The art of social is starting to become a science

On Friday someone linked me to a Facebook developers page about Social Design (I think it was Christian Hernandez, Head of International Business Development at Facebook).  Facebook’s purpose in putting the page together is pretty obvious – they want people to write better social apps on Facebook so they are giving out some helpful pointers.

Their advice to devs building social apps is:

  • Use the existing community on Facebook rather than try and build your own community from scratch (surprise, surprise…)
  • Encourage new conversations by building “tools and experiences that give people the power to connect and share, allowing them to effectively listen and learn from each other”
  • Help individuals within the community build their own identity

Reading the advice I was struck that Facebook is making a first attempt to demystify the process of building social applications – i.e. to make it more science than art.  As new technologies emerge and mature the process of taking advantage of them often follows a familar pattern – at first some companies are successful at it and others aren’t and to the outsider it is often hard to understand why some succeed while others fail.  ‘Experts’ then emerge who promise help but are reluctant to explain their methods.  Many of them are only selling snake oil – some of you will remember when search engine optimisation was like this.  Then, as the technology matures and the processes become better understood exploiting it effectively moves from being something that only a few are able to achieve to something that everyone can do with good execution and sufficient resources.

I think social is getting towards that point now.  The advice from Facebook doesn’t go very far, but it gives clear pointers on how the science can be extended, by defining the characteristics of tools that successfully get people to share, listen and learn, and how to help individuals build their own identity and learn about themselves.

On a similar note, back in May Joel Spolsky, CEO of Stack Exchange, a company which manages 51 web Q&A communities, including the highly successful Stack Overflow, wrote a post about modern community building.  In it he talks about how today nobody really knows how to build a community and that he wants to hire a group of community managers and figure it out (emphasis mine):

This job will be sort of like being a community organizer at a non-profit. It combines elements of marketing, PR, and sales, but it’s really something different. I don’t expect that there are a lot of people out there who already know how to do this well, so I’m going to train them, personally. Not that I know how to do this, but we’ll learn together. Every workday is going to start with a huddle at 9am and a plan for the day’s activities and an intensive six hours of work. Every workday is going to end with an hour of learning… reading Kawasaki and Godin and Ries and Trout, talking with invited experts, meeting with members of the community about what worked and what didn’t worked. Everyone who joins the program (and survives for a year) will come out with an almost supernatural ability to take a dead, lifeless site on the internet and make it into the hottest bar in town. That’s a skill worth learning for the 21st century.

The people Joel hires, and others who figure out community building elsewhere will take their skills to new companies, and some of them will right books, and before too much longer any switched on company with a community suitable service will be able to figure out how to get their community humming.

What I’ve been describing here is part of the process by which social software and social media becomes as much part of the fabric of society as the telephone is today.

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