We are now very used to interacting with resources in a social context. The application of community to content, in terms of discussion, recommendation, reviews, ratings and so on, is evident in many of the services we use, and in some form in most of the major network servies we use (Amazon, iTunes, Netflix, ...). Indeed, this is now so much a part of our experience that sites without this experience can seem bleached somehow, like black and white TV in a color world.
In a reductive view, here are three types of social experience, which may be present singly or in combination in these sites.
We explicitly talk about resources (conversation). And the traces that we leave intentionally or unintentionally can be mined to create connections between people and to add context to resources (relating, ranking, recommending), based on patterns of association between them. What I am calling 'context' here may not be explicitly social, but as it is often mined from aggregate behaviors it does not seem too much of a stretch to include it.
Conversation. Conversation about services is a natural part of our experience of them. I bought a Zune HD  recently; it was not clear to me how to turn it off. A search threw up an answer on one of the several Zune forums. It also showed that others had the same issue, so we can expect that this particular feature will change in future releases. In fact, the detailed instructions we might once have seen with a device like this seem to be a thing of the past; in this case, even the online documentation is not very full. Maybe their decision not be exhaustive is influenced by the knowledge that a rich documentation base will be collaboratively sourced across multiple conversational forums? Forums may have dominant contributors, and employees of the product provider may particpate. Such signed network presences are common: we are used to seeing 'signed' reviews, recommendations, comments and ongoing interactions on music, movie, book and general consumer and social sites. And online conversation clearly influences online behavior. I have been interested to receive letters from vendors of items I have acquired through Amazon asking that I give them the highest satisfaction rating, and urging that if I am unhappy in any way to contact them first so that they can rectify issues and preserve their rankings.
Connection. I like this quote from Hugh MacLeod:
14. The most important word on the internet is not "Search". The most important word on the internet is "Share". Sharing is the driver. Sharing is the DNA. We use Social Objects to share ourselves with other people. We're primates. we like to groom each other. It's in our nature. [gapingvoid: "cartoons drawn on the back of business cards": more thoughts on social objects]
We connect with others by sharing information about ourselves. Networks form around 'social objects', the focus of these shared interests. Think of social bookmarking, picture sharing and social bibliography sites, for example, where we connect around shared interests, in, respectively, interesting resources, pictures and collecting/reading interests. Facebook and Linkedin connect people - or their online signed identities - based on the networks of connections they have already made. Users of services - the Zune for example - who sign up are offered the opportunity to connect with users of like interests, and can prospect the interests of those who chose to disclose them.
Context. We leave traces everywhere. We click, buy, rate, follow pathways, add to playlists. We also create collections, lists, and playlists, which disclose our interests and can be compared to make connections or to generate recommendations, or to seed other lists. Services use this subterranean data not only to make connections with other users but to create context, to configure resources by patterns of relations created by shared user interests and choices, and to use these patterns to broaden the experience of their users. Google mobilized linking behaviors; Amazon made 'people who bought this, also bought this' types of association popular. Such context is now a central part of music, movie and other sites. Think of the rich recommendation apparatus of Netflix, or the generation of channels, playlists and recommendations in iTunes, Last.fm or other music sites. This approach has spread to more academic contexts. Mendeley, a research management and social networking site for researchers, is explicitly modeled after Last.fm (and some Last.fm veterans are among its investors). One of its aspirations is to generate impact rankings and relationships based on patterns of collecting and use of research literature.
Here are some random observations that occur in this context ... Thoughts about libraries may follow ...
- Visitors and residents.
- Managing scale and guided navigation.
- Customer relationship management.
- Real-time tracking of trends and analytics.
- Social experiences around content.
Visitors and residents. This is a useful distinction introduced by Dave White. The resident lives a part of their lives online; their web selves have become an important projection of identity and they maintain online networks of friends and colleagues. "They are likely to see the web as a worthwhile place to put forward an opinion". The visitor uses the web to get their work done. "They are sceptical of services that offer them the ability to put their identity online as don't feel the need to express themselves by participating in online culture in the same manner as a Resident." In the schematic advanced above, the resident is interested in conversation and connection as an active participant - their traces are visible. Everybody leaves the subterranean traces which conribute to context.
Managing scale and guided navigation. The social provides a layer of interpretation, connection, context, direction, filtering which valuably orients us in large information resources. Services mobilize 'intentional data', data about usage and choices, and crowdsourced data to manage abundance where 'professional' approaches may not scale. Of course this can be managed. Nicholas Carr recently remarked of Netflix: ".. what I've noticed is that the company has deliberately geared its search, filtering, and recommendation tools to lead customers away from newly released hits".
Customer relationship management. Services use the data generated by the activities described above to develop customized engagement with customers, pesonalizing communications, providing recommendations, and so on. Such data-driven communication is often useful, sometimes intrusive, but is clearly a priority, where scale, again, make other approaches difficult.
Real-time tracking of trends and analytics. Where there is a critical mass of participation, conversation and context can reveal emerging trends and behaviors. Twitter may be an obvious case, but consider, for example, what the realtime usage data coming from a service like Mendeley might tell us about academic interests. .
Social experience around content. I was struck by some remarks by Trip Hawkins, the CEO of Digital Chocolate and the founder of leading games publisher Electronic Arts, in an interview at the Web 2.0 Summit in 2007 . He was talking about games in a mobile environment, where Digital Chocolate is active.
"In my opinion traditional content is dead ...", he said, and he went on to characterize traditional content as "about a playback and immersive experience and which involve a business model where you pay a fee for the privilege of escapism and checking out" (Hawkins, 2007). These traditional forms include reading and cinema experiences, and he suggests that participation in those media has leveled out. He contrasts this with a new type of content and associated experience, which is growing:
"... where the consumer is increasingly going to spend their money is on social value which is enabled by content where the content isn't for sale for its own sake - the content is there to enable improvements in your social life". (Hawkins, 2007) Depending on your point of view or cultural formation, this characterization might be plausible or startling ;-)
 Coda: A couple of eyebrows were raised at work when I mentioned that I had bought a Zune HD, the recently released third generation Zune. I just wanted a media device and this is very nice. It is growing on me. David Pogue notes that "the software design is fluid, beautiful and incredibly responsive".
 "Edge: Gaming moderated" by Morgan Webb with Trip Hawkins and Robert Kotick from Web 2.0 Summit, San Francisco, 18 October 2007, at http://blip.tv/file/441160.