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    Socialtext Releases Chatroulette for the Enterprise

    Today Socialtext released the latest cutting-edge social software for the enterprise, unleashing a revolution in Randomized Productivity Management (RPM).

    The following video has details:

    RPM takes social to a new level. We’ve been hard at work adapting the best of the social web, from Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter and more for enterprise use. Socialtext users can immediately start clicking on their navigation bar to realize immediate ROI.

    Signup for your own account today.

    Learnings from web ratings systems

    “The Wisdom of Crowds” is one of the driving principles of Web 2.0. The idea, explored in James Surowiecki’s influential book, is that decisions made by large numbers of people together are better than decisions that would have been made by any one person or a small group. This principle has powered the wide adoption and success of tools including including Google, collaborative filtering, wikis, and blogs.

    One common technique, following the Wisdom of Crowds principle, is the use of ratings. The hope and expectation is that by enabling large numbers of people to express their opinion, the best will rise to the top. In recent years, rating techniques have been put into practice in many situations. The learnings from real-life experience have sometimes been counterintuitive and surprising.

    The failure of five-star ratings

    Many sites including Amazon, Netflix, and Yahoo! used five-star ratings to rate content, and this pattern became very common. Sites hoped that these ratings would provide rich information about the relative quality of content. Unfortunately, sites discovered that results from the 5-point scale weren’t meaningful. Across a wide range of applications, the majority of people people rated objects a “5″ – the average rating across many type of sites is 4.5 and higher. Results from YouTube and data from many Yahoo sites show this distribution pattern.

    Why don’t star ratings provide the nuanced content quality evaluation that sites hoped for? It turns out that people take the effort to rate primarily things they like. And because rating actions are socially visible, people use ratings to show off what they like.

    How to use scaled ratings effectively

    So, is it possible to use scaled ratings effectively? Yes, but there needs to be careful design to make sure that the scale is meaningful, that people are evaluating against clear criteria, and that people have incentive to do fine-grained evaluation. Examples of rating scales with more and less clear criteria can can be found in this Boxes and Arrows article – the image from that article is an example of a detailed scale.

    There are tradeoffs between complexity of the rating criteria and people’s willingness to fill out the ratings. Another technique to improve the value of scaled ratings is to weight the ratings by frequency and depth of contribution, as in this analysis by Christopher Allen’s game company. This techniques may be useful when there is a relatively large audience whose ratings differ in quality.

    Like

    The simpler “thumbs up” or “like” model, found in Facebook and FriendFeed has taken precedence over star ratings systems. This simpler action can surface quality content, while avoiding the illusory precision of five-star ratings. The vote to promote pattern can be used to surface popular content. This technique can be used in two ways – to highlight popular news (as in Digg) or to surface notable items in a larger repository.

    Several considerations regarding the “like” action: this sort of rating requires a large enough audience and frequent enough ratings to generate useful results. In smaller communities the information may not be meaningful. Also, the “like” action indicates popularity but not necessarily quality. As seen on Digg and similar sites, the “like” action can highlight the interests of an active minority of nonrepresentative users. Or the pattern can be subject to gaming.

    Another concern is the mixing of “like” and “bookmark” actions. Twitter has a “favorite” feature that is also the only way for users to bookmark content. So some number of Twitter “favorites” represent the user temporarily saving the content, perhaps because they disagree with it rather than because they like it! Systems that have a “like” feature should clearly differentiate the feature from a “bookmark” or “watch” action.

    The risks of people ratings

    Another technique that sites sometimes use, in the interest of improving quality and reliability, is the rating of people. Transaction sites such as Ebay use “karma” reputation systems to assess seller and buyer reliability, and large sites often use some sort of karma system to incent good behavior and improve signal to noise ratio.

