Shwhite Hot! The Secret Sauce of Social


The Secret Sauce of Social

This is for anyone who enjoys thinking about what makes social media what it is, how it works, and why.



In old school philosophical style, I will begin with my proximate enemy. My proximate enemy is the concept of “feedback loops.” Patina’d with a touch of the de riguer, “feedback loops” are often referenced as an accounting of social media’s virality. These loops describe the mechanism of social media participation. Feedback loops exist, in other domains, it is true. And feedback loops are a common feature of systems. But social media, and social tools in particular, are social systems, not mechanical, biological, climactic, or other operational systems. Social systems are reproduced not by system processes, but by meaningful exchanges among participants: in short, people.

Feedback loops

Feedback is an amplifying recycling of a source, say, a Fender Stratocaster in the hands of one Mr. Hendrix. It owes to the distance between two elements: a pickup, and a speaker. Close the distance between the two, and the signal tone amplifies itself, resulting in distorted feedback. Love it, but not an explanation of social media use, because it is acoustic.

Feedback loops fail as an explanation of social media engagement because they are a reproduction or amplification of the same: a single source. Social systems are reproduced on the basis of communication. And communication is dialogical. That is, it involves two or more participants in meaningful exchange. The common “feedback” features of social — likes, retweets, follows, comments, and so on — depend on the actions of individual users. The secret sauce, then, is in facilitating and amplifying not a single signal, but the coupling of signal. For one signal, a response. The response of an other (user).

Social action is awareness

Social engagement is built on social action. Social action is action of users aware that there are others. Not all social action solicits direct responses and replies, but all social action has in it the appeal to a response. In face to face situations, a look of acknowledgement suffices much of the time. But in mediated social contexts, there is no unilateral means of securing acknowledgment. Social media are built on separation, absence, and deferral. So the intrinsic appeal of social action — a feature, if you will, so fundamental to human social interaction that it must be accepted as a given — always remains. It is residue, ambiguous and unresolved, and it is the first key ingredient of our special sauce.

Social action is dead unless taken up by somebody. All of culture, all of language, and all of speech is “designed,” if you will, to make the improbable more probable. That is, to make communication more probable. Familiarity of meanings, use of a structured form of expression, norms and etiquette and innumerable practices all conspire to make it more likely that we are able to communicate with each other. So then, the challenge for any social tool is to make communication more probable.

Given that in mediated social systems, users sit at small backlit boxes reaching through the wire to share their thoughts and activities, the “design” of the application through which they engage necessarily structures and organizes their experience. But all of our socio technical systems harken back to original forms. Social tools are still part telephone. Part telegraph. Part radio. Part television.

You wait for a reply. The phone rings. It calls you — you are being called to answer. You place a phone call. The phone rings — a voice calls out: “It’s for you.” This is the system coupling of social action: action – response. And it is what becomes more challenging in social tool design, for unlike the phone, social tools are designed for asynchronous use.

Asynchronicity is distance. Distance not in space, but in time. Nearness, closeness, and immediacy are the human experience equivalents of space. This distance is inserted into social action and comes to separate action from response. The appeal — our first ingredient — is now at work. For it takes the form of waiting: urgent, distracted, compulsive, patient, or forgetful waiting.

Communication is a type of action system that by its nature is open-ended and ongoing. As it is how we maintain our relationships, it serves the purpose of allowing us to always resume interaction. And provides means by which to handle the gaps in between. Social tools, then, are built on action systems that are open-ended. They have no ending or conclusion, and are literally never finished. (Which is why it’s not really stories, but narration, which best describes social sharing activity.)

Communication wants to be probable

Given that communication wants to be probable, and given that mediation makes communication improbable, social tools use features and action designs that increase probabilities of communication. The Like, the retweet, the vote, and even the follow are system elements that serve as proxy communication. They are indirect symbolic expressions and actions. Same for all, but meaning something unique to each user each and every time they are used. These symbolic social actions in other words enable communication by other means: technical means, symbolic means, and within a social system that has ways of presenting these social actions to others.

Because these social systems are networked, any action taken that is captured and represented by technical form (like button click > “username liked this”) is displayed to others (a user’s friends), according to context (feed, page, etc). This leaves us with something very unique. A form or medium of communication quite different from the directly coupled ancestor of the phone, or the broadcast ancestor of radio and television. This unique property is distribution: propagation of a social action throughout the medium, if you will, according to “sharing,” display, privacy, and other design rules baked into the social system’s logic (just think Facebook timeline).

