What it means to create a vertical social network

What it means to create a vertical social network

This is a part of the ongoing series of blog posts detailing how one should think about social features, and adding them to your product. Earlier, we discussed the various types of social networks.

In this post, we will delve deeper into what it means to create a vertical social network. To recap, vertical social networks have a place in the world of the internet. Although juggernauts like Facebook have much greater network effects because everyone and their uncle are on it already, they still lack features that are domain specific. Specifically speaking, broader social networks are forced to define the relationships between people first, and only have looser relationships with content. This has the advantage that any content can be shared across those networks, but the challenge is in relating different pieces of content to each other, as well as to derive deeper and more meaningful relationships from the posted content. For example, I was sharing on Facebook about all the places I was visiting, but Facebook was not able to put that information together in a meaningful way. Mostly because it was all written in text, and it’s just not an easy technical thing to do.

Enter Foursquare, a vertical social network based on the idea of geographical check-ins. Lo and behold, we suddenly have structure to that information in the form of name of the place, category, lat, lng, etc. Suddenly, I can put my places on a map, see where my friends have been (again on a map), and use it on the go. Thus, vertical networks, although restricted by the idea that they only attack a subset of content, they can enable more meaningful scenarios for using the information generated.

However, one key point to remember is that simply by adding structure, we will ask the user to bear an extra burden by providing us with the data that ‘we’ care about. So, how do we make it so that the user likes generating that information for the network’s benefit?

A good principle to follow while designing this is:

     Everybody talks. Nobody listens.

I will write in detail later examining this idea in depth, but for now the point is that the key to building a successful network is not to look from the point of view of the person who is going to consume the information, but rather from the point of view of the person generating that information.

Thus, the challenge for the product designer is to balance the structure in the information with the fun of adding that information. And this is where most product designers go wrong, and the successful ones have got it right. Most products look at the information that must be added as a chore, which will reap dividends when network effects take place. However, that is exactly the wrong way to look at it. Most people still do not care about consumption until after critical mass is built, and therefore, getting to critical mass is the number one step.

The right way is to see how much fun we can make adding the information. If people are already doing something, then you must find the one thing that will make users add that information to your product instead. And then network effects take place. And then other non-generators will consume. Not before. For example, people check-in on Foursquare or on Facebook for fun, and then other scenarios become available. Not the other way round.

So, if you can take only one thing from this post, take this:

Design your interaction in the network primarily for the person who will be generating the information, without looking at other people’s information.

As usual, let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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