    The Building Reputation Systems blog has a superb article explaining how Karma is complicated. The simplest versions don’t work at all. “Typical implementations only require a user to click once to rate another user and are therefore prone to abuse.” More subtle designs still have an impact on participant motivations that may or may not be what site organizers expect. “Public karma often encourages competitive behavior in users, which may not be compatible with their motivations. This is most easily seen with leaderboards, but can happen any time karma scores are prominently displayed.” For example, here is one example of karma gaming that affected even in a subtle and well-designed system.

    Participant motivations, reactions, and interactions

    When providing ratings capabilities for a community, it is important to consider the motivations of the people in that community. In the Building Reputation blog Randy Farmer talks about various types of egocentricand altruistic motivations. Points systems are often well-designed to support egocentric motivations. But they may not be effective for people who are motivated to share.

    Adrian Chan draws distinctions between the types of explicit incentives used in computer games, and the more subtle interests found in other sorts of social experiences, online and off. People have shared interests; people are interested in other people. The motivations come not just from the system in which people are taking these actions, but from outside the system – how people feel about each other, how they interact with each other.

    In a business environment, people want to show off their expertise and don’t want to look stupid in front of their peers and superiors. They may want to maintain a harmonious work environment. Or in a competitive environment, they may want to show up their peers. These motivations affect the ways that people use ratings features as well as how they seek and provide more subtle forms of approval, like responses to questions in a microblogging system.

    Thomas Vander Wal talks about the importance of social comfort in people’s willingness to participate in social systems, particularly in the enterprise.

    People need to feel comfortable with the tools, with each other, and with the subject matter. The most risky form of ratings, direct rating of people, typically reduces the level of comfort.

    Depending on the culture of the organization and the way content rating is used, content rating may feel to participants like encouragement to improve quality, like a disincentive to participation, or like an incentive to social behavior that decreases teamwork. Even with good intentions and thoughtful design, the results may not be as anticipated. In that case, it is important to monitor and iterate.

    Scale effects

    The familiar examples of ratings come from consumer services like Amazon, Netflix, and Facebook, with many millions of users. With audiences as large as Amazon’s, there are multiple people willing to rate fairly obscure content. In smaller communities, such as special interest sites and corporate environments, there are many fewer people: hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands. While the typical rate of participation is much higher – 10-50%, rather than 1-10%, that is still many fewer people. With a smaller population, will there be enough rating activity to be meaningful. If an item has one or two ratings, what does this mean? Smaller communities need to assess whether the level of activity generates useful information.

    Summary

    Ratings and reputation systems can be very useful at surfacing the hidden knowledge of the crowd. But their use is not as simple as deploying a feature. In order to gain value, it is important to take into account lessons learned:

    • Think carefully about the goal of the ratings system. Use features and encourage practices to achieve that goal
    • Use an appropriate scale that addresses the goal
    • Consider the size of the community and the likelihood of useful results
    • Consider the motivations and comfort level of the community and how the system may affect those motivations and reactions

    Then, evaluate the results. The use of a rating system should be seen not like a “set and forget” rollout, but as an experiment with goals. Goals may include quantitative measures like the volume of ratings and the effect on overall level of contribution, as well as qualitative measures such as the effectiveness of ratings at highlighting quality content, the effect on people’s perception of the environment, and the effect on the level and feeling of teamwork in an organizational setting. Be prepared to make changes if your initial experiment teaches you things you didn’t expect.

    For more information

    The Building Reputation blog, by Randall Farmer and Bryce Glass, is an excellent source of in-depth information on this topic. The blog is a companion to the O’ReillyBuilding Web Reputation Systems.

    Other good sources on this and other social design topics include:

    Twitter is the new headline: how blogging and social messaging are complementary

    Recently, media critic Jay Rosen mocked this post as dumbest newspaper column about Twitter ever. In the column, a game critic blogger at the New Orleans paper attempted to parody Twitter by writing his review of an xbox game in 140 character increments. The reason the reviewer’s approach is silly is that the columnist misses the complementary relationship between Twitter and blogging. If you are writing an article, you don’t write the article itself on Twitter. You write a normal essay, and then share the link on Twitter with a catchy phrase.

