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.