The Social Web Is Broken: Instantly Insteresting, Lastingly Boring

22 Apr 2013 - 9:11pm
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The social web is broken. Facebook, Foursquare, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Path, whatever, app or web… you name it. They’re all the same: instantly interesting, lastingly boring. All we’ve got are social networks that are networked but not social, social media that is media but not social, social marketing that is marketing but not social, and social interactions that are interactive but not social. What's the problem? How to fix it? Here are my initial thoughts. (Original Post is HERE)


Instantly interesting but lastingly boring? There’s a good chance that you know what I mean.

Whenever there’s a “social whatever” startup and effort coming up, you instantly find it interesting (e.g. Pinterest, etc. Or that ridiculous Draw something app) and get your hands on it and can’t get enough of it. Then, gradually, you use it less, or even open it less, to a point you feel like out of steam about it. The loss of its freshness certainly is one reason — when a fresh new thing becomes a daily routine, it’s very likely to become mundane, right? Not exactly.

When a fresh news thing becomes a daily routine, its “engagement” no longer relies on its freshness, but relies on its ability to afford and encourage real-life like interactions (and more specifically, interactive storytelling). Most those fresh new stuff simply don’t have enough of that. There’s never enough steam from the very beginning — no wonder it pales and fades over time somehow (a common pattern could be that, after a pretty long cold or distant separation, you suddenly have that nostalgic freshness back and earn some steam back).

When we elaborate about the social web, we probably don’t have any trouble to think that, all those web sites, apps etc. are just means for us to communicate, after all. They’re meant to connect us — the real people.

Thus there could be a misconception (or not really?) about it — that we think:

You <–> Social Web <–> Me

kind of equals to:

You <–> Me

That the social web is simply connecting us. When you sign in to Facebook (or any other social whatever), you’re dealing with me, your best friend, and all other friends and families.

The Middle-Person

However, there’s no equality there. There’s nothing as transparent and direct as face to face in-place interaction. Yet.

All those interfaces — e.g. What you see and interact with on Facebook’s web pages — form a non-trivial mental entity you have to deal with. The interface has become a middleperson, and you not only have to deal with it, but also tend to impersonate it (subconsciously).

That doesn’t mean you treat it like you treat a real person. You don’t. But think about it: what your friends are saying or showing to you is actually being presented by the middleperson interface, not literally directly by themselves (compared to the in-place face to face case). That middleperson is being impersonated as a delegate of your friends on the web.

What’s more, that middleperson is not only your friends’ delegate, but also the impersonation of the service provider (Facebook the company). You’re constantly being notified not only about your friends going-ons, but also that of yourself, as well as that of other parties (Ads).

Thus, that middleperson actually demands a certain amount of mental load of yours. By interacting with that middleperson, you impersonate it whether you admit it or not.

Whom you’re interacting with is not directly and transparently your friends, but the middleperson mental entity. And since it delegates for real people, you intuitively expect the extent of interactivity you normally get from real life in-place scenario.

However, that middleperson doesn’t have the ability to act like a real person — it’s just stupid machine. It’s not emotional, it’s not really intelligent (surely big data and AI are pushing it forward, but for now it’s just far from good enough), and worst, it doesn’t afford the kind of interactive storytelling (interactions) you constantly get from real life ones.


You <–> Social Web middleperson <–> Me


You <–> Faithful butler <–> Me

But, instead, is:

You <–> inhuman, impersonated entity <–> Me

Interacting with someone like that and you never get bored? You must be a robot.

But still, that can’t fully explain the big why.

Of course all those social web companies and people out there are working really hard to address that issue — one of the reasons why UX/storytelling has become hot topics nowadays.

But still, there’s something else, something really profound and lacking.

I’ve been pondering about this for years, ever since the so called social network came into being. Probably like many others, I was never that much engaged by the social web — in the past I thought, on the web most of us have writer’s block ‘cos most of us are not an instant good writer/storyteller — you create a blog and you write a few and then you write less and less (if not obsolete it). There must be issues bigger than that.

Currently I still haven’t thought of a clear way to describe the whole idea, thus I’ll just write down whatever in my mind right now. Hopefully I can elaborate further, getting feedbacks and comments, and then come up with a better proposition.


Two Scenarios

Imagine a scenario of two children (you and I) playing together, let’s say, playing LEGO:

You bring your LEGO set to my home and we’re playing together.

First you build a car-shape thing and you show it to me. I ask you, why made a car? And you say, “so that I can ride in the car to see my friends.” Then I ask, “are you going to ride in the car to go to China, to see your friends there?” And you say, “I don’t know…but…”

Thus I say, “Hey I have an idea!” And I grab your car and add two wings to it. Then I hand it back to you, saying, “now you can fly to China and it’s faster!”

Seeing the flying car, you’re inspired and you tell me, “yes! how about it can also fly in space!” Then you add rockets to the flying car and show to me.

And this can go on and on… that’s how children play!

