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Advice on Starting and Growing an SNS

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The main reason why SNS’s are so appealing is not because people are exhibitionists but because people crave connection and community. Too many folks who are jumping onto the Social Network Services bandwagon lost site of what an SNS actually is, including the real motivations for joining them as a registered member.

Advice on Starting and Growing an SNS

Abraham Harrison LLC

I am going to brain dump on this based on my experience, research and understanding. Enjoy! It is a bit of a rant. I didn't have much time so I brain dumped as fast as my fingers would allow.

So, creating a space for your members to “show off” or “express themselves” is less important than giving members to interact. They crave connection and will pursue any perceived connection such as shared interests, hometowns, movies, orientation, or schools. Unlike the “eigene homepage,” which is about creating a website to share personal interests. SNS’s aren’t websites or personal home pages.

They’re not at all about sharing, they’re about connecting. The best of breed SNS’s are primarily concerned with three things: finding your current friends, reconnecting with old friends, and making new friends. In that order. Current friend connections are the most essential, offering the most energy.

The best SNS’s are like an office ski trip. Out of the 30 people who choose to chip in on the trip, maybe four or five of them are pretty good friends. The remaining 25 have only a few things in common with you, including being in the same industry, being at the same company, liking skiing, and being probably within ten years of each other in age and a shared experience of going to college.

When you get to the ski slope, there are plenty of diversions planned to help you relax and feel comfortable among your colleagues. You may rent a very large home together near the slopes, you might stay at a big hotel together. You might all travel up there together in a chartered bus. And when you arrive, there is a cocktail party, and a social, and in the morning there is breakfast, etc. The people who come up who don’t want to ski have board games and the spa.

So, an SNS is about creating artificial and intentional ways of starting a conversation. Office pools and work happy hours. They’re all affectations. There are so many web sites and blogs and so forth out there that successful SNS’s can’t follow that model.

So, when it comes to building a valuable personal profile for an SNS, it is important that the profile isn’t just pretty and isn’t just the equivalent of a questions-based, template-based personal website. For example, modern SNS’s tend to request an exhaustive list of favorite movies, favorite books, favorite TV shows, etc. These are props that allow registered members to find each other based on a love of LOST, 24, or the Matrix.

People love to connect based on shared interest and shared memories. People also love to compete. A friendly competition is always a very powerful way to allow people to both connect and create shared memories.

One of the most successful methods of connecting people in a very strong way is through bringing them together through “pools.” Fantasy football is popular; Oscar pools, college basketball pools, etc, are very powerful ways of bringing people together and allowing them to “ski” together, allowing them to interact in a very powerful, visceral, way.

I have friends who have powerful, shared memories, of Oscar and football and basketball pools; even stronger are the shared memories of seasons of fantasy sports, fantasy football in particular. Unlike catching a real game together, fantasy football can happen 100% online.

Virtual online communities are neither virtual nor are they exclusively online. They are real, powerful, communities of real people building real connections that can, and often do, result in marriages, children, businesses, jobs, and emotional support when times are rough.

The beauty of an SNS is that it can easily be built in stages. In fact, building an SNS in stages is preferable, and here’s why:

Users don’t like their user experience dictated to them, they want their user experience and preferences to define the innovation of the SNS.

It makes everything easier, actually. There have been many applications and virtual spaces that have been very expensively designed, like a terrarium or like a theme park, only to be rejected by the members. Usually, at this stage, too much money, time, and investment has been put into the project, so all the energy is spent to try to persuade the members of all the untapped potential and value they’re missing by not doing as they’re told.

Orkut & Friendster are great examples of Social Networks that were too rigid in their design, expecting the users to adopt their tools, their styles, and their values of community.

Actually, Friendster is a perfect example. The creators of Friendster made it quite closed and structured, and the designers felt a certain amount of stewardship over its users’ experience. Friendster wanted to define what a community was and should be... People you know and who are either your personal friend or a friend of a friend.

Children do not like having the toy’s box taken from them just because they’re playing with the box and not the toy. It all comes down to play. People who want to build deep, important, and intimate relationships should be allowed; people to who want to compete should have lots of ways to do so, and people who want to date, meet single, and flirt should be able to do that, too.

Of course, one of the natural competitions that emerge when there isn't a competitive activity such as is offered in the form of a pool on Facebook or a sport competition such as is offered in Protrade, the competition happens anyway, oftentimes in a competition for being cool. How many friends do you have?

Are you in Chris' top 8 friends on MySpace? On MySpace, collecting friends is huge sport. Also, getting a certain type of friend is important. The most important competition surrounds getting into a popular band, celebrity, or cool kid’s profile’s “top 8 friends,” the number of faces that are shown on the MySpace member’s main profile page.

The MySpace users, be he a band or a person, gets to choose the “top 8” from amongst the hundreds or thousands that are often collected into friends. If you’re not in the top 8, you’re noone; and, if you were on the top 8 and get bumped, that is a severe insult and can start thunderous gossip.

Seriously. I was watching diggnation, the wildly popular video blog sponsored by digg.com, Kevin Rose and Alex Albrecht, co-hosts, spent a large chunk of their podcast talking about the very important politics surrounding who is and isn’t on their respective top-8. If you start dating a girl, she might insist that you put her into your top-8.

If you dump her and start dating someone else, your new girlfriend may insist that you dump your ex off of your 8 and then put her on the top of the list of 8. It is all very serious stuff. I am not joking. Some of the biggest wars on MySpace have to do with not merely becoming someone’s friend (as friendship is pretty promiscuous since everyone is trying to collect the most friends) but becoming someone’s inner-circle, posse, and best friend.

After the first 8, there is of course a proximity prestige – how close to the top-8 are you? Are you on the first page of the friends page? This is a BIG thing, who would have known?

