Social Instincts

It's funny - but last night I was measuring and blogging about the social instinct of bees, at the same time watching the live annoucements from the Facebook 2011 F8 developers' conference - the main theme, of course, the social graph.

There are interesting times ahead.

The social graph, in a nutshell, is a conceptual map of all the people and things that are socially connected to each other. The people you friend with, the brands you follow, the things you 'Like' all build out this graph. It's unique to you and some would argue, it pretty much defines you.

Over the years, behind the scenes Facebook has been building out ways for this graph to grow, by increasing the range of things that can be added to it. At first it only contained people - "Friends". The big change was to introduce the "Like" concept - now status updates, announcements, media, "pages", brands and so on could be added to your graph. It exploded.

Sadly, while Facebook was plotting world domination of social information, it wasn't paying quite as much attention to the user experience. Access to these features were being bolted onto the user interface bit by bit in a myriad of apparently disconnected functionality. The latest additions to the facebook experience, the "live stream" window alongside the "news feed" seems to have tipped the balance in terms of user horror; for every one person I hear say they like it, I hear four say they don't. Ouch.

Fast forward.

Behind the scenes Facebook has continued plotting its world domination of social graph data, starting from the ground up with a taxonomy that allows them to model and capture the data in many more orders of magnitude. In simple English, this means they'll be able to let you not just "like" things, but capture data about any activity you do, such as watch you read, listen to, watch, eat etc. You can see where this is going. The apps and applications that you use to go about your daily life with be "socially" connected and have the ability to log everything you do.

You are either going to love it or hate it or be completely scared by it, but it's going to happen.

This mass of data on the input side needs a way to be viewed and this is where Facebook have finally put some deeper thought into the user exerience and, I think, played something of a trump card.

First, they are encapsulating all the data about you as a person - your profile - in a timeline. A dynamic, living timeline that can extend back to the year you were born. It's organised in time order so that you have (if you want) a complete story of your life, based on all the things you do and document (from the trivial to the lifechanging), all the photos you upload and so on. Importantly, it can be curated easily, so that you can keep the important stuff and remove the things that shouldn't be seen.

What's more, applications can be embedded in this timeline. For example, I have electronic weighing scales that automatically capture my weight data and store it online where I can see my history and progress. The viewer application for these scales could be embedded in my timeline in a small window, so that at-a-glance I, or anyone I choose to share it with, can see the chart of my last year's weight loss. While you may question how useful this is, it serves to illustrate the concept and demonstrate how connected and "social" our worlds can become.

That, of course, is only half the equation - the timeline is a view of the profile, and the profile is an inward looking view of one person. The other half is the outward looking view of who and what that person is connected to. This is where some of the latest concepts Facebook has been rolling out come into play.

Social data will need to be classified into importance and relevance. This is a huge challenge to automate, although Facebook has continually been attempting it and will continue to do so. My weight data is pretty unimportant and irrelevant to most people, except me. It shouldn't be appearing in their stream everytime I get on the scales, even if it is logged to my profile. But other status updates are highly newsworthy: moving house, getting married, births, deaths, career successes and so on.

Facebook will (and is) splitting data into two types of stream.

First: the transient, real-time, 'socially' generated data - such as what I'm listening to right now, what I just photographed, what I'm watching. It's calling this "serendiptious" data and sticking it in the "ticker" that appears along side the main stream. This gives users an unobtrusive view of realtime activity of friends and (here's the new bit) the ability to join in. You might, for example, see your friend playing a new music track you've not heard, click on it, and immediately start listening in sync. In fact, for music, this concept is being touted as the next big thing to drive music discovery and grow the music industry.

Second: the newsworthy, interesting, 'sticky', non-realtime information - such as news stories, important events in people's lives, updates on items of special interest. This is your more-classic "wall" or news-feed, designed to filter out all the low-level noise. You'll be able to control what type of things you see in there (as indeed you can to a degree now) and as you extend your social graph (e.g. by liking and interacting with things), Facebook will get better at learning what it should show you.

The future

When you look at all these components in totality, you can see that Facebook has been dabbling round the edges with this, trying to patch up its broken User Interface/Experience and get to grips with these concepts. Finally, it seems to have taken a step back and started from the ground up to build the next era of social connectedness.

There are definitely some exciting concepts in there that not only play to the apparent social desire in human beings, but perhaps to a degree drive them too, by encouraging users to connect all their activity back to the Facebook "mothership". Certainly this will continue to raise alarm bells for those concerned with privacy and Facebook's attempt to monopolise this whole space.

For me, however, I'm delighted to see that a whole load of design thought has gone into the underlying concepts, information architecture and (if the presentations are to be believed) the user experience. It even helps just to understand the motivation and aspirations of what Facebook is doing here in order to get a handle on what you can expect to do with it and how to be able to use it. I think to date much of that has been lacking.

Whether you consider this as radical and groundbreaking as the pre-hype led us to believe is a moot point, but it is certainly taking our social instincts to the next level. Is that good or bad? Like all things, I suspect that is going to depend on how you use it.

Facebook's left hand is shooting itself in the foot...

In a spate of recent "improvements" (panic in reaction to Google+ ?) Facebook has basically constructed itself a Winchester Mystery House.

For those unfamiliar with the property, it is a sprawling tangle of construction, that during the lifetime of its owner was in a continual state of unplanned extension


I love this quote from its Wikpedia entry:

The Queen Anne Style Victorian mansion is renowned for its size and utter lack of any master building plan.

I may be being a little unfair to Facebook. I'm sure that in a smoky dark room somewhere there is someone with a vision, even if it's simply to "copy everything twitter and Google Plus does".

