Grizzled old Internet hands like me, we like to think we’ve seen it all. We were using our modems and marvelling at the strange intimacy of having threaded text conversations about science fiction or politics or woodworking with people you’ve never met way back on some BBS or on GEnie. We were playing Adventure and Zork on the campus mainframe at 2am after working on papers on an NCR-manufactured terminal with PCWrite. We got a virus on our desktop computer back when viruses were weird little stunts, and we got phished back when the worst thing that could happen is your browser would open endless windows until you Ctl-Alt-Deleted (or unplugged) the machine. We wrestled with updating graphics drivers in MS-DOS.
I’ve got extra protection: I’ve also studied marketing and advertising, so I have a whole other skepticism that I can bring to bear.
But no matter how experienced you think you are, you’re only one moment away from falling for something if you let your guard down. Case in point, I took at look today at Americans Elect without doing what I’d normally do, which is search out the organization and learn a bit before I get too deep into the site itself. (Obviously I am recommending that you do otherwise before following that link and diving into things.) No, I let the initial design and the seeming aspirations of the project draw me in. Political organizing through social networking, an end run around the two-party system, a chance to escape the toxicity of inside-the-Beltway gamesmanship: all my buttons pressed, and so gently. (Later, as I looked deep inside the community forums, I found that many participants had gone through the same sequence of emotions: pleased at first, annoyed later and then way beyond annoyed after going through the whole exercise.)
Yeah! A social network harnessed to create a new kind of political conversation between delegates, that lets people explore connections across existing political boundaries and to examine their own convictions with a fresh eye. Follow that distraction! So I sign up and dive in. About six or seven questions about my political preferences later, I’m getting really annoyed at the terrible phrasing of the questions. A fifth grader using SurveyMonkey might do better. About another seven questions later, I’m beginning to think that this is a classic instance of having to decide whether some group is stupid or conspiratorial. Either this whole thing is just a scam that’s hoping to herd a bunch of cattle towards some third-party aspirant who is secretly funding the whole thing or the people doing it are immaculately unacquainted with survey design and polling.
By this point I’m on the case, as I should have been at the start. I’m going to leave aside the sleuthing into who/what is really behind the project, which turns out to be a big theme in online discussions of the group. Let’s just talk about what minimal expectations we should bring to any novel social media project, site or outlet that we encounter. Not best or ideal practices, but features and conditions which if unmet should result in failure and rejection by potential users or participants.
1. Disclosure. If I can’t find out specific, detailed information about the organization, individuals and funding behind any social media project, particularly a non-profit project from clicking an easily found, prominently placed link within the site itself? Failure. If I can’t find out how community participation and the governance of the sponsoring organization intersect or connect? Failure.
2. Strong feedback, correction and user annotation of any participatory or informational content. In the case of Americans Elect, if I can’t tag flawed survey questions at the site of the question itself, suggest and create better questions, and expect that there is a quick feedback loop between user contributions and the architecture and content of the social media itself? Failure.
3. A social media site with aspirations to create new forms of community and mobilize those new community networks for some larger purpose has to own and design and imagine its own forums or other communicative interfaces. Outsourcing your community management to a generic corporation that just sees your site as another client, offers you generic services? Failure. Having community-management representatives who don’t participate in discussions as peers, aren’t part of the project or community and who do nothing more than placate users and deflect questions? Failure.
4. Going live with a social media site that doesn’t let people change their mind about participating or having their information associated with the site? That doesn’t let you change privacy settings? Especially a site that’s aiming to mobilize participants for some larger political or social project? Seeing this as an optional feature to be patched in later? Facebook and a few others get away with this by grandfathering. Nobody else should. Of all the disappointing or pathetic things on this site, the fact that the community-management babysitter is awkwardly stalling for time while they supposedly look for a way to allow participants to change their information or level of participation is the most shameful. You don’t ever start something like this up if you’re not already prepared for this basic functionality. Failure.
If you don’t see these commitments in place the moment you find a new social media project, it should be the equivalent of getting an email that says “You have to see this!” with an .exe file in the attachment. I know I’m going to remind myself of that the next time I follow a promising link to a shiny new social media site.