Abstracting Social Network Behavior

A lot has been written lately on the value of social networks and what they can do for individuals as well and businesses alike. Unfortunately everybody has a different idea about what social networks can do for them based on the networks they use on a regular basis. Some even argue that social networks are game changers without properly explaining why they are. The purpose of me writing this is to look at how the Internet has evolved and to explain social networks in abstract terms (abstract means looking at the general characteristics they all share) and what makes them ultimately useful.

If we go back 15 years or so when many of us were first introduced to the Internet we were introduced to it through e-mail. Internet e-mail is built upon a protocol called Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP). What is important to note about SMTP is it is message based. Your mail client contacts a mail server and essentially says, “I want to send an e-mail message to this person with this body,” and the mail server says “OK” and off it goes.

E-mail is built on a client/server relationship. All the work with regards to creating e-mail, replying to it and forwarding is handled by the client. The e-mail message itself has no concept of replying or forwarding. It is literally just a message containing headers (To,From,Subject) and text (message body). The World Wide Web is essentially built upon the same model. The web uses Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP). The web browser tells a web server, “I want to see this webpage,” and the server says , “OK here you go.” The web server does not help display the web page at all because it is handled by the web browser.

In geek speak we can refer to these message based systems as stateless transactions. That means they have no concept of state or being. The opposite of a stateless transaction is a stateful transaction. Consider an online purchase through the web as an example of a stateful transaction. We have the following states: shopping, checking out and purchasing. It is impossible to purchase something without having shopped for it first. Each state has a series of attributes that need to be fulfilled to enter it and exit it.

If you are thinking “But wait e-mail messages have states too.” And you are right (sort of). You can not reply to an e-mail message unless you receive one first but this is a state self imposed by the e-mail client. The e-mail server is the one we care about because it is the one that sends the e-mail messages and the e-mail messages it sends have no concept of new, reply or forward. The e-mail server does not keep track of your individual e-mail messages and what you are doing with them.

The World Wide Web is actually a stateless transaction. The language of the web, HTTP works just like an e-mail message. Web clients ask for content and web servers provide it and then they close the connection, the transaction completed. As you may know the web we use does not quite work like that. We use browser cookies as a workaround to this limitation to make it a stateful transaction.

The browser cookies allow the web browsers to include a session identifier with a web page request and the web server which is managing these different sessions can link the browser request to an existing session allowing for desktop application functionality with web pages. The advantage of this kind of model is we can black box the entire operation. We know it works and we don’t really need to know or care how it works.

Social networks on the other hand play by a different set of rules. Social networks do not deal in simple messages but rather in something I will call social network objects. The object part in a social network object is an object because it has attributes and operations available. A social network object is different from a message because it depends on a series of states to be fulfilled before it can be created, it has a series of attributes attached to it, it comes with a form of access control and it includes a set of operations that can be performed with it. Another important attribute of social network objects is they are entirely managed and manipulated by the social network.

Probably the best illustration of a real world social object we can relate to is the creation of the Twitter tweet. In order to first create a tweet we first need to log into the Twitter network and authenticate ourselves. Once we have logged in we can go ahead and create our tweet with a 140 character text message. Once created our tweet will be visible to all if we have a public profile or our followers if we have a private profile. This is the access control attributes satisfied. The tweet once created in addition to our 140 characters of text will also have a twitter username tied to it, username picture, date and time stamps.

The operations available for this Tweet will include: reply, retweet and favorite. The tweet social network object will be managed by the Twitter social network, How Twitter manages a tweet is not required knowledge for Twitter users or even third party developers. Social network objects can be more complex objects and encapsulate content such as web pages, images, video or even online polls. Perhaps one of the most powerful features about social network objects is we can wrap social network objects in other social network objects and these social network objects can be from different social networks.

Social network objects are an important abstraction because it allows us to view the functionality as a social network entity as opposed to concerning ourselves with details like the functionality it offers us. One of the most important attributes of social networks is because they do most of the work, the clients we use to interact with them do not need to be very complex.

One of the most important things social networks and their social network objects have given us is the ability to consume content a lot easier then we can create it. The desktop and laptop computers which historically have been treasured for how easy they make it to create content have given way to the tablet and mobile computing platforms. For the first time in the history of computing we do not need bigger processors or more memory. Quite the opposite in fact.

That is where the utility of social networks lies is that from he standpoint of the user experience we can do so much with very little. With a social network we can create social network objects, share/restrict them and interact with them. Most social networks are now plugging into each other and sharing their social network objects across multiple networks. Hypothetically, if properly managed, one social network object could be shared with all users across a social network with very little intervention from the original creator through the use of the re-share functionality of social network objects.

Typically when we look at various social networks we use a top down approach. We look at all the functionality offered by a social network and its user experience and explain the social network in those terms. What I have offered through the use of my social network objects is a way in which to view the social network from the bottom up. By thinking in terms of the basic functionality you can view your social media experience as one strategy that will function in any network.

To use an analogy think about an aquarium. Using the top down approach we might build a fresh water tropical aquarium and once put together we will need to think about adding fish to it knowing they much be able to live in a tropical freshwater aquarium. Using the bottom up approach we start with the fish and build the aquarium to suit the fish. The disadvantage to the top down approach is we are always talking about the different aquariums as opposed to the bottom up approach where we talk about the fish.

Most people who get into the aquarium hobby do so to watch fish grow and thrive in their aquarium as opposed to always doing aquarium maintenance. Similarly, thinking in terms of social network objects means you are thinking in terms of a message and how you can propagate and share it as opposed to what functionality the social network offers you. Many people when they talk about social networks talk about functionality as opposed to the sharing of information. The bottom up approach means we are always focused on and talking about the message.

That is the value of social networks in a nutshell: we can create these social network objects, interact with them, share them and spread them across other social networks all with very little effort by the user or computing resources. If you are an organization maybe you can see your social networking strategy as a cohesive strategy tailored for all social networks as opposed to just one and interconnect your social networks to create greater reach and value.

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