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General Discussion

Keith Monaghan
Keith Monaghan
9,494 Points

Is the Facebook Social Model the Only Way?

Facebook is a social network. Specifically, their network is built around "friend" relationships.

Is it right to cram other relationship types into the friend model? What about populations with organizational structures? Or the family structure?

It seems to me there has to be some demand for a social app with at least a little built-in hierarchy? For example, a family has a relatively flat hierarchy but it does exist. In most American homes parents are the authority and children are subordinate. Would it completely break the internet to have that represented online?

If you are part of a family unit why or why wouldn't this work?

14 Answers

Tommy Morgan
STAFF
Tommy Morgan
Treehouse Guest Teacher

What does it mean, in the context of a social network, to be "the authority" or to be "subordinate?"

Alan Johnson
Alan Johnson
7,625 Points

Your question is hard to answer, Keith, but I'll take a stab.

First off, I think Facebook controls relationship focused social networking not because they got the social structures right, but because they captured the most common social structure, friendship, really well. As a social network hits critical mass it becomes harder and harder to compete with it because people don't necessarily want a different social network for every type of relationship they have. I think that still leaves a sweet spot for social networks like LinkedIn (do you want your colleagues to see your party pictures?) and I've honestly always wanted there to be a great social network for families as well.

I think another thing Facebook has done really well is set the price of social networking at free. Because they captured the most common type of personal connection (friends/acquantances) with a free product they've been able to make it extremely difficult for someone to compete on those other types of networks, like family networks, with a price other than free, and because those networks are smaller they're harder to make money off of ads and other backers of free services. That doesn't mean it can't be done, but Facebook has made it really difficult. The thinking would go something like "Do I pay for an extra service, or just use a Facebook group with my family for free and ignore the other features I might want to see?"

It's a really good question, and I absolutely think there's room for family based social networks. Let me know if you ever build it!

I think the 'friend' model doesn't map to most situations, but the problem is that it's common language that everyone understands, because Facebook is so prevalent. I think everyone undersands that if you friend someone on Facebook, then it doesn't really mean you're a friend. More of a 'contact'.

I'd caution against using a different model then 'friend' because it'll take a lot of educating your users to help them understand what you're talking about.

Keith Monaghan
Keith Monaghan
9,494 Points

Tommy, Facebook is a network which, by definition has one level of authority...it doesn't have any. Everyone is at the same level (friend). This approach is great for community engagement and for sharing information.

However, in a hierarchy, like a family or local government, there are levels of authority. You might have one person at the top who makes all the decisions, a group of 3 managers below him who each manage a team of 5 subordinates. Authority flows down the line and the people at the top make decisions. Most companies still use this organization model. For the sake of continuity of their control structure such a hierarchy would have little value in a flat network. Also by definition, such a hierarchical web app would be closed.

Alan, thanks for the detailed response. I do understand the idea of critical mass and market saturation but I'm inclined to believe there is an untapped market for user-designed hierarchical groups. Perhaps the next "social network" isn't a network at all but a framework for building social hierarchies. The benefit of this type of project is that it allows any authority-driven group to utilize the tools of social media, such as sharing and collaboration, within the context of their closed group. Why shouldn't we strive to bring these tools to areas that don't have them?

Ryan, thanks for your thoughts. I really appreciate your time! I respectively disagree, though. If a model is using another real-life parallel than it would be just as easy to understand. Most people know that a family has parents and children or that a business has an owner, managers and 'workers'.

Would such a social app have to compete with Facebook? If one is closed and the other is open than they could exist concurrently. Use this Treehouse forum, for example. At it's core it is a closed community. But you don't compete with Facebook. Rather it sits along-side Facebook for the purpose of facilitating a closed group. It's not better or worse, it serves a different purpose.

Jody Albritton
PLUS
Jody Albritton
Courses Plus Student 5,497 Points

I think you can keep the friend model and have hierarchy. Everyone you friend is a friendly aka, someone you are allowing into your circle. I think google plus solves the hierarchy problem brilliantly with circles. If you manage your circles properly you can be friends with your kids, and your friend from college who loves four letter words. As far as facebook being the king of the hill. Nothing lasts forever. I remember when AOL was the entire internet for some people.

