The following text is work in progress …
There are probably many ways of grouping together applications into categories to better understand them and their evolution, but from a user perspective it probably makes sense to think of them in terms of what they are used for. This is a tricky subject because uses are changing and combining, but let’s have a shot at it. Bear with me if I begin from what might seem self-evident facts as I attempt to get to the essential beyond.
Mail involves sending a private message to someone, possibly with attached material. Note that a message does not necessarily require a reply whereas a conversation (see following point) cannot exist without a reply. Mail can often be limited on integrated platforms to sending messages only. The messages may be stored for the person until their next visit to the platform or forwarded to the person’s outside email account. Restricting mail to the platform could encourage people to visit the platform more regularly but it also limits the reach of the platform and its ability to involve people beyond its limited boundaries. There are also so-called instant messaging programmes but they are either conversational in this or they verge on publication in that their content is generally not private but available for all those who have access to the recipient’s pages.
Common sense would have us see conversation as sustained exchange between two or more people. What strikes immediately is that most applications used for conversational exchange are not necessarily intended for it. People respond to each others posts on blogs, for example, or forum posts can lead to discussions of a subject. When someone states an opinion using one of those applications they are not necessarily conversing. Mail is not a conversational tool, although some people use it that way. A forum might be called a structured form of exchange but it is often more like a succession of personal statements about a given subject which may or may not be related to other posts on the forum. Perhaps the closest to conversation whether it be between two or more people are chat programmes like Skype or IM oor chat on Facebook.
Publication implies making material readily and publicly available in a viewable form. I say ‘readily available’ implying all the instantness of the Web. In comparison, texts published in PDF feel once-removed and apparently less accessible, even if the navigator can display PDF documents. Publishing a word document is even further removed in this respect. The same goes for other types of material like music, photos, video etc. They are more present if they can be immediately ‘read’ without having to use some outside software.
When it comes to texts, publication can involve: longer texts (generally on a traditional website or magazine but also on blogs); shorter texts or notes, what the French call ‘billets’ (on blogs, or as notes on a place like Facebook); shorter posts that are often short-lived and personal (like status updates on Facebook); and snippets generally restricted to 140 characters (like on Twitter). Note that, although Twitter can be and is used, with some difficulty, to maintain conversations, it is essentially a publication tool.
Much of what is called sharing is actually a form of publication: publicly posting photos, videos, music, urls, files, … with the possibility of fixing the ‘public’ that can access them. Often this publication goes hand in hand with other functions like the possibility to comment or rate (more about the latter later).
Friends and followers
There are many ways to relate to people in online communities and social networks. I have singled out two here: friends and followers. In the case of ‘friends’, as on Facebook, it is a mutual relationship between two people on which they need to agree. By being friends, not only is the fact that they are friends visible to others but it implies that they share notifications about what they post. To follow someone does not require that person’s consent. Following is less a relationship as a declaration of interest in which following implies you wish to be informed about what that person does. You follow people you want to keep informed about whereas you are friends with people you know. The number of followers is seen to be indicative of the interest of the person. The equivalent to following on Facebook is liking a page. On the ELGG platform the choice of ‘friend’ for a follow function is unfortunate and confusing. Befriending on ELGG is not a mutual agreement but a unilateral action that allows you to subsequently receive notifications about the person. (Thanks to Thomas Ullmann for pointing this out to me.)
A notification is a particular type of automatic one-way message. It lets people know when a specific action has happened. Communities that exist on platforms are necessarily ‘somewhere else’. We are not there all the time. Even if our browser is continually pointed at the community space, few are those that have an automatic refresh system that keeps their display up-to-date. As a result, notification is one way for the platform to reach out to participants and tell them that something of interest to them has happened. Notifications partly address a critical problem of online spaces which tend to get neglected when faced with the pressure of other more present activities. Notifications are rarely obligatory and the fact that they are enabled by someone is an indication of their interest in what happens there.
It may seem self-evident, but the function that allows user to create their own public profile is key to the workings of a community. In many cases, it is the face that people point at the online world. On large networks like Facebook, many people are cautious about the information they provide about themselves and they do so sparingly. In a community this can be counter productive. Communities are about relationships (whereas Facebook is more about connections) and those relationships need to be based on trust and shared knowledge about each other. To take the example of the personal icons people use, blank icons or unrelated pictures are like holes in the social fabric of the community.
One of the key tools of community platforms is the control of access. Preparing my seminar about communities I set the access rights to private so only I can see the work in progress. Then, when it is almost ready, I open it to a small group of beta-testers and finally open it to all the participants. The description of the seminar is accessible to all. Access rights are a powerful tool for managing exchange and publication according the context. Their misuse can also cause problems.
It is all the rage to ‘like’ material thanks to Facebook buttons. This is a cunning way to get people to notify their interest in web content without having them go so far as to actually rate the material. Ratings systems exist for online communities but although they are a way of expressing interest, they invariably encourage people to pass judgement on others and their work without needing to explain their score. As such they can be counterproductive in a community that is seeking to create trust. Carefully crafted comments would be much more useful, but require more effort.