We saw earlier that the residual feature of social action is the appeal; the unspoken, if you will, of all that is said. Now this is complexified. For mediated symbolic action has a functional dualism: it appeals, and it propagates (distribution). Here we have the fundamental amplification of social media: a social action taken is visible (heard) in many “places.” It is a kind of action dislocated from space and place, and instead reproduced by system logic and rules in “contexts” “elsewhere.”

Social action is split

Now given that all social action seeks acknowledgement (directly or indirectly), mediated social action is split in two. The appeal is split from the action itself. For each additional context in which a social action is represented (say, a Like that appears in many friends’ feeds, on pages, in notifications, on phones, etc), its author’s intent is lost. For it’s a given that the author has not intended to “like” in front of each of his or her friends, to be seen in their feeds, or notified on their phones. A new form of communication is thus born — and all users must develop skills and competencies with which to interpret and handle what their friends mean, as well as what’s going on.

The dual function of the symbolic social action, an appeal split from propagation of the action’s represented form, complicates communication further. For there is but one possibility for communication as a kind of social action, and it is the response. But responses no longer mean what they did, when communication is unmediated and direct (as between people talking face to face). Furthermore, any response is itself a new social action, itself now with an appeal, and itself now propagated to contexts elsewhere.


And so we have the second ingredient of our secret sauce: distribution. We are far from the feedback loop. For we have neither the closure nor the recycling that make up feedback. Rather, we have a much less efficient system of communication. What might be considered noise. And not just the noise “generated” by the propagation of social actions, but the meta noise, if you will, of all the lost intentional signals.

Which is where design comes in. Design of social must answer to the needs and interests of social action, not just the needs and interests of individual users. But social architecture has a growing portfolio of plans and blueprints at its disposal. And accompanied with an understanding of the dynamics of social activities, a sense for how to lay out social designs for increasing complexity over time.

Closure, still, is the first order of business in social interaction design. Closure makes communication more probable. In so doing, it decreases noise (noise being a form of redundancy). And so the social interaction designer asks not “what feedback loops do we build into this?” but “how do we facilitate social closure through other users?”

Closure is closeness

We mentioned earlier that distance in human experience is closeness. Closure is closeness. Jimi’s guitar feedback was closeness — proximity to the amp. But as speed of feedback. And in mediated systems, because they are technologies, closeness is a factor of speed (or time, as duration). The notification increases speed. The realtime feed increases speed. Speed reduces waiting time, and accelerates the process of communication.


And so we have our third ingredient: temporality. All human affairs take time. Time not measured in minutes or hours, but felt and experienced: as tedious, dragging, plodding, or urgent, impatient, distracted time. Time has stretches, and spans; it has rhythms, cycles, and repetitions. It becomes habit, and pastime. And is lost in distraction, ephemera, and its own passage. Time, as we know it, has past and future. As past, it is recollection; as future, it is anticipation and expectation. No time, in human terms, is entirely unorganized, and all time, as we experience it, has meaning.

So the real real time revolution is not the revolution of speed alone. It is the revolution of im-mediacy. Approximation, by proxy of proximity, of immediacy in mediation. Design of socio-technical systems making increasingly running claims upon our awareness and attention. In short, getting ever closer to the presence in absence of that open state of talk which is the normal condition of everyday life.

Now many social systems designers have gone at the abstraction of social into design forms and rules. Gamification is one example of something interesting gone badly wrong at the hands of abstraction. Game mechanics, too, are oft but a shell of something compelling dislocated from the eventfulness of games and reified into codified sets of rules and recommendations. Design like this gets nowhere close to the grist because it takes its abstractions as real. Soon the map precedes the territory.

Designing for social makes use of much simpler factors. All social action appeals to others. All social action communicates. All communication is coupling. People understand the appeal of social action as acknowledgment. People understand the action of communication as response. People engage in communication through reciprocity and reciprocal action. All occurs over time, in order, and the more synchronous the experience the more present it feels.

To design social tools you need only to understand the distance at which you operate from the realities of human experience.

Adrian Chan

Adrian Chan is a social media expert and social interaction theorist atGravity7. You can follow him on twitter at /gravity7

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