Everywhere you go in the Mission District in San Francisco, you see the freelancers at work. They fill the coffee shops, power bricks and cords sprawling across the tables, staring fixedly at their laptop screens.
They never talk to each other, except to ask their neighbor to watch their computer while they go to the bathroom. But still, every day they come in, buy expensive coffee made one cup at a time, and sit beside strangers for hours at a stretch. And it’s not really a mystery why: working alone can be distracting. Given enough time, your focus grows slippery, and keeping it on the subject at hand takes a conscious effort. The question of why the work is important becomes increasingly difficult to answer, and excuses for why it’s not seem increasingly convincing.
The strangers in the coffee shop can work more effectively because they are in public. By sitting in front of their computer, they have made a silent declaration to the people around them that they intend to work. To do otherwise would be a loss of face, even if no one actually knows each other. Their public persona becomes self-perpetuating, providing a constant defense against distraction.
Realizing this, what are we to make of early adopters for social products? With a large user base the product provides social proof, allowing people to understand the norms of their peers. By self-identifying as someone who belongs to a particular group on Facebook, a person can then see how others in that group behave, and compare their own behavior against that standard. If they strongly value their membership in that group, they may even change themselves so as to better conform.
But in a new social product, there is no social proof. The groups, if they exist at all, will be sparse and ill-defined. So with no social insights to be gained, what brings in the early adopters?
The answer is the same as for the freelancers in the coffee shop: it establishes a public persona. By checking into a restaurant or bar, the early adopter is declaring that they are the sort of person who would go there. The audience gives them a reason to become the bon vivant they always suspected they were, if only distractions weren’t constantly getting in the way. In other words, early adopters aren’t seeking groups with which to self-identify, they’re seeking a medium for self-expression.
Early adopters provide the seed for the community. They define the norms, invent the tropes and memes that are used to interact, and they take pride in the community’s growth. But this same growth will pervert and dilute the qualities they ascribe to the community, make it less than what they remember. Self-expression is inextricably tied up in how the author perceives his audience, and as the audience grows and reverts to the mean, the potential for self-expression is diminished.
And so, growing communities exist in a constant state of crisis. Growth is necessary for the ongoing health of the community (and, typically, any monetization they hope to achieve), but this same growth risks chasing away the very people that are responsible for its success and continued renewal. In the worst cases, this will lead to a dead sea effect, but even in the best cases there will be regular complaints and meta-discussions about the state of the community.
In Albert Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, he posits there are three possible reactions to the deterioration of a group or product someone holds dear: they can speak out against it, leave, or remain silent out of loyalty. Of course, there are degrees of ‘voice’ and ‘exit’. An honest discourse might be constructive, but outright rebellion is also a way of voicing one’s discontent. Similarly, an exit isn’t always final – Hirschman credits the stability of early America with the fact that discontents could simply travel west until they felt sufficiently freed from its rules and restrictions. Contrast this with Europe, where anyone trying to leave their nation-state would simply find themselves beholden to a different ruler, forced to learn a new language and customs. Small wonder that rebellions were commonplace.
To remain healthy, a social product needs to establish loyalty, and to mitigate the natural responses to discontent with the state of things. The early adopters will be interested in voicing their opinion, but typically these discussions are only interesting to the early adopters. Giving them a single place to have meta-discussions keeps them happy, and prevents them from disrupting the experience of users who couldn’t care less.
Similarly, creating mechanisms that allow a user to exit without completely abandoning the product are useful. There’s no limit on the number of possible subreddits, stack exchange sites, or wikipedia pages that can be made, so a user can always keep traveling west until they find something that’s worth sticking around to defend.
Loyalty is the most desirable response, but also the hardest to quantify and design for. A number of discussion sites have found success with social currency (such as karma on Slashdot, Reddit, et al), where users can reward each other not only for providing quality content, but for quality responses to the content. This means that it’s not only possible to create a public persona, but to get quantifiable feedback on whether it’s a good public persona. Good is a little subjective, though, so some sites make users specify why they’re rewarding someone – was the comment funny, insightful, or cool? By enumerating the reasons why someone can be rewarded, the creators of the product are describing what sort of content they value.
This social currency has no inherent value, but it is a quantification and reminder of the amount of effort expended on the persona, which makes it harder to leave behind. Yelp goes one step further by throwing parties for elite users, which is a constant and concrete reminder of the value of continued use of the product. Typically speaking, anything that requires effort will engender a certain amount of loyalty from the early adopter, since it represents an investment in their public persona. Higher quality contributions require more effort, which means that the best contributors will also tend to be the most loyal.
At first, a persona is weightless. But as it grows heavy with effort, it pulls at us, drawing us inexorably towards an ideal. Technology has given us a new medium, allowed us to invent personas completely untethered from reality, but it has not made it easier to discard them. This is as it should be. At its best, technology doesn’t just allow us to reinvent ourselves, it brings our aspirations into focus, allowing us to better understand who we are by understanding who we want to be.