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Social Interaction Design White Papers

Summary: Social Interaction Design guide and white paper on review sites such as yelp.com. Designing social software and social media sites must motivate users to write reviews and read reviews. Applies to social software design, social software research, user generated content, and web 2.0

These white papers attempt to capture and frame the issues and approaches particular to social interaction design (SxD for short). Each addresses a particular aspect of the design of social software. As they were written over the past three years, they progress from theoretical considerations, which drove the first papers, to the more design-oriented topics covered in recent papers. For a summary, see the introduction.

Social Interaction Design Guide: The Social Engine that Drives Review Sites 2007, pdf, 16 pages.
Social Interaction Design Guide: The Social Engine that Drives Review Sites 2007, doc, 16 pages.

A Social Interaction Design guide to the social engine and engineering of user motivation and participation on review sites. This lighter-than-usual white paper looks at the social practices engaged in web sites built around user reviews. In particular, the paper examines the way in which reviews can become a kind of personal profiling system for reviewers. It also looks at how reviews create and add value, and poses the question of how business might participate in social marketing of this kind.


From this white paper

Introduction: Review Sites and the Marketing of Taste

The rise in the popularity of user reviews on social media sites has a lot of people talking. Here is a mode of social interaction online that doesn't require joining MySpace and putting one's Self on the line. At least, not in the manner that many of the community-oriented social software sites would have us do it. In contrast to their more fully-functioned brethren, review sites present a relatively simple value proposition: associate yourself with something, preferable something you like (product, place, experience, travel, it makes little difference for now), and describe it for us in your words. In other words, disclose some of your interests, your style, personality, habits, and preferences, by reviewing something that we can all relate to.

Review sites, because they depend on user participation around objects, experiences, places, products, and so on, make for an interesting case study in the role that social architecture plays in facilitating a good and growing user community. They also present us with an opportunity to consider the impact that commercialization has or will have on preserving user motivation and participation. If Yelp suddenly brought in businesses and permitted them to advertise through reviewers, would it lose its user base? What would people write? Would they write differently? If this were to happen in MySpace? What if YouTube were able to embed as much movie and TV programming it wanted, free of legal repercussions? If, in short, studios and content owners determined that it was to their benefit to participate in the circulation of product in the hopes of becoming subject of the occasional meme, thus gaining what they could never buy outright: authenticity? Would early adopters go elsewhere, as they always do?

User-generated content sites offer the promise of authenticity, and for a simple reason. Unlike marketing, advertising, and sales-oriented sites, user-generated content is by the people, of the people, for the people. Content is written, filmed, recorded, posted, and commented on by users, for consumption by users. The idea being that by eliminating a middle man, broker, institution, publisher, or what have you, users are free to speak their minds.

To support this user disposition, the codes of interaction on social media sites tend to be informal, and the proceedings are largely unstructured. There are a few categorization and publishing requirements, of course, but just a few. The system handles the reviews, attaching them to things reviewed, making them search-able, find-able, and organizing reviews collected according to modes of distinction (relevance) by-and-large inherited from search engines and common social software practices.

To the reviewer (user), then, the frame of interaction and value proposition seem fairly straightforward. Where it gets interesting is in what happens next, for review sites involve much more than just reviews. Reviews can be written for all kinds of reasons, some of them having little to do with the Things reviewed. They might also be written to any number of users, for reasons that vary from the highly personal to cliched. And interactions among reviewers and their readers, too, run from personal and enthusiastic agreement to cold-shouldered neglect. These variations exceed the value proposition of user-generated reviews and give us a compelling case study in social media.

So as social media designers, we need to address two different user experiences, the reader's and the writer's. Our need to motivate and engage the reviewer's participation requires that we design a system to support the writer's subjective experience of writing review. We need to supply an audience, topics, stylistic differences, a participatory genre, if you will. Reviewing Things has to be interesting and compelling and must have purpose, if the writer is it hand over his or her attention to it. But for similar reasons, we to provide the reader with value also. In theory, at least, reviews should display as much objectivity as possible—enough to warrant their utility as reviews (and not just as opinion pieces). Do these two user experience propositions stand in a fundamental conflict?

Finally, we need to examine whether the design of social media can structure the axes of use on either side (reviewer/reader) such that the value produced is the value consumed. This is the nature of the challenge that often faces social media designers: creating an efficient marketplace, without use of real money or real incentives, by enabling the production and consumption of knowledge such that benefits are captured on both the production and consumption side of the equation.

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