Jody Albritton
PLUS
Jody Albritton
Courses Plus Student 5,497 Points

If by hierarchy your talking about controlling the flow of information, I think that's a horrible idea. Parents should teach their children to be responsible, and bosses should let their employees do their jobs. The trend in business in the last ten years has been to flatten those hierarchies down.

Keith Monaghan
Keith Monaghan
9,494 Points

Thanks for engaging, Jody!

I'm trying to make sure this idea is worth something and isn't just reality distortion on my part. But let me clarify a little bit more.

There are still plenty of organizational structures that require some form of hierarchy and information control in order to accomplish their tasks. For example, a government agency, a social movement (specifically an at-risk social movement where your life might be in jeopardy) or a business (contrary to trends, there are many organizations that still have levels of information dissemination that still might benefit from social tools, Apple is an extreme example of information control).

Let me provide an example. With Treehouse because it seems there are four hierarchical levels in the organization.

  1. Owner
  2. Team Leaders
  3. Team Members
  4. Customers

We'll start at the bottom. This forum does an excellent job of enabling customers to be a part of the Treehouse community. However, team members don't use the forum as their communication and collaboration tool because that would be inappropriate. Rather they use other tools like email, chat or Basecamp. There is a definite line in the sand concerning what should be shared with customers and what should not be. Now, it seems that Treehouse has done a really awesome job of flattening their hierarchy, kudos to Ryan for that.

However, at some level there has got to be information or collaboration at the top, say with Ryan and his team leaders, that does not get shared with team members. If that is the case, in this organization or others, than my argument is that there is a market for a hierarchy based, closed, social app to manage communication and collaboration for those differing levels of hierarchy.

As I'm more clearly defining this idea I realize it sounds like a project management app (Basecamp). To that I would say, this idea is a communication tool that uses real world spaces as paradigms for online spaces and a framework for creating custom hierarchies. For example, this idea applied to a household might have a living room page which is the focal point for household gathering and information sharing online. To extend the paradigm, each member of the household might also have a bedroom page that is their own personal portal to the internet where they can manage all of their online experiences. To go even further, the kitchen page might contain a widget or module for organizing recipes (among other things).

Using offline spaces as models for online spaces makes it easy to understand the whole structure and provides a contextual model for what that space is about. If we also make the hierarchy structure the same as it is offline than it is that much easier to understand.


I would like to reiterate that I really value your feedback. As I said earlier, I just want to know if this idea has merit.

Jody Albritton
PLUS
Jody Albritton
Courses Plus Student 5,497 Points

Microsoft has sharepoint, exchange, and lynx server. When you combine these servers you have something similar to what you describe, a centrally controlled business network with delegated abilities and permissions. Yammer is an enterprise social network. I think some of these tools are helpful to large enterprises with multiple branches; however, I think the companies that are flattening out and building open air work spaces that invite face to face communication are on a better track. At some point building up silos between your teams is counter productive. Look at Microsoft. They are continually sending mixed messages because one department does not know what the other is up to.

I think the same goes for families. Why would you put up layers of technology between you, your spouse, and your kids?

James Barnett
James Barnett
39,199 Points

Yammer's pretty good as an enterprise social network. And Zimbra is an awesome great alternative to exchange.

Jody is spot on about not having silos of data, +10 awesomeness

Keith, I really think you're trying to reinvent the wheel with this line of thinking. People don't want to have hierarchies on their social networks, they already have those in every other context of their lives. People want to feel like they belong to something, like a group, hence the friend model: one to one. Treehouse succeeds in a large part because people feel a little less separated from the more prestigious designers and developers in their field. Twitter didn't break through to the masses until they started pushing the idea that people could follow the celebrities that they admire.

You have to get the appeal of a product right, or it will never sustain. Maybe I'm wrong about the majority of people, but I don't think so. People already have family and work hierarchies, as well as broader hierarchies, such as monetary hierarchies and hierarchies that determine what neighborhoods they live in. Adding this layer to an online social network ...? I just can't see it appealing to a lot of people.

Keith Monaghan
Keith Monaghan
9,494 Points

Thanks for engaging, John! What I didn't explain very well was that this web app would be for those hierarchies "in every other context of their lives". It would not seek to compete with the Facebook service nor duplicate it. The app would actually increase people's feeling of belonging to a group.

