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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.

Types of Social Networks

Types of Social Networks

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 social follow/friendship models, and where each one is applicable.

The models are not only interesting from a theoretical perspective, but also have deeper implications on the kind of network affiliations and bindings they enable. Depending on the kind of model the product designer decides to follow, creates either broader networks, or tighter ones.

For the purposes of this post, we will examine the difference between a broad social network and a vertical one. It is common to hear lots of companies and products say that they are creating a vertical social network. What do they really mean? Let’s first look at what a broad social network is, and then see where the verticals lie.

From wikipedia,

A social network is a social structure made up of individuals (or organizations) called “nodes”, which are tied (connected) by one or more specific types of interdependency, such as friendship, kinship, common interest, financial exchange, dislike, sexual relationships, or relationships of beliefs, knowledge or prestige.

Essentially, a social network consists of people connected to each other. Right? Well, yes and no. The definition is true, but it is not precise. People connected to other people because of social connections is one thing, but people connected to other people because of their own relationship to some content that both value is totally another. In that sense, Facebook started off as a true social network, while Twitter started off as an interest network.

These days, a typical social network starts by having users define their relationship first with content, and then have ‘better’ relationships with other people based upon the collection of content that might be interesting to both parties. When the field of content and the relationships one can have with this field is broad, we get a broad social network. However, restricting this field creates a vertical social network. Thus, vertical networks are, by definition, a subset of the possibilities of connections between not only people, but also between people and content.

So, why do people build vertical networks, when the field is limited? It’s kind of like the niche idea. By focusing on a specific area, products hope to achieve 2 primary goals:
1. more structured information about the field of content in question, and
2. better and more meaningful relationships between people based upon the exploitation of this structure in the content.

Since broad networks have mechanisms in place to interact with all kinds of content, they cannot add structured information about any specific area of content. For example, Facebook cannot allow us to interact with Restaurants in a restaurant-specific way, but must leave it open to accept a restaurant as just a place (categories do come in play, but only a little bit). This hole left by the dominant networks beckons to entrepreneurs with specific needs, and they try to create the vertical networks with structured information.

Note that we have only talked about the type of social networks in this post. Some people think that Twitter has defined the interest network, but I think they are not quite correct. It’s true that we follow some other people based upon our interest in the subject of what they are writing, but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that twitter is also used more as a propaganda mechanism by marketers, and as a means of keeping in touch by other people. In either case, it doesn’t really satisfy the criteria of being an interest network.

If we were to define the relationship of a person with content to find out about their interest, then Google probably has the richest information available in the form of search. Of course, privacy concerns and laws prohibit them from leveraging that advantage fully for networks like Google+ (for example, G+ could suggest me people to follow based upon my recent searches. How useful that would be is anybody’s guess).

In the next post, we will look at the specifics of what it means to create a vertical social network and the challenges faced in doing so.


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