    Is Twitter really killing blogging?

    There is a common meme Twitter is killing blogging, since bloggers are now spending their time and sharing their ideas on Twitter. As Robin Hamman observed last fall in this Headshift post, Twitter (and Facebook) are siphoning off a lot of the energy from personal diary blogging – the proverbial post about what I ate for lunch – or blogging for simple link sharing. Anecdotally, some bloggers observe that they post less frequently because they tweet ideas more often.

    While Twitter may be siphoning blog energy from very short posts, Twitter also increases interest in more substantive blog posts and discussion around blog ideas. An increasing amount of blog traffic is driven by status updates from Facebook and Twitter. Through link posting and “retweets” – the social custom of forwarding a link or quote to one’s Twitter followers, , the social network is used to share and spread interesting posts and call attention to good bloggers. Essentially, Twitter is the new headline.

    Professionals use social messaging to develop ideas.

    On the public internet, reactions and conversation about blog post ideas are taking place in Twitter, in comments on Facebook status updates, and on FriendFeed, a site that aggregates and enables discussion about links and updates from many social media sites together. A number of online journalists are developing rich processes for developing ideas using these social media. Journalism professor Jay Rosen uses phased process, using Twitter for mindcasting short thoughts and links, Friendfeed for assembling links and ideas together with discussion, and his blog to publish long-form essays based on the ideas. Scientist and science blogger Bora Zivkovic writes about a similar social journalistic workflow, carrying the process from ideas shared in Twitter through composing articles and books. Yahoo social design expert and blogger Christian Crumlish has used the workflow starting with Twitter and extending through writing a book, using a wiki as a tool for book editing and feedback for O’Reilly’s Designing Social Interfaces. Using these workflows, these professional journalists and bloggers are developing higher quality ideas and documents through turbo-charged idea sharing and peer review.

    Value in the Workplace

    The relationship between social messaging and blogging can be particularly valuable in the workplace, where social messaging is used to call attention to timely and relevant work-related posts and updates. Sharing blog posts, links and wiki updates using Socialtext Signals enables timely discussion without interrupting people’s work day.

    Making it easy to share and discuss motivates people to write useful posts, and update information on wiki pages, because they know they know the content will be shared, discussed and used with colleagues – they are not just contributing content into a black hole. Socialtext Signals is designed to facilitate this sort of sharing – when adding new content, writers are prompted to share a summary of the update on Signals. And we’re sensitive to business confidentiality – only people who have permission to see the content can see the Signal about the new content.

    In summary, social messaging and blogs are highly complementary. The role of Twitter and Socialtext Signals isn’t to limit thoughts to what can can be expressed in 140 characters or less, it’s to call attention to longer-form writing, and to improve those ideas within the social network. Using the techniques of turbo-charged peer review being developed by professional bloggers and journalists, organizations can use social tools to be smarter and more responsive.

    How Asymmetry Scales

    Josh Porter predicts at his Bokardo blog that Facebook will go asymmetric. Until now, Facebook has had a “symmetrical” model of social network, where in order to establish a relationship, both sides need to have each other as connections. When you send a “friend request”, the recipient must friend you back so you can see their profile and activity. By contrast, Twitter has an “asymmetric” network. People can follow you, and you don’t need to follow them back for them to see your updates.

    Porter calls out two key reasons why Facebook may go asymmetric. Asymmetric networks are a a good fit for anyone with a level of community fame, not just organizations, consumer brands and popular bands. Facebook is making it’s “Pages” feature more robust – these are pages that a brand or organization can set up. People can choose to be “fans” of that organization, and the organization does not need a mutual connection. In addition to helping popular organizations and people, asymmetric networks help people manage their attention. If you are even modestly popular, with over 100-200 followers, the number of updates from followers can be deafening. In an asymmetric network, you don’t need to pay attention to every update from everyone following you.

