There's a theme that I've seen recurring over the past few weeks that I thought would be good to expand upon in my blog so that next time it comes up I can just point people here. It started with a blog post by Joshua Schachter of del.icio.us entitled lessons learned: fidelity where he writes
While software systems tend to strive towards accuracy and fidelity, I have
frequently observed that these exact qualities may hurt social software.
It occurs to me that not every factoid gleaned from the constellation of
behavioral data should be presented.
For example, the emminently social Twitter,
happily informs me that while 34 people count themselves amongst my friends,
only 31 of them care to be informed about I'm up to every day -- and then shows
me who those folks are. While these lists are on different actual web pages,
it's not a herculean task to figure out the actual people involved. Even though
it's possible to show all the information, from a social perspective a degraded
view would be better.
This point has come up repeatedly in discussions I've had with people across Windows Live. Just because we have information doesn't mean we should present it to users especially since giving users all the data can sometimes be considered spamming them (e.g. unwanted friend requests in social networking sites) or can be somewhat unsettling to users even if the information is readily available ( e.g. the original implementation of News feeds and Mini-Feeds on Facebook).
Then there's the reciprocity point that Joshua Schachter brings up. The problem with social networking is that it is all about reciprocity and unfortunately sometimes we have to deal with rejection. How the application displays this rejection to users is key to the user experience. Here is one example taken from the Penny Arcade post The Pilgrimage, Part One
I had hoped that there at CES I would have an opportunity to use
the Zune's social features - its "higher brain functions," as I put it
- but I was only there Thursday, after the place had largely thinned
out. Near the Microsoft booth I was happy to see many devices speaking
wirelessly - so many I had to scroll! - until I realized that they were
named after genres, and were (in fact) the display units, which added greatly to my shame.
The two times I had an opportunity to share files were interesting
- once on the floor itself, and once in the plane on the way back. In
both cases, my offer was rebuffed. This actually feels terrible when it
happens, because you're trying to show someone something that is
important to you and they don't care. But let's be clear: when someone
is listening to music, that's private. They are actively eschewing the
outside world, and here you are - with some song they've never heard of - interrupting their lives. Let me also state that your music stops when doing this - even for someone that buys into the device philosophically, I mean... Jesus Christ, guys.
Notice that in this case, the rejection is really stark and turns what was meant to be a "social" experience into a negative user experience. We've faced this problem as well in various applications across Windows Live. In Windows Live Messenger [which just hit two milestones] we cushion the pain of rejection by not telling you if the person you made a buddy request to said Yes or No. Instead, we add them to your buddy list right away but in the offline state and you can't communicate with them or see their online presence until they accept your request. So we leave it ambiguous if your request was ever answered or the person is just never online when you are. Of course, this isn't full proof but it significantly cushions the blow of rejection. We do the same for when someone adds you to their friends list on Windows Live Spaces. However one place where I still think we get the social nuances wrong is that when someone deletes you from their friend list in the social networking experience, you can tell because they get removed from your list as well since the relationship is reciprocal. Still trying to figure out a good way to deal with that although it happens infrequently enough not to be a showstopper.
Finally, you have to be clear about what your goals are when showing users data. Are you trying to generate page views by giving them more stuff to click on? Are you trying to encourage a particular type of behavior? Or is it just data pr0n? And even when you think you have clear goals, they should be constantly be revisited as the site matures. Take this example from today's post by Kevin Rose of Digg entitled A couple updates… where he writes
Which leads me to a disappointing trend that we’ve noticed over the
past several months. Some of our top users – the people that have spent
hundreds if not thousands of hours finding and digging the best stuff –
are being blamed by some outlets as leading efforts to manipulate Digg.
These users have been listed on the “Top Diggers” area of the site that
was created in the early days of Digg when there was a strong focus on
encouraging people to submit content. The list served a great purpose
of recognizing those who were working hard to make Digg a great site,
as well as a way for new users to discover new content. Now, as the
site has matured and we regularly get 5,000+ content submissions per
day, we believe there are better ways to discover new friends based on
your interests and what you’re digging. So if you have been digging
stories about digital cameras and Oolong tea, you will be introduced to
other top users with those interests.
So what does this all mean? After considerable internal debate and
discussion with many of those who make up the Top Digger list, we’ve
decided to remove the list beginning tomorrow. As for what’s next,
we’re currently working on designing and refining the technologies
required that will help enable our nearly 900,000 registered users to
make real connections that we believe will greatly enhance the Digg
experience – whether you’re brand new to the site or have been on Digg
since the beginning.
This is part of the natural evolution of social news sites. I remember when Slashdot instituted the karma cap because of Signal 11 about six years ago because of similar reasons. Ranking users and turning participating in the community into a game complete with a high score list may be a cheap way to incentivize your users but it becomes problematic once your site matures and has hundreds of thousands of users.
All of these issues should be kept in mind when considering how much information should be shown to users instead of just focusing on whether it is possible to show them the information.