I want to try this once more because I feel I've been describing the idea way too abstractly and I don't think I'm doing a good job of explaining the core experience. I'm working on a better way to describe what I'm thinking and I'll post it in the next day or so.

Keith Monaghan
Keith Monaghan
9,494 Points

A Place to Hang Your [Online] Hat

Facebook is for friends, Twitter is for fans/strangers, LinkedIn is for business associates and Google + does all of these relationships. How do you manage all of these and other online activities without opening 5 to 10 browser tabs and logging into each service individually? There should be a dashboard for all of these social services that is really an anchor for your online experience.

Such a dashboard would be customizable. My dashboard would gather notifications from the social networks or communities I belong to. It would include a Gmail widget, would have a list or tile-arrangement of my favorite sites, would have a calendar module that connects to Google and Apple calendars, would have an RSS reader, would have news or other widgets from my favorite sources and it would have a chat client so I could talk to anyone from any other chat service. I would receive notifications from all other services directly to this space. The space would be expansive and easy on the eyes. Organization could be setup with tabs so that each widget or collection of widgets is bigger and easier to work with than those in similar spaces, namely iGoogle.

The dashboard would be my personal space online. It would help put into perspective my different online relationships by bringing management of social services into one place. For example, I would be able to observe where I spend my time, whether on Facebook with Friends, Twitter with strangers/celebrities or LinkedIn with business connections. Those three types of relationships are just part of my life. Beyond these social connections I do online research, I use email, I schedule events with people unrelated to the networks, I chat with my family and friends, I log in to numerous other websites where I have accounts but I also interact with my family and my co-workers. All of these things should be at my finger-tips with one log in.

This space would be mine. No one else would share it or see it. With one log in I would have my personalized portal to the rest of the internet. Instead of duplicating features from connected services, this space would display notifications but only offer limited features that relate to specific services (you wouldn’t be able to accept friend requests with Facebook using the dashboard, you would have to go to Facebook for that). In this way, the dashboard would be a staging area or portal to the rest of the web. It would be a place I came back to after visiting Facebook, Twitter or anywhere else. Using the dashboard would cause users to rely on their networks and feeds to learn about new things on the internet (even more than is happening now).

A similar experience can be had using a browser with extensions, plugins and LastPass. However, that situation is not portable and does not provide a cohesive experience. Nor is it something the lay-user would be inclined to setup. The dashboard would live online so that anyone can use any computer to access it from anywhere (as apposed to creating a custom browser that must be installed on each computer you use as is the case with Flock and Rockmelt).

Connecting Your Personal Dashboard to Other Users

Strictly speaking, you wouldn’t connect your dashboard directly to another user; that would be duplicating Facebook and other social networks. Rather, you would connect with other users through entities.

Connecting to an entity isn’t a trivial thing. Doing so would mean you spend a considerable amount of time interacting with the people or spaces which that entity embodies. For example, you might connect to a household entity, a company entity and a local government entity (and that’s it). Entities could offer a collection of widgets that became available for installation to the user’s dashboard once they were added as a member of the entity.

An entity is a close (as in near) network of online places. Places could be web pages, web apps or they could be custom built using various pre-built widgets or truly custom built using APIs. The places of an entity would be related and might have similar function to the way a living room and kitchen are related to a house or a break-room and conference room are related to a company or a mayor’s office and visitor’s center are related to a local government. An entity is closed to everyone except those users who are members. That is why places are not public-facing websites. Places are online representations of internal activities that members engage in while at that entity. Each place will indicate the number of current occupants, have a list of the occupants’ names and include a non-persistent chat. Indicating occupancy and having place-specific non-persistent chat encourages impromptu communication when two members meet in the same place at the same time. Here is an example:

If there was an entity called HOUSEHOLD it would have places named: living room, kitchen, theater and office (more or less). Each of these places would provide services related to their physical counterpart. The living room would have a family feed. Any members of the HOUSEHOLD entity could view and add updates to the feed. The living room might also contain a household calendar and digital bulletin board and would serve as a place for members to hang out. The theater might be a place to view streaming video from a family account (think Netflix and Hulu). If a streaming service allowed only a set number of videos to be watched at the same time, two in the case of Netflix, than a member could have the option of watching the stream with one of the other members who was currently watching (if that was allowed by the person who started the video). The theater might also be the place where family photos and home-videos are stored and displayed. In this example, the HOUSEHOLD entity could provide a chat widget to each member’s dashboard that linked only with other members of the household (which would include a household chat, one to one chats and a chat in any other arrangement of three or more members).

