I'm very happy to say that our first report for the Social Media project at the Smart Services CRC has now been published. Written with my research assistant Mark Bahnisch (an expert in the field in his own right), this report provides an overview of the state of the art in social media,and focusses especially on the dynamics of user community participation in social media sites; as part of this, we're also looking at a number of leading social media sites (and one or two 'interesting failures'), particularly in three key areas: news and views, products and places, and networking and dating.
We define social media as:
Websites which build on Web 2.0 technologies to provide space for in-depth social interaction, community formation, and the tackling of collaborative projects.
In this report we do not aim to make an argument for why social media elements should be incorporated into the online operations of non-profit and commercial organisations; while there are many benefits to working with social media communities, the decision to do so must be made on a case-by-case basis by considering the specific needs of the organisation and its online presence. It is not the aim of this report to discuss at great length the reasons why such choices have been made, but to offer insights into how the benefits of social media can be maximised. So, for organisations which do choose to incorporate social media elements into their online presence, this report provides material to inform that choice and guide the structural decisions which follow from it. We highlight the importance of understanding both the social and technological aspects of social media, and of addressing them in developing and managing social media Websites. In particular, we emphasise the following points:
- Social media rely on collaborative activities among large user communities. This is enabled by:
- A low threshold to user participation which allows even unskilled and uncommitted users to take part.
- Highly granular participation tasks ranging from very minor to very major contributions.
- Equipotentiality: the assumption that regardless of skill level, each user can make a useful contribution.
- A sense of shared ownership in the content generated by the collaborative work of users.
- The operators of social media sites must respect the processes of the community:
- Be as open as possible to new users, and encourage the community to sort good from bad.
- As the community defines its aims and values, work with those who emerge as leaders.
- The community and its processes will change over time. Follow and encourage this evolution.
- The community will feel a sense of pride in its achievements. Don't take it away from them.
- Traditional commercial approaches need to be reconsidered:
- Don't try to lock users into exclusively using your site - they'll want to explore and combine various commercial and non-commercial services.
- Allow your content to travel beyond your site, even if this means losing some control. This increases brand reach and recognition.
- Be transparent about everything you do with the site, but allow users to manage the transparency of their information on a case-by-case basis.
- Allow outstanding users to become 'micro-celebrities'. This can boost take-up of your site.
- Users expect quality services for free, but are often prepared to pay for enhanced additional services.
- Australian take-up of social media still lags behind the US and other major countries, but is catching up rapidly:
- Social media are deeply embedded in the lives of a rapidly growing number of their users as tools for managing a wide range of social activities.
- Content creation and social distribution is no longer limited to a few sites, but is becoming an everyday practice across a multitude of Websites.
- Limited broadband quality confines many Australian participants to focussing on less bandwidth-intensive practices.
- Internationally, the Internet ranks second only to television as a source of entertainment and information in the developed world.
We also focus on a number of key concerns related to corporate engagement with social media communities, and highlight the following major points:
- Community management should aim to gradually reduce the need for intervention by operators:
- Social media communities of sufficient size are highly effective at self-management.
- Community self-management can be supported by providing 'social accounting' tools for tracking and rewarding constructive user contributions.
- Participation in social media sites aimed at generating specific forms of content can be channelled by providing content creation toolkits.
- At earlier stages of community development, site operators need to kickstart and foster positive community dynamics and act as role models.
- Social media sites must be designed to support desirable user practices:
- Communities are most cohesive if site structures enable them to separate out into smaller groups that are focussed on specific tasks and topics.
- The reach of a social media site is much expanded if it provides a number of interfaces allowing for its content to be accessed and spread.
- Conversely, the utility and versatility of a site is enhanced if users are able to embed content from elsewhere.
- In particular, interfaces must be made available to access and post to a site from mobile devices on the fly, in a local context.
- While social media users expect the bulk of services to be provided for free, the community as a whole can be a driver of lucrative commercial activity.
The report closes by presenting a range of case studies which exemplify and expand on these points.