to avoid people who they're apparently 'friends' with.

I think it takes a systems perspective to realise that this is first and foremost a problem with an interface that hasn't considered how people want to communicate with each other. Most people I think revert to an explanation that problem must be the fact that they're a shallow person for not wanting to talk to all their skype contacts.

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