In the example above, the HOUSEHOLD entity existed as one unit, the main unit (like a layer or section). Other entity types might have multiple sub-units. These sub-units would also contain places but access would be limited to only the users who were invited to that unit-subset. This method of sub-units would allow for leadership, departments or teams to communicate or collaborate in smaller groups but still maintain connection to the entire entity. Let me provide another example:

The COMPANY entity could have it’s main unit of networked places that everyone in the company had access to and could participate in. This entity might have places like: break-room, lobby, Accounting, IT and HR. These places represent activities that all employees might engage in. HR and Accounting are probably obvious but they would have widgets or web pages to assist in the things like changing your address that’s on file with the company, requesting time off or uploading a profile picture for use by the company (like on their company website). Departments could have their own unit-subset to make it easier to communicate and collaborate as a team. Examples of sub-units are: IT, Accounting, Marketing, and Sales. The IT department might have tools that are custom built places. A work-order or ticket system, as a place, would include a main-unit-facing widget for all employees. This widget is what employees would see as one of the places in the main unit. They could use the IT place to submit support tickets. The IT department side would be a place to manage all of the support tickets that get submitted.

In this COMPANY example, I introduced the concept of sub-units which allow for an entity to break-up the user experience into smaller groups to offer a more organized collaborative space. By using existing hierarchical structures, like departments in an organization, it creates logical divisions to break up what could be huge populations of members. Users would become members of a unit-subset through invitation only. However, that space, the collection of places, would remain open to the rest of the entity to view or contribute as observers. It is important to allow teams to have their cohesive structure while still facilitating transparency and outside collaboration. Obviously, there are some departments which may require full privacy of their unit-subset (HR and Accounting, for example).

Sub-units provide an interesting structure to this paradigm because they can be used in a number of different ways. They can be used to aid collaboration and teamwork but they could also be used to create an entity that is highly structured and controlled. By making most or all sub-units in an entity private, the creator could develop levels of access and control that might be similar to a military command structure. A widget that might be used in a HOUSEHOLD to assign chores to children, might also be used in a structured entity like this to issue orders to subordinates; either individually or through sub-units.

When a user becomes a member of an entity, a tab is added to their dashboard. That tab would act as the primary portal to that entity. When a user logs on to their dashboard they have all of their personal online services at their fingertips but they also have access to entities where they are members.

An interesting perspective on this idea is thinking about representations of how we use our time. This web app would do a better job of giving weight to those places where we spend most of our time, specifically home and work. HOUSEHOLD and COMPANY entities would facilitate heavier involvement than other online services. In this way, we respect these existing human constructs where we tend to spend the majority of our time. It would provide an alignment of our offline to online worlds.

The ecosystem I describe here would change how people interact with the raw web by adding a customized filter to help simplify the online experience. But it would also drastically expand our online presence because it would seek to put online those entities that do not already have representation online. The idea uses some of the same psychological hooks that made AOL, and to an extent Yahoo, so popular, initially, with their curated experiences. However, this dashboard is different because it takes a step back and provides a framework for you to create whatever curated experience you want using your choice of services.

There has been an increase in the popularity of smartphone and web apps that provide curated content. That trend makes me think general consumers are becoming overwhelmed with the raw web and desire a simpler experience. This ecosystem would be an evolution of that trend.

The personal dashboard is something I would find greatly useful. I could see the typical user’s internet experience heading toward something like this. The addition of entities seems like a natural extension of two paradigms used for the dashboard. I like to think this is a good, even great idea but it could be that I think differently than most people and that I’m not actually a normal consumer.

Thanks for your feedback!

Keith Monaghan
Keith Monaghan
9,494 Points

That was a lengthy post. Perhaps this Bootstrap mock-up will convey some of what I mean.

http://monaghan-media.com/projects/portal/

Jody Albritton
PLUS
Jody Albritton
Courses Plus Student 5,497 Points

I use http://bottlenose.com - it does some of what you are talking about. It gives me a fifty foot overview of all of my pages and social networks in one place. If this is something that will solve a pain you currently have, then build it. If it makes your life better/easier, it will work at least a few other people as well.