What happened at Beers and Innovation Social By Design

Tuesday night at NMK’s Beers & Innovation 6 was great craic*.

The diverse backgrounds of the speakers worked a treat in terms of covering-off both the analytical and practical aspects of social media, and the perspectives, strategies and lessons learnt from marketing, entrepreneurship and large portals (or “super networks”).

And although Yahoo! CEO Terry Semel was in London on Tuesday for a keynote at the IAB Engage conference, sadly he didn’t make along  😉

Tim Morgan (spookily, a fellow former alumnus of Ernst & Young, where I was international Web Editor in 98/99) gave an interesting summation of what has happened in the first 10 weeks since Mint Digital had launched the Islandoo social network for Channel 4’s ‘Shipwrecked’ series.

He expressed genuine surprise at how the network had grown and taken on a life of its own (22,000 profiles created since it launched, but more than that, over 2 million comments generated), with online parties, the development of a regular Wednesday game, and people even finding love through the network (well okay, if not love, at least something more “tangible”, to put it delicately, than a wave hello).

Communities take control

This was all community-initiated activity. In turn, people didn’t leave the site once they’d been eliminated from the TV selection competition, which embodied how the network has taken on a life beyond the narrow, selection-oriented goal of its creation.

In fact, being selected has become pretty much secondary to hanging out on the site, meeting people and just having fun. Islandoo is also developing its own social norms. At first people would sometimes get comments from others along the lines of “fan me and I’ll fan you.” Tim explained that to “fan” someone was a verb Mint coined (heh) as part of the larger framework of ratings and popularity that is simple to use and lends meaning and status to people on the site.

Brands and letting go

The funny thing was, after a few weeks, people turned against these solicitations, and the community rejected such behaviour. The level of community-driven activities and the rapid emergence of norms synched with a comment made by AOL’s Meg Pickard toward the close of the discussion, which is that there’s a deep-seated problem with brands trying to own the conversation on communities they create.

Why? Because they only create the infrastructure, I guess (‘tis the people that create the community and the “content” ya see), and brands need to relinquish the controlling mindset that has defined the brand mentality since the emergence of mass communication because they’re no longer broadcasting. With networks like Islandoo they are just facilitating engagement and the people are serving and entertaining themselves.

Mash-up of an identity and topic-based network?

As such Islandoo is perhaps a hybrid example of what Meg termed an ‘identity-based’ social network and a ‘topic-based’ social network. Getting selected for Shipwrecked (topic) was the founding pretext for creating and (initially at least) joining the site. But now it’s mutated into something else: a place to hang out and talk about stuff, upload your videos, blog, and generally meet and shoot the breeze / get up to stuff with other fun-loving, “Alpha” (ie, confident, extrovert) people; an identity space. The DNA and relevance of the community has changed.  

Other people who attended – notably Alan Patrick – have noted Meg’s stress on context over content – “now context is king” she said). But what struck me was Meg’s closing observation that the challenge is how do you design for people that don’t think they’re taking part in a network and who don’t realise their activities will have collective and unselfish consequences? (Second spooky aside – Meg went to the same sixth-form college as my little brother!)

Sociable design – deeper than glossy surfaces

A flurry of debate surfaced when George Nimeh queried the design strengths of many social networks sites, notably MySpace. Tom Coates nailed it on the head when he said calling the event ‘Social By Design’ had never referred to the graphical design and art direction of a site.

Rather, “by design” referred to its purpose, with the importance residing in the sociability of its architecture, its usability, the degrees of personalisation offered and innovative seeding and marketing techniques, plus what speaker Philip Wilkinson of social-shopping site Crowdstorm termed the “social capital” of a site (echoing Umair Haque’s argument at Beers & Innovation 5) required to make it successful in what Philip amply demonstrated is now a very crowded space.

The number of “me-too” offerings in every category of social media that Philip listed, from to-do-lists to social bookmarking sites, has now multiplied far beyond sustainable limits.

Philip himself synched with Meg’s view on brands attempting to own the conversation in his number one tip for success in this space: don’t try to control your users’ behaviour.

