Planning for Social Sites

In designing Websites that have a social dimension we’ve learned the importance of developing a social networking plan. While the standard methods of Web design -such as wireframes and mockups– are still part of the process, we’ve been concurrently working on plans for social interaction.

Back in 2006, when we developed the American Image site, which uses Flickr, we learned the hard way that failing to properly plan for social interaction can have negative ramifications. The American Image: The Photographs of John Collier Jr. was one of the first examples of a museum using Flickr to house a primary collection. We created a mashup that pulled the images from Flickr into the American Image site.

At the time, we were new to Flickr and failed to fully appreciate all of its workings.  The critical mistake we made was a simple one: we put most images into Flickr all in the same week. (See: John Collier Jr. Photostream.) While this served the mashup well -we had a well-populated online collection and a lot of images in the shooting script educational activity– we missed out making a bigger splash in Flickr itself.

Anyone who is familiar with Flickr understands that it takes time to connect with contacts.  By contributing photographs over time you’re more likely to make more friends and you have a better chance of having some of your photographs make it into some of the more visited areas of the site.  For example, Leonard Gagnon’s Daughter’s knitting was a top photograph on Flickr on October 26, 2006.

If we put out 15 photographs a week for 18 months, it is likely would have had even more success in expanding our audience in Flickr. While this is just one example of a lost opportunity, it does point out some of the issues involved in creating mashup sites. We’ve used this experience to help us think more broadly about planning for sites that rely on social interaction. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Understand the Platform
Understanding the workings of any social site you might be connecting with is the key to creating a successful plan.  The details are important. How do you make friends and contacts?  How do groups work? How do you get “featured” on the site? Getting featured can mean huge traffic. A perfect example is the Ontario Science Centre’s Space Toilet Video, which was featured on YouTube.

How you interact on these sites can make a great deal of difference in how successful the project may become. Each type of social networking site is different; understanding a particular site’s culture and workings can make a difference to the effectiveness of your approach. For the American Image project, we connected with a number of influential Flickr groups, including: Black and WhiteThe Maine Pool, Professional Photographers, New Mexico Photos by New Mexico Photographers, and many others. This outreach helped us find Flickr members that had shared interests.

For another Flickr-based project that we’re currently designing, we’ve already identified the groups in Flickr we intend to join and to which we intend to contribute. We’ve also looked at how we will “tag” our images to make sure that they are more easily found. In general, we are examining all aspects of our presence in Flickr. Everything from our profile, to how we’ll manage our contributions, to how we might interact with others has been outlined.  We continue to honing networking plans as we work through the design mockups.

Make Time Estimates
It is easier to estimate how long it will take to build a site. than it is to estimate how long it might take to maintain it. The social aspects of these types of projects are unpredictable; we never know how many people may come by, or how they will interact. Still, we can try to estimate how long certain tasks may take. Beth Kanter, on her blog, wrote a post and created a chart on “How Much Time Does It Take To Do Social Media?” However, once you’ve decided on a platform you’ll still need to break down individual tasks to try get an accurate estimate of time.

One important consideration is: even repetitive tasks can take up a great deal of time if they are multiplied. For example, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MoCA) has a MySpace page with 11,500 friends and counting. Just the act of approving friends can take some time (think 11,500 clicks). Of course, this doesn’t even include answering email inquiries or other types of interaction with “friends.”

Having 11,500 friends in MySpace is a good problem, but it does bring up the unpredictable nature of interaction in these types of spaces.  In our new Flickr project, we’ve estimated the time it will take to respond to requests and have tried to estimate how many we might expect.  The difficulty here is the number of requests not the time it takes to respond.  There are other wholly predictable parts of the plan, including how many photographs we intend to post, and how many groups we intend to join.  Separating the predictable from the more dynamic aspects of social media is important in planning.

Planning for Problems?
It is easy to envision how visitors might abuse the system or cause problems with your presence in a networking site (after all, this may be the single most common excuse keeping museums out of social spaces). Inappropriate comments-either inaccurate ones or worse-happen, and we need to be ready for such occurrences.  Still, planning for these potential negative interactions shouldn’t be allowed to dominate the process.

Also, it is important to remember that sites like YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, and others have mechanisms that help moderate their respective environments.  For example, we’ve yet to see an inappropriate comment associated with photographs for the American Image project, nearly two years later. For the most part, good things happen when people interact online and planning for positive interactions and success is important as well.  (How does one respond if one gets 10,000 requests for friends? MoCA got volunteers involved.)

Authenticity and Critical Mass

Pre-planning for social interaction not only prepares you (and your client) for how much time and effort might be required to maintain a presence, it can also lead to a more effective approach.  In creating our new plan for engagement on Flickr, we’ve found popular and relevant groups and have identified influential online community members, who we think will have a strong interest in connecting with our project. In addition, we’re looking outside of Flickr and developing a strategy to get museum supporters to join, hopefully strengthening ties with current members of the museum.

Long term, we’re looking at creating a blog, some associated widgets, and perhaps a Facebook group focusing on the photographs in the collection. How you extend a presence from one social site or format into another might be a good topic for another post.

Making a more conscious effort to manage your presence in social networking sites means you’ll be more thorough, more thoughtful and hopefully be able to maximize opportunities to connect with others. Still, planning can only go so far. In practice, unpredictable encounters will arise, as will challenges and new opportunities.  The presence has to be authentic, it can’t all be worked out ahead of time; after all we are talking about social interaction here.

Our new Flickr-based mashup, will be an interesting experiment. Unlike the American Image, this project will rely primarily on user-contributions (to a Flickr group). Obviously, our connections with others in Flickr and their photographs and stories will go a long way toward determining the success of the project.

Taking advantage of the opportunities presented is a critical issue for museums, who generally have small audiences.  There is a need to try to reach a critical mass of visitors, which can lead to more meaningful interaction online.  We’ll post more about this project and role planning played later next month.

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