February 03, 2004
Nuance, Nuisance and Networks
Way back maybe 9 or 10 months ago in the first golden age of social software, the concept of nuance came up. Several people whose opinion I respect mentioned that the then current generation of software, just wasn't nuanced enough to capture the social dynamics properly.
At the time I had a sense I couldn't quite agree, but it was impossible to figure out why. Its not that it wouldn't be great to see more nuanced social software, it certainly would be. But I have my doubts as to just how possible it is. Certainly not impossible, but it seems ever more unlikely as Google's entry into the space, Orkut, makes abundantly clear.
Orkut is in "alpha" so we are going to do the best we can to pass on criticizing their hemorrhoid at the Renaissance Faire aesthetic. No, what we are really interested in is just what happens when a quality software company with massive networking experience enters into this social software space... and falls flat on its face. Rather then adding nuance, Orkut seems to add nothing but nuisance to the social software experience.
A piece of software can be looked at as a conversation between the user and the software itself, and by extension the software's creators. The software exists to figure out what the user wants to do and then to guide them towards their goals. And even in this one to one, software to user relationship its pretty rare to find a truly nuanced piece of software. Of all the software I use extensively I think only two I'm comfortable calling nuanced (in a positive manner at least) are Adobe's Photoshop and Illustrator.
Now when it comes social software, the conversation suddenly gets dramatically more complex. Suddenly the software is not just having a conversation with the user, but its trying to get the various users have conversations with each other. And the software is present in each one of these conversations, butting its ugly head in and shaping the dialogue. All you want to do is connect with your friends, but this damn application keeps getting in way trying to "help". The nuances that the users want are not in the conversation with the program, but in the conversation with their friends.
Over on Many 2 Many David Weinberger has a good post on part of the reason social software like Orkut keeps getting in the way. Social ties and conversations are inherently fuzzy and blurry. In Deleuzian terms they exist within smooth space, where as the databases powering social software programs are striated by definition. The more datapoints the software tries to define, the more violence it does to the fuzzy nuanced connections that construct real friendship and relationships.
In many ways it is the stripped down dataset of Friendster that allows for nuance. It isolates one key variable essential for building a social network and then gets the hell out of the way. Orkut by contrast tries to define all sorts of data, coolness, sexiness, reliability, and in the process just makes a fool of itself. All 7 of my Orkut friends are of course 3 smiles reliable, 3 ice cubes cool and 3 hearts sexy. But I've actually met less of half of them, so I have an advantage in making those judgements... But really, do you want to explain why you only gave someone two smiles, or why you gave one sister a heart more then the other? This isn't a space you want to be hanging out in. Each datapoint that Orkut grabs is striation, a point of potential conflict, a nuisance not a nuance.
A good social software programmer could do well learning from the great social engineers and machines of our time, the waiter and the restaurant. The restaurant provides a table of you and your companions. It provides the setting (food and drink) to make the conversation comfortable. And then it disappears in the background, allowing your conversation to develop on its own.
A good waiter is there when you need him or her and then disappears. The waiter doesn't provide the conversation, the waiter provides the elements to make the conversation comfortable. But when you need service, switch. The good waiter is there, always ready to react if something goes wrong, but never interupting the natural flow of your conversation. Provide the setting, maintain it discreetly, stay aware of requests for help, but otherwise disappear.Posted by Abe at February 3, 2004 10:11 AM