Are you forcing your users into social silos?

Paul Boag

As web designers and website owners we need to think long and hard about how we are using social media, especially how we introduce social elements into our websites

As web designers and website owners we need to think long and hard about how we are using social media, especially how we introduce social elements into our websites.

A while ago I wrote a post on better ways to integrate social media into our sites. At the time I thought I was proposing some healthy next steps that progressed things further than slapping on some social media buttons or javascript widgets. However, my thinking has moved on and I am becoming increasingly convinced we need to radically shake up how we encourage social interaction online.

Social is an after thought on most websites

The problem is that social media is often an afterthought. In many cases it is just bolted onto the side of an existing site, rather than considered from the start.

In his talk for UX week, Paul Adams from Facebook explained the concept of “social by design.” This principle puts social interaction at the heart of the web design process. It recognises that humans are social beings who turn to their trusted friends for advice on everything from what clothes to wear to which websites to trust. He proposes that we need to build websites from scratch with social in mind rather than bolt it on afterwards.

Why boagworld (and your site) isn’t social

Take for example this site. At face value it appears pretty social. It has a forum, blog comments, twitter features etc. However, in reality it is a disjointed experience that has been added to the site rather than integrated into its heart.

The problem with and many other sites is that it is technology driven rather than socially focused. Various disjointed conversations are occurring on different platforms. If somebody wants to engage with me or other boagworld followers they have a bewildering plethora of options. They can:

  • Tweet.
  • Post to my facebook page.
  • Post a comment on the blog.
  • Comment on an audioboo.
  • Participate in the forum.

Because different technologies drive each of these methods of contribution they all exist as isolated silos. A user who follows me on twitter will never see the conversation on the forum. Equally those on the forum are not going to see conversations happening in the comments. The discussions are fragmented.

A vision for a social future

The solution is to create an integrated experience where contributions on one channel will be visible on another. The question is, what would this look like in practice?

For a start a forum and blog could be integrated. When I publish a new post it could start a new thread on the forum. That thread would include reference to the original blog post, but allow responses to be made just like in an ordinary forum thread.

Equally, any replies to the thread would appear as comments below the blog post. A user could share their thoughts either on the blog or in the forum and they would appear in both.

Another great feature would be to turn an existing forum thread into a post. This would allow me to summarise the thoughts within a thread as a post and attach the thread as comments. This way community members wouldn’t just be responding to posts but generating new ones.

New threads and posts should also automatically appear in twitter streams or on Facebook pages. However, users should not be forced to go to the site to contribute to those conversations. Replies to that update should automatically be pulled back into the thread without the user ever having to visit the site let alone login.

A setup like this would enable users to participate in discussion using whatever tool they wished without missing anything. It is an approach focused around free flowing discussion and engagement, not around the technology available.

Why the fragmented social model exists

So why haven’t I adopted this approach on boagworld. The short answer is that the tools do not support it. To achieve a scenario such as the one listed above would require a bespoke build, which is beyond what my time and budget will allow.

Vanilla Forum
Vanilla Forum

My hope is that those who build social tools will recognise a need for closer integration and setup. Already companies like Vanilla are looking at better ways to integrate with WordPress, Twitter and Facebook. However, I believe we have someway to go before social engagement is not limited to individual silos.