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The Problem with Social Interaction on Websites - Bringing Back Authenticity

Catalina Butnaru - Thursday, March 03, 2011 |

Building engaging interfaces is not easy. The list of priorities starts with usability issues and finishes with the difficulties of creating an experience through form and functionality.

Over the past few years a new challenge sprung from the maturation of tools and apps that enable sharing, user feedback and other forms of mediated interaction - generally called "social media". Integrating social media in websites was similar to introducing casual Fridays in the corporate world: steering up controversy first, but ending up doing business in jeans. Today, social interaction is amplified (viral and mass communication) as well as simplified (reduced to simple auto-fill share buttons), but this type of solution is not always the best in using technology to encourage authentic interaction and engagement.

This post presents multiple solutions to effectively use social expression in ways that are mutually beneficial, engaging and genuine.

Social Media & Marketing
Photo by: Rosaura Ochoa

The Problem with Today's "Social Media" Scene

Social interaction is fascinating: always changing, adapting and gradually shaping our perception of each other. Authentic interaction enables people to speak about their feelings and experiences. Therefore, by bringing in a social layer to the interfaces we build online,  we basically plug in technology to the social and emotional side of our personality. However, the online social media scene we have today displays forms of interaction that are not completely authentic.

For example, the number of replies and friends one gets over time becomes a "social proof" of value and influence. Is this actually relevant? Apart from that, it seems that social sharing is such a big thing in "social media", that sharing buttons alone are considered enough to foster interaction. That would be fine if promotion and traffic weren't the main sought-after benefits of social sharing. For the rest of this post, we will re-think the way websites interact with users.

Bringing Back Authentic Interaction

Fixing Calls to Action: Create Enchanting Invitations Instead

Glossy, big, enticing and sometimes commanding buttons populate essential sections of a website's structure. Designed only to be clicked (thus influencing the user's behavior to a certain extent), they are part of a suffocating "Call to Action" frenzy. If we would carry them around as often as we would use them, we wouldn't have many friends. Instead, replacing Calls To Action with decently appealing invitations is closer to emulating real life social interactions. Welovetypography.com graciously invites the user to search through the website, while cleverly promising a quick response through the word "quickly" instead of the "submit" or "search" button.



Photo by: We Love Typography

Fixing Share Buttons: Making "Sharing" More Exciting And More Genuine

Marketers can achieve "top of the mind awareness" faster and cheaper through social media, than through advertising. In addition to this, the more genuine you appear to other people, the more significant your actual "reach" becomes. Businesses have played an important card with integrating social media in their online strategy; that card is authenticity. Thus sharing has become more of a broadcasting tool that indirectly monetizes interaction, rather than an interpersonal experience.

One can bring back the feeling of authenticity in sharing if the widgets or buttons used would allow the user to (literally or not) highlight what exactly they thought was worth sharing or what inspired them most from the content they shared with other people. Would that be closer to what people normally do in real life situations? For the most part - yes. Usually, if you want to share an article (from a paper magazine) with your friend - you wouldn't give him the page pointing to the title. What you would probably do is - you would show the paragraphs that captured your interest - or you would want to introduce the reason why you bring that article to your friend's attention. Would sharing be a more personal and genuine action in this case? Hopefully - yes. In any case, it would be more fun than the automatic description filled in for you.

Fixing Comments: In-context Replies, Not Stackable Comments

There are always interesting conversations in comments people post on the web. Unfortunately in most cases, these conversations are reduced to a simple archive of stacked comments. This practice strips away the charm of conversation right from the section of the website dedicated to user feedback and interaction. This is so different from real life situations. Imagine you went to see this awesome speaker and attended the cocktail party afterwards. You would notice how people meet and talk to each other in small circles, build on each other's feedback and have a great time finding things to talk about related to that shared experience. It would be so unnatural if they would line up in a row and try to shout to people further down the line, which would be the case if they were posting comments on a site.

A different approach to re-designing the "comments section" could bring back the experience of participating in a real life conversation. By simply connecting each comment with the exact concept or idea it's referring to on the page and showing it significantly closer to that idea, rather than at the bottom of the page, would break the comments section into discussion groups that are more fun and easy to follow.

thank you
Photo by: Paul G

Fixing Social Bookmarking: Making it More Natural

Social bookmarking sites like StumbleUpon and Delicious make up what are referred to as "silent online communities". The problem with them is that they work based on categories, tags and folders (which is a form of information archiving specific to institutions, not to a person). Although it would make sense why bookmarking uses categories to archive saved items, you could make it all a more enjoyable experience by bringing all the saved pages together into a personal story, using photo album, bookscrapping or collage inspired techniques. We could go beyond that and maybe in the future even create our own "Qwiki's" (or a similar multimedia presentation) from the content we have bookmarked for a specific topic.

Endnote: We need to ask ourselves, are we using these technologies in the best way possible? Are we motivated purely by the desire for more traffic and higher conversion rates? It is important that we question current practices and always look for ways to actually improve interaction and user experience.

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