The end result, however, is not good, not from a user experience point of view. Users have become frustrated over the years with Facebook's incremental meddling with the user interface and experience and lack of explanation of what it delivers/provides (e.g. security controls). The chaotic array of controls and lack-lustre attitude to user privacy has become the standing joke of Facebook.

Despite shuffling some of those controls around into marginally more cohesive buckets, it seems Facebook still hasn't really learnt any lessons. The latest barrage of changes are being thrust on users at a bewildering pace with absolutely no justification in the users' eyes. A few "tool tips" over new features by way of explanation and training and it's back slapping all round at Facebook for another Google+ feature ripped from cyberspace and planted haphazardly in the Facebook workflow.

Facebook is missing some core principles, the kind of principles that drive good user interface design, good user experience and aid technology adoption.

Firstly, it does not, or seems not to consult users. The latest swathe of features are most obviously a reaction to the innovation over at Google Plus and as such has probably been thrown together at Facebook in a blind panic. Users have not been asked whether they want or need these features and what seems distinctly lacking is any study or research into how they should be smoothly integrated into the whole user experience. The reality is, they are not. A typical facebook page is now an eye-watering explosion of streams, memes and unrelated themes. It's ghastly. Users are not bought into it, users are confused by it, the senses are cluttered by it: 3 basic errors in one fell swoop.

Secondly, the meta-model, mental-map, mental-model, metaphor (or whatever you want to call it) for the information structure it is a complete mystery to the average user. It was never that great to begin with, but at least with a model of "friends", "networks" and "lists" you had some idea where your information came and went. Facebook has been so busy bolting on copied concepts to this model, that it has lost all connection with reality and any hope of being understood by the average human being. I doubt even a paint-by-numbers visualisation of it permanently stuck to the wall would help much. 

The information model has been sticking-plastered time and time again, to now also include "subscriptions" (i.e. twitter-style following of anyone); classifcation of updates into pre-defined types ("important", "most", "life events"); classifcation of users ("friends", "acqaintances", "restricted") - nowhere have I seen a model of how all this inter-relates; and more importantly, a slick visual tool to control it.

Compare this with Google Plus - built from the ground up with a simple information model: Circles. You control who you publish to by modelling your contacts on a concept we are all familar with in the real world: different circles of friends and acquaintances.

In contrast, facebook has welded together both subscription control models (e.g. I follow you, and I only want to see your life event updates) with publishing control models (e.g. This is only intended for my family) and overlays all of that with its own filtering, ranking and sorting framework. Finally, it splatters it all over your web page. Consequently it's practically impossible to figure out who will see what and very hard and time consuming to get to grips with what all the various settings should be to suit your needs.   

This level of confusion and complexity raises the barriers for users: it increases their effort requirements, it lowers their understanding of benefit. Both these factors are key elements of recognised technology adoption models, serving to reduce the likelihood of adoption, or drive defection.

While Facebook thinks it may be defending itself from the challenge of Google Plus with the right hand, chances are the left hand is shooting itself in the foot.


How to view everything you've "liked" on Facebook...

So, Facebook is constantly updating it's interface, so as of 2013 the system has changed. Follow the instructions below.  

  1. Click / tap the little wheel icon in top right...
  2. Choose Privacy Settings
  3. In  "Who Can see my stuff" choose "use activity log"..
  4. Review what you've liked, and if necessary, unlike the posting.

The original article, for reference is below: 

You need to go to

Edit Profile [here's the first mistake, I don't want to edit anything, I want to view]
Activities and Interests
Show Other Pages

and you'll be presented with a tincy wee pop-up box with a massive scrolling list that you can't sort or can't search or can't filter.

What you'll also notice here in that entire chain of action, there is no mention of the word 'like'. I.e. the very action you took to create this list. How is the busy user meant to even begin to connect the two halves: creating their 'likes' and maintaining their 'likes'?

Really, I've rarely seen anything so ridiculous in a user interface - but of course, Facebook is the master of the unintelligible interface! And to make matters worse, it can't even stop meddling.

Seriously, Facebook, if you're hiring I'll come and sort it for you. You know what, I might even do it for free. We'll start with a few simple use cases and a little understanding of some users tasks, and we'll actually build the interface around what users actually want to do. Voila!

Twitter to Facebook: 5 Ways to Post to Both (1 way with speech)

There are times when we’d really like to phone in our Twitter and Facebook updates with little to no effort. Vlingo’s mobile application for Nokia, BlackBerry, and iPhone does speech recognition for a variety of functions, but we love it for status updates.

Once your Facebook and Twitter accounts are configured, you can hit the “press + speak” button and say the “status update” command to start verbalizing your update. Vlingo will then transcribe your audio to text and update your status on Facebook and Twitter. We also really like the fact that you can double check the speech to text translation before you update your social presence.

Equals Party LineTM Application Calls on Voxeo Platform to Bring Voice to Social Networking

[nik's note: yet more disruption in the voice market - I love it! :-) ]

Voxeo Corporation announced today that Equals ( has selected the Voxeo Prophecy Platform for the development and delivery of its new Party Line™ application on Facebook.
Party Line adds voice to social networking by enabling group phone chats that can be instantly launched with a single mouse click right from Facebook. Facebook members can alternatively dial 877 4 BUZZ ME (1 877 428 9963) from their mobile phone and Equals will dial out and add the other users to the Party Line. Users can create an unlimited number of Party Lines ranging from movie and dinner friends to golf buddies -- with each Party Line consisting of up to five people. The application is free, set up is easy, and there are no software downloads, conference bridge numbers or passcodes to remember. [click heading for more]