His Top Five Tips list continued:

(2) Focus on product usability
(3) Stand out and get yourself seen because…
(4) …there’s never enough time
(5) Every user is important

To save you from over-long post fatigue I’ll cover other parts of the event in my next post.

For now, check out these posts so far from speakers and delegates (please add any other posts on the event in the comments or mail to deirdre.molloy (AT) chinwag (DOT) com as even WordPress, Bloglines and Technorati combined don’t capture everything, thanks):

Alan Patrick (Broadstuff) – November 15 2006

Sue Thomas (De Montfort University) – November 15 2006

Rob McKinnon (London Ruby User Group) – November 15 2006

Meg Pickard (AOL / meish) – November 15 2006

Tom Coates (Yahoo! / Plasticbag) – November 15 2006

Andrew Whitehouse – November 16 2006

[* the lowdown on craic will be given in my next post – I know, so dreadful of me to keep you in suspenders 😉 ].


7 responses to “What happened at Beers and Innovation Social By Design

  1. Isn’t craic what Irish people put up their noses 😀

  2. Another great event. Deirdre, you’ve done such a great job … Chinwag is lucky to get ya.

    Just to clarify a bit about “design” … My comment/statement was meant to be a controversial. It was by design.

    My point was not just about the front-end, but that said, MySpace is not ugly by design.

    And no one designed Orkut to work in South America.

    And Bebo wasn’t designed to appeal to Irish kids.

    Facebook was designed to appeal/work with university students, and they’ve tossed that out the window. They did (sadly) by design.

    There is an incredible serendipity to the geographic/sociographic popularity of a number of social networking and social media sites. When Michael Birch emailed a few hundred people in Canada about Bebo, do you really think he had grand plans (a “design”) to corner the CA market?

    Re MySpace: The two biggest things that distinguished MySpace from Friendster when the two went head-to-head was the fact that, unlike Friendster, MySpace wasn’t crashing all the time and MySpace let people have “Fakesters”, something Friendster was totally against allowing.

    Finally, a quick word about “value creation”, which was another hot topic at the event … On his blog, Tom says we should “start refusing to take seriously questions about value” as he feels the answers are obvious. I don’t think they are obvious to everyone (view most of the answers we heard), so I’ll keep asking about value until people start giving better answers.

    I think if UK companies (and especially start-ups) want to participate in the absolute global boom that we are seeing these days, they shouldn’t be afraid of things like value and ROI.

    They should embrace them, almost as if by design.

    More here:

    Looking forward to January.


  3. Drat – first B&I i’ve missed since the start and it sounds like it was a corker!

    any podcasts?

  4. @ George,
    Thanks for alerting us to your post and fuller response to this issue and to Tom’s difference of opinion. It seems I misunderstood what you said at the event, so apologies for that.
    I agree that the success of sites in certain places (eg. Bebo being the number one site in Ireland), etc, often seems rather serendipitous. But perhaps there *are* reasons we can fathom for the success, geographically and otherwise, of such sites (even if it wasn’t in the grand plan of the creators) – all it needs is a bit more focus. I’ve consistently found a lot of worthwhile research and analysis in Danah Boyd‘s essays. We need more people like her…
    I also agree value creation shouldn’t be a dirty word. But my feeling was that Sam Sethi put the point rather over-simplistically which didn’t really stimulate the well-informed audience, so the lead balloon effect came into play. Elsewhere in the blogosphere there is plenty of great discussion about value creation, it just didn’t get addressed in a satisfactory way on Tuesday.
    @ Alan, i’m confused, what part of Ireland did you last visit? 😉
    @ James – it wasn’t the same without you 🙂 How was Americay? Re podcasts, it was recorded but as you must be aware, NMK has no full-time staff at the minute and no internal tech resource/liaison, so the chances of the podcasts going live before new folks are recruited, say Feb at the earliest, are slim.

  5. Pingback: Social Capital & Attention in Social Software | Crowdstorm (blog)

  6. Pingback: The craic with social media « Beers & Innovation

  7. Pingback: Round up of my NMK events « Innovation Cloud

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