The Design Patterns of Social Media

Most websites nowadays incorporate some kind of community aspect which allows users to provide feedback to the site's owners and to each other. In fact, 'building community' is one of the most important aspects of any modern website. Websites that focus on their community or group nature are described as being social sites, an umbrella term that can cover a great number of disparate services. This article will describe how Developers can utilise social design patterns on a site in order to promote or dull certain behaviours in an online community.

So What is Social Media?

Social Media is a fancy term to describe how people have been using the Internet since its inception. Before the web, social media was BBS (Bulletin Board Systems) and multiplayer text based games. More recently the rise of site aggregators such as Digg, reddit and MetaFilter or social aggregators such as Facebook, LinkedIn or MySpace are more well known, the social principles behind these sites however, are as old as networked computers. Social Media is community - it's individuals coming together to share their interests and engage with one another.

So What are Design Patterns?

Design Patterns are common principles that developers use as shorthand to describe a technique they intend to use to solve a given problem. They are a shared terminology that describe an optimal solution to a commonly encountered problem.

How do they fit together?

When developing a site that is supposed to encourage a sense of community it is important to recognise what kind of community you're trying to encourage. People using your site will end up doing things that you didn’t expect so using design patterns will allow you to nudge your users towards certain types of behaviour that you wish to promote.

This is best illustrated by an example:

Consider a forum designed for people who are interested in talking about carpentry. The topic itself isn't really important; it could be any one of the millions of social forums or systems that are designed to encourage community interaction over a specific topic. When the forum is first created it may quickly fill with people who are excited and enthused to find likeminded people, many conversations start covering thousands of aspects of carpentry and related topics. Time progresses and posts grow more detailed, broad topics are narrowed into specific subjects. People begin to recognise distinct individuals; personalities emerge and direct conversations in their own ways.

Topics that previously had created debate and interest have now been discussed over and over, people begin to grow disillusioned with the cyclical nature of the conversations they are having, conversations that have little or nothing to do with carpentry become the predominant topics. New users feel lost and confused at the lack of carpentry discussions and when they try to start new topics about dovetails and joins are shouted down by older users who are tired of the same conversation happening again and again, pointing to various past discussions the new user can find the information they want. The community begins to disintegrate into factions of users, splintering between old and new, carpentry purists and people more interested in maintaining the personable conversations between people, and often, between administrators and users. People begin to leave and a once vibrant online community fades away, not with a bang, but with a whimper, a few remaining souls lingering until the system administrator finally turns the power off on the servers.

The number of online communities that have experienced that life-death cycle is beyond counting. It has occurred since the Internet’s inception, it's been occurring for so long and so often that it's possible to see the similarities inherent in every one of them - to map the patterns and to track the changes that work to make sure that the self-destruction doesn't occur. Navigating this user-cycle can be a delicate game, but it is possible to implement patterns that give a social site the best possible chance to survive.

How do we implement Patterns that work?

The first step to implementing patterns that work, and through them, a community that will survive long term use, is to determine what kind of community you wish to encourage. Certain kinds of patterns will help promote certain kinds of behaviour. Patterns such as 'Reputation' can help foster a sense of competition between users, which can be beneficial, but can also be detrimental if you're not attempting to cultivate a competitive spirit. Likewise, providing users with advanced options to create unique and personalised identities with a 'Profile' pattern can result in improved user engagement and personal investment, but can also lead to users being more concerned with their personal identities on the site than producing content for consumption. Being aware of how different patterns influence behaviour allows developers to implement the right solution to reach the right result for you and your users.

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