Shirky’s Law And Successful Social Software

I was playing around with social networking sites for scientists and came across, amongst others, the Nature Network which I found unsatisfying. Thinking about why this was so and why some social sites are amazingly successful, I came across a post on this very topic from Michael Nielsen:

Shirky’s Law states that the social software most likely to succeed has “a brutally simple mental model … that’s shared by all users”.

A few reasons are given on why developers find it hard to obey this ‘law’:

Reason 1: they have a flawed mental model of their own software:

Most developers are not stupid, and intellectually they know the user experience involves both the software and the network of other users. But their own experience, day in and day out, is of being a single user working with the software. At this stage the network of other users is a theoretical abstraction. It’s easy to get sucked into doing things that would make a single user’s experience better, but makes the experience of a network of users worse. This is a large part of why it’s so important to build a base of beta users as quickly as possible, and to release early and often.

Reason 2: the desire to do impressive-seeming things:

I’ve heard hackers brag that they could have built Twitter over a weekend. Underlying this boast is a misunderstanding of what is truly impressive. Coming up with Twitter required only a small amount of technical knowledge. The hard part was the social insight to realize such a tool would be useful. This is a social insight the bragging hackers didn’t have.

It’s no accident that many of the people who’ve been most successful at building social software have strong interests outside computing. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, studied both computer science and psychology at Harvard. Alan Kay, arguably the father of modern computing, has a list of recommended reading. There’s barely a technical book on it. It’s all psychology, anthropology, philosophy, and so on.

A strange consequence of all this is that much of the most successful social software was invented by accident.

Reason 3: it’s difficult to do it:

The most successful social software starts out doing one task supremely well. That task is simple, useful, and original. It’s easy to come up with a task which is useful and original – just combine existing ideas in a new way, perhaps with some minor twists. But finding something that’s also simple is hard. It has to be a single task that can’t be reduced or explained in terms of existing tasks. Inventing or discovering such a task requires either a lot of hard work and social insight, or a great deal of luck. It’s no wonder most social software fails.

It’s a nice well-thought out article and worth reading in full. He also points out in the comments that satisfying Shirky’s law is a necessary but not a sufficient criterion for success!

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