    There are a couple of other key reasons why asymmetric networks scale better, in addition to helping the popular. In Twitter there are a number of ways where asymmetry in a public network provides good returns to scale, as I noted in a post on my personal blog on premature predictions of peak Twitter

    • In Twitter, it is common to “Retweet” an interesting link or quote, to share it with your followers. Retweets disseminate information across social networks
    • Twitter searches makes it easy to find information outside of one’s personal network
    • Visible “mentions” – the feature that shows that shows when someone mentions you even if you’re not following them, allow you to hail and engage people in conversation, and have others start conversations with you, even if you’re not following them.

    These features mean that the more people who join the network, the more interesting information will be amplified through it, and the more potentially interesting people you may discover. The level of context is fairly high – you can see what someone else has been Twittering, and see if they are interesting and relevant to you. And the level of obligation is low (you can follow someone without giving them the burden of accepting or rejecting you). In Facebook, I can see when someone that I don’t know has commented on the update of someone I do know, but then I need to “friend” a stranger in order to learn more about them. Facebook’s mostly-symmetrical, mostly closed network makes it hard to learn new things and meet new people outside your existing network.

    So, the reasons for asymmetry aren’t just about supporting fame, but enabling discovery with low social expense.

    This is an edited version of a post that first appeared here.

    “Will you be my friend – yes or no?”

    Our recent announcements about Socialtext People and Socialtext Dashboard have given me the fun opportunity to demo and discuss our new social networking initiatives with a large number of existing and potential customers. There’s some consistent themes that come up in these conversations, often unprompted by anything I say:

    • Many companies have been thinking about the business potential of social networking at work. Several have even built out complete strategies and visions of what they would like to see working inside of their environment – not just in terms of a technology suite or stack, but also in terms of “fitting in” to their existing way of working. This is really exciting!
    • At the same time many of them have a hard time explaining internally how the most commonly known and used public internet social networking tools show how this would really work “in the real world” of their environment. “Facebook is just for fun” or “How is that relevant to getting stuff done” or “what problems does that solve for me at work” are frequent questions that people either ask or get asked.
    • One nerve that runs deep that our demo often touches comes to the fore when I talk about how we at Socialtext think really deeply and differently about the value proposition of social software in the workplace vs. on the Internet. We think that the point is to help people and organizations get stuff done, which is dramatically different from “staying in touch” or “showing off how big your network is” or “hooking up”.

    What prompted me to write about this was a conversation I had yesterday with a new customer. I was humorously talking about how the explicit “friending” gesture that’s at the core of almost every public social networking site just doesn’t work as is in the enterprise – after all we work for the same company, and the political ramifications of publicly visible “friend connections” is just subject to too much useless gamesmanship (“look how many execs I’m friends with”). We think the real potential of social software in the work environment goes way beyond explict graphs of “who knows whom” (or really “who says they know whom”), and should address much more powerful things like “who works with whom” and “who knows what” and “who knows who knows what”.

    My new customer told me I must watch a very funny video called “Facebook in the Real World” which is here for your enjoyment: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nrlSkU0TFLs

    Meanwhile all of this thinking was strongly influenced by one of my most favorite recent reads – David Weinberger‘s book “Everything is Miscellaneous”. I recommend this book to everyone – but in particular because of his chapter called “What Nothing Says”. My key takeaway is that the implicit is much more powerful than the explicit, and that what I do is more meaningful that what I say about myself. By extension, what others say about me is likely more relevant and trustworthy (usually) that what I say about me. These social patterns are much more useful and relevant than explicit links between people who know that the links are explicitly public.

    Anyway, enjoy the video.

    About This Blog

    Weblog on gaining business results from social software.

    On this blog, Socialtext staffers and customers explore how companies can gain the most business value from their use of enterprise social software, including microblogging, social networking, filtered activity streams, widget-based dashboards, blogs and wikis.

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