The key insights are:

  1. An engaging interaction depends on the exchanges of data, information, knowledge, or even wisdom, in either physical or other form. I’ll just call it information for convenience.
  2. When you provide a piece of information, I can process it, transform it, and use it in fresh new innovative ways. When I again give the result (which is based on what you give me) back to you, you can do the same, and that’s exactly how innovation happens — building on the past while creating something fresh new.

Now imagine another scenario:

You use LEGO to make a car and you show it to me. I grab the car and tell you, “hey it’s really nice! now it’s mine and you can’t touch or change it! Besides, I know you like cars, wanna buy some other cool car LEGO sets from me? I happen to have this really cool Star Wars battle car set (of course I know you like Star Wars!)…”

This second scenario is exactly what the social web is like now!

The social web (or more specifically, the companies behind it) takes so much information from us, while we don’t get much in turn. The information is actually provided by everyone of us, yet those information is NOT presented back to us in fresh new innovative ways — no wonder the interactions can NOT go on and on and on for social web — they’re boring because they’re not truly interactive — there’s not enough stuff (proactively being consumed and transformed) to encourage meaningful interactions.

I pretend to be wanting to play LEGO with you, and then I rob you by taking over your LEGO set. And then I try to sell you more LEGO sets and still I pretend to be wanting to play LEGO with you. Would you buy that?

The Dead Data

Consider all the “history data” we have on Facebook, chat history, activity history, etc. Do we find it useful? Do we even look at it? (At least I don’t ‘cos it doesn’t make much sense — there’s nothing there, nothing to put to fresh new use.)

No we don’t. The data is just there, not processed, not transformed, and of course not presented in fresh new ways. Thus, there’s nothing to build on to keep the interaction going and developing.

Social web has every single bit of data out there, but it lacks a good enough mechanism to process it, transform it, and give it back to us in fresh new innovative ways — for us to create, make or infuse more meanings to it.

Innovation and highly engaging interactions are quite easy to happen directly between two real people — just like two children playing LEGO. But on social web, there’s a middleperson and that person is the social web itself — Facebook, Foursquare, whatever you can think of — all those social web services/products out there. While you can hand over the LEGO car directly to me, you can not on social web — you hand over your information (in its broadest sense) to Facebook, but what I see is hardly what you have. You attended a great concert, while I just see a line of text on Facebook stating that you did.

Interactions in Two-Folds

Thus, there are two aspects to consider:

  1. How we interact with ourselves: when we hand over the information to the web, how the web can process it, transform it, and present it in fresh new meaningful ways back to ourselves.
  2. How we interact with each other through the web: when I hand over the information to the web, how the web can process it, transform it, and present it in fresh new meaningful ways to you.

The social web does both poorly and that’s partly why it’s boring. It’s just not as engaging as we sit face to face playing and talking together.


Interactive Storytelling

Thus, what about those “information”? Just like Paul Adams points out in his book, Grouped, it’s about ourselves.

It’s about stories constantly being told and it’s about people constantly telling stories (just in order to communicate with each other).

Processing, transforming, and presenting the information is all about encouraging, affording, and facilitating Interactive Storytelling (just because it’s the only way people get so much engaged).

Information Back to Us

The future is already happening.

Big data (and its analysis & applications), data visualization, gamification, … they’re all the ways of providing more meaningful information and presenting it back to us.

If only Facebook can really make use of all those data/information they have! Any possible way to encourage and afford interactive storytelling.

Take it as an example, my “history data/information” on Facebook should not just be a bunch of texts, pictures, videos (that’s why I never take a look back at it — it’s useless and out of contexts) — they have to be processed and transformed and presented back to me in a more meaningful way (Timeline is probably a good try, but still lacking contexts — think about the remembering experience, as mentioned in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking: Fast & Slow). There should be intentionally designed things (be it a piece of information, forms of dramatization, ) that is exchangeable and meaningful.

Most of us have writer’s block, because most of us are not instantly a good writer — that’s why we have books about writing and we have teachers teaching about it.

All of us are good enough storytellers (that’s how we human communicate) but the middleperson — the social web — is not. And we find it hard to communicate with ourselves and each other through that middleperson.

What’s Right About Twitter

Twitter is also a middleperson, but Twitter doesn’t feel that much like a middleperson at all (probably because it limits what we can do about it and it limits what it should do to us, so much so that the mental load is not significant enough for us to treat its interfaces as yet another major entity we have to deal and interact with — not much to interact with it really, just either writing or reading a 140 character piece of text) and we feel like talking directly and transparently to each other — that feels good.

But most middlepersons on social web are just getting in our way (either in our talking to ourselves or talking to each other).

Thus the focus should always be on establishing, affording, and encouraging meaningful contexts for interactive storytelling.

The social web should be a good enough middleperson, or it should not be at all.

I know that’s not a proper discussion about how to fix the broken social web, but hopefully I’ll discuss further sometime later. Until then…

{E N D}


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This work by Noah Fang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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