Is it time for social networks grow up?

Trying to connect with others over the walls of social networks
I had an interesting couple of days last week holed up with industry experts and researchers discussing the Future of Social Networking at a W3C workshop in Barcelona. Topics ranged from privacy and trust, distributed networking, context and communities through to deeper adaptive user experiences. For me however, I was most interested in exploring the risks and opportunities for disabled and older users accessing social networks across devices.

That mobile is increasingly used for browsing is undisputed however it’s my firm belief that the rise and rise of social networking is a key factor inspiring more and more people to browse on mobiles, hand-helds and other devices. As Opera’s State of the Mobile Web Report said back in April 2008 “…almost 40% of traffic worldwide is to social networks. In some countries, such as the United States, South Africa and Indonesia, the social Web accounts for more than 60% of the traffic.”

As interest in sending your mate a virtual gummy bear or having a quick poke on Facebook wanes I think we’ll see a shift towards social networks growing up this year and adding services that truly add value to our daily lives and how we communicate. The opportunity this offers for people with disabilities and older people is huge as being able to store, mine and share information at key times when you are on various devices could be invaluable. Imagine if you’re blind for example, and a first year student at university lost on campus and looking for your lecture hall. Being able to plug into a network with your classmates or campus representatives to quickly find out where you are and get directions would be invaluable. So too would be being able to find an accessible restaurant with friendly and decent staff tagged by people you trust if you’re a wheel chair user out and about.

In his presentation Adding context to location, Julien Pye from Vodafone, likened social networks to Jill Price who suffers from hyperthymesia, a condition where you have an autobiographical memory and forget nothing. While in part a blessing this is also a curse as sufferers are not able to prioritise and filter memories. Social networks store all your history and the history of others you are connected with across multiple networks. Being able to mine this intelligently and filter information based on location or context means that you could drown out status updates about a mate having coffee in Canberra but be updated if that same mate is round the corner in your favorite coffee shop.

So I’m wondering, as 2009 kicks in with all it’s economic doom and gloom, if social networks in their bid to find new ways to monetise and stay relevant, will start to break down the walls between respective networks and offer real services that users benefit from in daily life. Site owners would do well to take into account interface design issues for people with disabilities and the aging for reasons that go beyond just inclusion. Disabled users are hardcore user testers with their needs pushing the capabilities and possibilities of what technology can offer users in general. Add to this that having grown up with the web and social networking we fully expect to be able to use our favorite sites later in life as we grow old these two groups are too important to ignore. I certainly don’t plan on dying young anyway.

Presentation slides and original paper

My slides Social networking across devices: opportunity and risk for disabled and older users are available in HTML and best viewed in Opera (download a copy of Opera) using Opera Show. To view them simply hit View then Full screen or Alt+F11 if on a PC, and on a Mac Opt+F11. You an also download a PDF copy of the original paper.

Links and things

4 thoughts on “Is it time for social networks grow up?

  1. My favorite topic.

    Yes they need to grow-up, and I define “grow-up” as be more mature and stop acting like selfish children by letting us long suffering user have control over our data!

    Use of social networks with a mobile phone is tricky, especially if you factor in activity streams from everyone you follow across dozens and dozens of sites. The slang term is “drinking from the fire hose”. Managing all that data on a tiny screen, often without a QWERTY keyboard is nearly impossible – here’s all of us trying to find a solution:

    http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/do_you_want_this_activity_stre.php

    Great post!

  2. Todd – you raise some of the key challenges that people face with social networking over a mobile phone. Like you I agree that you need to manage the information overload and make it much more context sensitive and relevant. Hopefully we’ll see some solutions for this in the future…let’s face it we have to!

    Interesting link by the way, will add it to my list above. Too bad you weren’t at the workshop as I think your ideas would have gone down really well. There is a mailing list covering the future of social networking at you can subscribe to it by sending a message with “subscribe” in the subject to public-social-web-talk-request@w3.org . Be great if you were on there 🙂

    If anyone else has any links to share let me know and I’ll add them above.

  3. To expand on what Todd said: Doing nearly anything from a mobile device is tricky, even for people who are disability-challenged.

    As a web developer who desperately wants to make sites more accessible but can’t get support to spend time changing existing sites or training other staff, I implore users with disabilities to make themselves heard! If a site is coded such that it is not usable or conflicts with additional software/hardware that you require, please send a note to let them know. We have over 1500 employees and work with over 20k students, and no one has ever told us that we have accessibility problems. I just can’t sell accessibility improvements to management as a priority until I have stakeholder feedback showing that there is a problem.

  4. Dave, it’s refreshing to hear you actively ask for feedback and I hope it doesn’t go unnoticed. Aside from having feedback as anecdotal evidence to back up your case for accessibility internally it is also invaluable when judging if the sites you are building with accessibility in mind are built in a way that users actually want.

    A couple of things that you could try is to invite a screen reader, voice input users or volunteers in to your office meet with the budget holders and actually use the site in front of them. This is always a sure fast way to make people sit up and listen. If this is tricky there are lots of videos out there that you could show people. Jon Gibbons has pulled together a good selection at http://lab.dotjay.co.uk/notes/assistive-technology/videos/.

    Other things you can do is make sure that you have a clear feedback mechanism on your site and an email and actively ask people what they think. The only thing I would caution with that is to make sure you, or somebody, is available to manage the inbox – there’s nothing worse that asking questions and providing comments and it going ignored.

    Finally, a book that you may find handy is “Just Ask: integrating accessibility throughout design” by Shawn Henry (http://www.uiaccess.com/accessucd/about.html). This has some really great pointers about user testing and so on.

    I admire your efforts and feel your pain, I know how tough it can be, good luck!

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