Black/White – Symmetry/Asymmetry – Forum/Social Network – Search/Browse
Posted by Bob Warfield on December 12, 2008
Interesting post by Ross Mayfield on the disadvantages of symmetry in Social Media. In particular, he is focused on the disadvantages of forums for this reason. As he puts it, forums are about ideas not people. The big selling point of following people instead of ideas is you’re leveraging other people as a filter. The ultimate example he gives is that when someone is too obnoxious, you can’t unsubscribe. BTW, that’s not really true. Nearly every forum I participate in has an “Ignore” feature that does exactly what Ross hopes for and eliminates the need for you to ever hear from that person again. I use it sparingly to eliminate trolls from poorly or un-moderated forums.
I am a big believer in subscribing to people, but I think you miss out if you choose to ignore all the “symmetrical” Social Media (BTW, it’s symmetrical WRT subscribing to everyone, but asymmetrical WRT subscribing to ideas, so I just see these media as a mirror image to the people based in terms of what’s symmetrical/asymmetrical, but that’s a pedantic note).
Don’t yield to the Western tendency to have to pick a winner for any choice someone points out. There is great value in following both options. I find, for example, that I find the right people to subscribe to by following ideas. The converse is also true, but the difference is evolutionary. I seldom find the existing crop of people originating big new memes in my personal infosphere. It is the people I didn’t yet follow that bring those memes in, which causes me to follow them to hear more.
Because of that use for finding who to follow, I value “subscribe to everyone” models for building communities and relationships early on. Once you’ve matured those, go in search of the “subscribe to person” model to reduce the information flow to manageable levels. If you’re involved in a community that is sufficiently specialized that the information overflow situation doesn’t arise (I am involved in many), you’ll want to avoid “subscribe to person” lest it overly restrict your access to what little information is available.
And don’t forget to search. Being subscribed is great, but if you let yourself get so consumed with your subscriptions that you never go exploring, you’re missing out there too. I was recently in a similar conversation where some folks from one of the REALLY BIG Internet companies asked about the Helpstream application. We support both searching and browsing (as well as subscription). They wanted to know our thoughts on the preferability of Search versus Browse, recognizing that you need both (Thank Goodness–they avoided the Western, “There can only be one winner” trap!).
My answer was in three parts, and bears comparison to what I’ve said above. First, new users gravitate to Search and have greater success there. It isn’t surprising as it can take some exploration to learn what the browse hierarchy looks like and internalize where to go to find what you want. Search jumps you straight in. This is analogus to links versus search in the mainstream web. Second, as I’ve discussed many times before, there are personal Learning Styles at work here. Some people like the add-hoc and asynchronous feel of search. Others need to know how all the pieces fit together and are organized, they are browsers. My sense after working with both models at several startups is that this maps well to personality traits (engineers do a lot of browsing), but that Search is slightly more popular, say 60% search, 40% browse. Individuals will show a marked preference for one versus the other. The last point is that of task. If someone is focused on a task that is idea-centric, they like search. If it is social-centric, they seem to want a “place” (albeit virtual) to go for that task. It is valuable to the evolutionary hard wiring in our brains to think of information or people as being in a place.
I think there is a lot to the “place” metaphor. You can feel it as you’re interacting with various social tools. Search misses out on providing a place. It homogenizes and warps “place space” so that things are artificially close to one another depending on what you’re searching for. That’s best suited to one shot rather than repeat interactions.
More evidence for why you need multiple models, and shouldn’t settle for thinking any one tool is best for all things.