Fertilized Core Value and Rhizomatic Social Expansion

At CommunityNext yesterday, Fred apparently talked about networks having a Core Value that attracts and expand its membership.

In the case of Delicious, it’s Core Value is offering a place to store your bookmarks; with Flickr, it was photos. The social networking components were then activated by people creating and adding content out of self interest.

This theory makes some good sense and is one that, in scientific interests, is reproducible.

However, Tara asked Fred to explain Twitter, which seemingly has no obvious Core Value. Stumped, he promised to think on it and get back to her.

As a proponent of Twitter, I’d argue that it’s got a couple things going on — and a Core Value that only emerges after a certain critical mass is achieved. This is similar to IRC and will be something that Tangler and any other live communication vehicle has to address, since it’s Core Value is couched in a) active concurrent users and b) facility of access.

Twitter has succeeded without obvious Core Value of its own by being planted firmly in the rich soil of infrastructure products like cell phones and instant messaging networks that have strong Core Value of their own.

Specifically, Twitter started out as a way for bike messengers to answer the question “what are you doing right now?”. The obvious tool to create and send this message was the cell phone, and the easiest way to receive and consume these messages were as short text snippets — clearly as SMS’s delivered to those phones.

It was Twitter developer Blaine Cook‘s prepaid wireless plan that forced him to develop Jabber::Simple as a way of getting and sending updates using a lower cost and wider spread infrastructure (instant messaging). But again, this would not be possible if it weren’t for the last 10 years of soil preparation that lead him to build this. And it was also thanks to open source that he could build the simple extension to leverage the Core Value of the existing network.

Finally, the Twitter web interface and API, almost afterthoughts these days, cemented the geographic accessibility of the network for newcomers to explore and experience how Twitterers communicate with each other, and how social norms are developed and negotiated (for example, the addition of the @ reply convention), essentially exposing the derived Core Value of the constituents.

Now, I might also add that there’s a different kind of Network Effect going on here. It’s similar to the Bandwagon Effect, but smaller and more niche.

It’s what I might refer to as the Rhyzomatic Effect (named after rhizomes).

Hell, I even dreamed up a whole web service off this idea (except when I originally scoped it out, it was primarily for individuals, but now that I think about it, there’s no reason why the same utility couldn’t be made to work for small tribes of 2-3 people at a time. Hmm.)

My premise is that, in the case of projects that have no obvious innate Core Value for individual use, they can still grow in the rich soil that previous infrastructure has cultivated (Web 2.0 manure?) so long as that soil is rooted in social connectivity (like the biomorphic analogies? Yeah? Get used to it.). In such an environment, it’s simple for one or two members to venture beyond the conventional borders or uses of given tool or infrastructure device and gain additive value once they evangelize the tool to their social peers and get them to adopt the new use.

And, contrary to Metcalfe’s Law, it’s not necessarily true that every new member will benefit every other member equally, adding constant value the more who use it; it’s only when members of the same tribes join that others members of the same tribes see value, and only when there is a desire to explore socially that those other members begin to offer cumulative value to the network.

If I had time, I’d throw up some pretty graphs comparing Delcious, Flickr and Twitter’s Core Values shown over given time horizons, and then map that to different size social clusters or tribes, since, again, not every Twitter member wants to be connected to every other Twitterer or every new Twitterer who joins. Therefore, Core Value must be measured both from the traditional perspective of personal economic advantage (i.e. convenience in saving my bookmarks or storing photos online) as well as from the tribal/communal-cumulative advantage.

Rituals of social networking

In considering the interaction design of a social web application, it’s important to remember that expediency and efficiency are not always allies. Indeed, the laborious act of “adding a friend” or “creating a group” can become sacrosanct experiences in the course of the development of one’s online self… and tasks that should not be trivialized down to the data level.

Instead, these kinds of flows should be crafted and architected to be noticed as part of the network’s rituals: i.e. those behaviors and actions that occur regularly enough to give rise to a kind of life in the network. When you’re online, those actions and (notifications of like, the same) are the closest thing to respiration you can offer… and without some kind of active respiration system, you’re likely to be left for dead.

A specific example:

Tangler Invitation

While on the surface this interface originally struck me as an efficient way to deal with a lot of group invitations, over time I’ve realized that it actually demeans the invitation acceptance ritual and that this design treats groups like commodities to be joined en masse, without much fore-thought, exploration or examination of the act about to be taken.

On the contrary, Flickr’s approach leaves the responsibility on the invitee to consider the validity of an invitation, and to explore the group before making a final decision to accept the invite.

Flickr Invitation

In this sense, you’re forced to read through the invitation in isolation and apart from any other decision, allowing you the space to consider it and choose to act positively, negatively or to defer until later. Like email, should you choose not to act this invitation will simply fade into the caverns of your inbox, outside of your daily environment, and not begging to be addressed. In the Tangler example, on the other hand, not making a choice will leave a residue on the interaction experience, forcing you to repeatable reconsider an invitation every time you view this interface leading to an intuitive mental stress that will likely cause people to downright avoid checking their invitations after the first 10 or 15 stack up.

The reality is that these subtle decisions in the interface design will greatly affect how the life of your community takes shape — and what ritual behaviors will be enjoyed and looked forward to as opposed to those that will be avoided because the mental tax over time gets too high. This is an area that I’d like to think more on — and start to positively collect ritual experiences that I enjoy on the networks of which I’m happy to call myself a member.