So, after all your friends have 9000 friends, there are 8 spaces for friends that show up on your profile and they are your 8 -- and people hunger to be put into the 8. They talk about it on Podcasts and so there are lots of emergent games, and the emergent games should be encouraged, co-opted, and developed for.

No, adding more than 8 isn't the answer, but it should be an option, right? All of these things should be choices

Facebook is closed but the developers are super responsive. So, it seems like it is open. Because after you have tapped out a particular gimmick, such as "pokes" and "gifts" and "tagging," then they add something else, another gimmick.

Yes, educational toys and instructional picture books may be great for the development of children, but kids want BB guns and Barbies and comic books.

Google uses this technique. We have not discussed all the failures that Google has pursued. One may say that Google Video is a failure and so is Orkut, their “failed” social network service.

YOUR should not be afraid to fail, it should be afraid to fail big. Breaking down any goals of evolving Your into an SNS and a Prediction Market needs to happen incrementally and should be creative and innovative while still allowing whimsy.

There is a high probability that a majority of the tools, apps, toys, and tools you release will not get the sort of purchase you want them to; moreover, a few of them will fail; luckily, quite of a few of them will be “misinterpreted” and used for things very different than you anticipated, and that is okay, too. It is sort of like drugs being used “off prescription.”

Viagra was a drug, sildenafil, being developed to aid heart and lung circulation until it was discovered to be what is today.

Google heavily invests in its Google Labs, a playground in which Google developers are encourage to explore their creativity. YOUR may try out a digg-like “voting” function or a social bookmarking function. Trying out these tools and services, doing a little bit of marketing, and then seeing how it goes before really investing in the tool is the best way to develop into the web2.0 environment.

Digg does this all the time. They have, over time, identified an “advisory board” – a focus group of the top-performing users, digg leaders, and biggest fans. They’re constantly being asked questions, given polls, and participating in focus groups, many of which are in-person.

Digg and Facebook and MySpace all have attached faces and people to the brand; Vox, too. How can Your make the brand more personal?

Mercedes and DaimlerChrystler have tried to allow Dieter Zetsche, Dr. Z, to become the face of the company. With digg it is Kevin Rose, with VOX it is Mena Trott, with Facebook it is Mark Zuckerberg, and with MySpace it is the ubiquitous “Tom.” Tom is a default friend that everyone in MySpace gets as a friend as a default… Tom has 162,363,695 friends – yes, 162 Mio!

One of the techniques that especially works for MySpace is an open system that encourages a vast majority of innovation and development be shouldered by third party developers… a lot of YouTube’s success happened via embedding on MySpace and many of the top “inline” flash-based MP3 players were developed primarily to be added to MySpace.

Creating a closed playground, a sterile sandbox, means that the only advancement and evolution of user experience happens at the pace of an official development team. While the open API and the open systems and the generally foolish access that MySpace offers user to their CSS and template has resulted in some amazing user-customization and feelings of ownership it has also resulted in lots of abuse, too.

People can steal passwords and steer users away from MySpace and so forth. That said, when all of your users and third party developers are actually leading the development of your application, you can spend your money and your resources on plugging the leaks and the abuses early and often.

Allowing the community to define itself, more like London than Paris or DC, is the way to grow. SNS’s are not like aquariums: if you get a bigger tank the fish won’t necessarily grow to the size. This is the Internet where one can always add more servers and more capacity. The real advice to give would be to allow the SNS to feel as intimate as possible while still being as expansive as needed.

Start out as a boutique and then grow in response to the “neighborhood” and the market. A toy store in a retirement community might sound like a bad idea because a toy store should be marketed to parents; actually, grandparents so a lot of the spoiling so allowing grandparents to easily and effortlessly shop for and buy toys for their grand children is a really great idea.

You community, as it grows, is not really your choice. A lot of the decision as to who and what your community becomes depends on the initial members. Your first 10 members will define your 100 will define your 1,000 will define your 1,000,000. The only choice you have as a business and as a host is who you invite to be your first 10-100 members. After that, you sort of have to get out of the way and then meet the needs of this new thing you have created.

I had an online community about memetics, memes.org, which I wanted to be a place in which to discuss memes, memetics, popular culture, and other social- and pseudo-scientific stuff. Well, after a couple years, the community evolved itself into a community that was really fetishing the existence of alien life, of a global conspiracy, of the reptilian aliens, and of the Bilderberg’s control of all commerce and all choices, the New World Order.

If I hadn’t let the community find itself and kept on steering the community back to my vision, I would have pruned memes.org too dearly, I would have starved off the members and their interests, and I would have alienated the real core of my users, the 1/1000 who spent a lot of their time making the community ultimately a success.

Most SNS’s, such as Friendster and Orkut, end up “losing control” of their communities and then spend their entire life trying to being the mission back into line. Orkut evolved into a Brazilian SNS and Friendster is not an Asian SNS. Instead of selling the sites to Brazilian and Asian investors, they instead try desperately to steer them back into line.

A community is indeed a family. In order to really have a successful family, you have to let its members to be themselves and trust you. Family members have to feel that their patriarch and matriarch are disappointed in them.

Do all of your scheming before you launch. After you first hundred members get started, you pretty much should get the hell out of the way and let the community self-organize. You can be a gardener but don’t practice bonsai.

Don’t alienate your SNS, don’t alienate your community. Let them grow and have fun and play. Give them the gifts they want not the gifts you want to give; offer them, your members, the toys with which they want to play, even if it is the cardboard box in which the toy was packaged. And, at the end of the day, don’t judge your community.

Play with them. Enjoy them. Love them.

May 06, 2007 12:00 AM