About once a year I like to bitch about the irony of what we like to call the social web. Every year the web is getting a little worse in this respect, so here are my somewhat randomly gathered thoughts, observations and possible cures for this year. In any case, the conclusion is a clear one: best practices aren't always working in favor of the overall quality of the web, contrary to what some people might have you believe.
communication vs interaction
Before I had an internet connection there was one main reason why I wanted to get online. It was not for buying stuff off the web, not for downloading emulated SNES roms or for browsing online anime galleries. The single idea that pulled me towards the web was the possibility to sit down behind my computer and talk to some complete stranger in the USA about things that interested us both. This line of communication opened up a completely new world, one that allowed me to look beyond the borders of my hometown, province, country and even continent.
When social boomed this idea still lived on in me, even though by then I'd learned that talking to some dude in Kansas isn't all that different from talking to your next-door neighbor. The charm of online communication had somehow faded, but the ideal wasn't dead at all. What I failed to see back then was that social wasn't really about communication, the big players had something different in mind. Rather than communicate, the social experience was hollowed out and brought back to interaction in its most simple form.
No worries, meta-usability isn't going to be a trending topic in 2012, I'm sure there are better words out there already, but for lack of knowing them I'm just going to roll with it.
Usability for me is taking a certain task and making it as simple as humanly possible to perform, without losing any meaning in the process (= essential). The art of usability spans many disciplines in web design, from conceptual design to wireframing to visual design and copywriting and received much attention these past couple of years. People ran with the concept and went a little overboard though.
What I mean with meta-usability is not related to the art of simplifying tasks, rather picking the easiest task to meet an (application's) goal. This is something all the big social networks understood very early on. Rather than making the act of communication as simple as possible, they looked at the goal of their application (connecting people) and picked the easiest task to accomplish this. And they did a good job too, as they managed to reduce the basic interaction to the single most basic action on the web anyone can make: 1 click.
If you like something on Facebook: 1 click. +1 something on Google+: 1 click. Retweet something on twitter? 1 click. These days this is the very basics of social. Interaction between people is reduced to one single click. No follow-up reactions, no actual communication needed. This fueled the success of platforms like Facebook and Twitter and the choice of this particular path more than helped them in meeting their personal goals.
What many fail to see it that the actual users pay the price, because when applying this type of usability meaning and value are definitely getting lost in the process of simplifying things. People are lazy by nature and if you give them the choice for feedback with one single click they'll gladly take it. At the same time, these functionalities are actively killing incentive to really discuss and communicate.
on hippies and lack of nuance
The thing I like the most about Google+ is that it dropped the concept of "friends". Most of my connections are just that, people I know or would like to follow. They are not my friends, some of them I never even talked to. So Google introduced circles and provided a way to follow someone without the hassle of fake friendships. At least this is some kind of useful progress.
But this rosy, hippie mentality made popular by Facebook runs a little deeper. For ages people have been bugging the Facebook team for a dislike button but it's still not available. Google+ doesn't offer any solutions either. From the point of view of these platforms, omitting this option is quite logical. They want happy people on their sites, reducing all kind of fights leading people away to different networks. After all, a happy customer is a returning customer.
Everyone knows that a good value scale is made up out of three basic reference point. Good, medium and bad. Our social networks lack these scales. There is only "like" and "no comment". No comment can mean anything from "I didn't see it", to "I didn't think it was worth sharing", to "man, that sucked balls". And yet these social networks are making assumptions based on what we like (and more importantly, don't like). At the same time the word "like" underwent a serious devaluation from "happy state" to "acknowledge you put it there", so even when someone likes something, I'm still not sure they actually like it.
Social networks are reducing people to binary equations. To Facebook and Google I'm a collection of likes and no comments. Everything I like, I like equally. There is no difference between "okay" and "best thing I've seen all year", no difference between "that's a great video" or "good you finally found what you were looking for". Just a collection of 1s and 0s. Quite frankly, I'm not happy to be reduced to such a lacking binary equation as systems won't be making any good choices based on that info. Proof of this? Amazon's recommendation lists are damn awful, and I'm not surprised if I think about how they try to build these recommendations. It's pains me to think Facebook is doing the same when it's compiling my stream of updates.
The perfect example of why best practices are not always absolute truths. Maybe you've read about this discussion before, but for years people have been looking for the ideal line length in text. Readability is the prime motivator for this quest. I don't know if there's a real consensus by now, but last time I checked the ideal line length was set around 80-90 character or roughly 12 words per line.
This may very well be true for readability, but if you try to encourage conversation on the web the line length problem gets a whole new dimension. Once again, look at Facebook or Google+. When I comment, a single full sentence looks like half an article of opinion spam. Line length is so limited on these social platforms that you feel bad posting anything longer than a single paragraph of text. Even I, someone who looks around for discussion and conversation, feels the daunting pressure to skip long Facebook comments just because they look too impressive to delve into.
Think back of the old days, when we used to live and talk in fora. After three complete sentences you had roughly one line of output. I'd often go back to a previous post to flesh it out, trying to document my opinions more thoroughly and provide extra context for the people who were intending to read and reply to what I wrote. Longer line lengths promoted more meaningful and wholesome discussions, something that got lost when we kept a narrow focus on readability.
And Twitter's 140 character limitation? Still the worst idea ever.
Social is turning us into lazy, inanimate, voiceless objects who's main interactions consist of acknowledging and sharing. Social is actively preventing (meaningful) discussion in its quest to narrow interaction down to the single most easy task one person can perform. Sometimes I long back to the day of fora and oldstyle web communication, when the term social wasn't in our vocabulary yet but at least the concept actually existed.
When we talk about best practices we talk about meeting our goals, not necessarily about the goals of our users. As long as they believe they're happy, that's good enough for us. In this process we lost of lot of depth on the web, which should be clear to anyone who compares the current situation to that of 5 years ago. It's time to ditch the Twitters, Facebooks and Google+'s, I demand the next social network should provide for communication, not mere interaction.