The Cultivation Equation Part 2: Motivation


Months ago, I posted the first part of something I’d been presenting on for over a year: a simple way of thinking about social design choices. I called it the “Cultivation Equation for Social Design.” I should’ve known better, but I said at the end of that post that I’d be posting the rest soon … then proceeded to put it off for a very long time. At any rate, here’s the second part, about Motivation. The third part (about Moderation) will be forthcoming, eventually, but I make no promises on timing.
Continue reading “The Cultivation Equation Part 2: Motivation”

The Cultivation Equation for Social Design (Part 1)

Note: This is something I had embedded in a few very long presentations from last year, and I’m realizing it would probably be useful (to me if nobody else) to elaborate on it as its own topic. Here’s the first part.

social equation

There’s a lot of writing and thinking happening around the best approaches to designing platforms for social activity. I certainly haven’t read it all, and it keeps being added to every day. But from what I have read, and from the experiences I’ve had with social design factors, I distilled the basics down to a simple equation. “Cultivation equals Motivation divided by Moderation.” It sounds like a no-brainer, to those of us who’ve been thinking about this stuff for a while. For me, though, it helps keep focus on the three most important elements to consider with any social design undertaking.


Cultivation requires that we recalibrate the approaches we’ve inherited from traditional top-down ideas of social management & design. In other words, it’s cultivation rather than dictation. To ‘cultivate’ something implies that there is an existing culture — some organic, emergent, collective entity — that exists regardless of our intrusion, with its own natural rhythms and patterns.

Communities Happen

How do we help a community maintain its health, value and effectiveness for the individuals involved in it? We certainly don’t start re-defining it and prescribing (or pre-scripting) every process and action. Rather than dictating the content of the culture’s behavior, we create and manage the right conditions for the community to improve itself on its own terms. This is much more like gardening than managing in the traditional sense.

You can’t create a community by fiat. You can’t legislate or force participation — then all you get is a process, not social interaction. Social interaction may take place under the surface, but that’s in spite of your central planning, not because of it. Communities happen in an emergent way, on their own.

Mistaking the Ant-Hill for the Colony

It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that the software for an online community actually is, in some way, the community itself — that the intentionally designed technology “network” is the social network. But these technological tools are a medium for the thing, not the thing itself. It’s like mistaking the ant hill for the ant colony. We often point at ant hills and say “there’s an ant colony” but the social behaviors of the ants exist whether they happen in that pile of earth or another.

Social software platforms tap into conversations that already exist in some form or another. At best they can enable and amplify those conversations and help them broaden outside of their original confines, even redefine themselves in some way. Of course, many of the connections people make on these platforms may never have happened without the software, but there had to be the propensity for those connections to happen to begin with.

Designing for social activity, then, is about creating infrastructure that helps communities and social patterns behave according to their own natures. Even the social character of the network isn’t created by the software. Rather, the platform’s architecture encourages only certain kinds of extant networking behaviors to thrive.

Take, for instance, LinkedIn vs MySpace. LinkedIn didn’t create the behavior of calm, professional networking interactions, introductions and linking between peers. That kind of behavior was going on long before LinkedIn launched. But its architecture is such that it allows and encourages only that kind of social interaction to take root. MySpace, on the other hand, is much more open architecturally; linking is much more informal, and self-expression is almost completely unfettered. The nature of the MySpace platform, however, essentially guarantees that few will want to use it for the sober, corporate-style networking that happens on LinkedIn. (Lots of professional work goes on in MySpace, of course, but mainly in the creative & performing arts space, where self-expression and unique identity cues are de facto requirements.)

So the character of the platform’s architecture — its rules and structures — determine the character of social behavior that your platform is most likely to attract and support. But once you’ve done that, then how do you cultivate it?


One important factor is something you can’t create artificially: the cultivators have to be invested in the community they’re cultivating. This cannot be faked. There are too many levels of tacit understanding — gut-level feel — necessary for understanding the nuances of a particular culture involved to do otherwise. You have to be willing to get your hands dirty, just like in a garden. Communities are fine with having decisions and rule-creation happening from some top-down component (which we’ll talk about in a minute) but only if they perceive the authority as having an authentic identity within the community, and that any design changes or “improvements” to the platform are coming from shared values.

Example: one reason for Facebook’s public-relations troubles of late is that a number of the design decisions its creator has made have come across as being less about cultivating the community than lining the pockets of investors. Privacy advocates and regular users revolted, and forced Facebook to adjust their course.

Another example: MySpace managed to give new users the impression that the people running the site were just “one of them” by creating the ubiquitous persona of “Tom.” Tom is a real person, one of the co-founders of the platform, who has a profile, and who “welcomes” you to the network when you join. He’s the voice for announcements and such that come from those who created and maintain MySpace. Tom is real, to a point — recently, it was discovered that Tom’s age and information have been tweaked to make him seem more in line with the service’s target demographic. It’s arguable that by the time this disillusioning revelation occurred, MySpace had grown to enough critical mass that it didn’t matter. I suspect, though, that the Tom avatar still serves its purpose for millions of users who either don’t know about the news, or think of him more as the Ronald McDonald of the brand — a friendly face that gives the brand some personality, even if they don’t care if it’s a real person.

If you’re cultivating from an authentic stance, and you understand that your role isn’t dictator, then it’s a matter of executing cultivation by striking the right balance between Motivation and Moderation.

Next up … Motivation & Moderation. Stay tuned.

Kelly – Bottum-Up Not Enough

Kevin Kelly’s article Bottom Up is Not Enough is making the rounds, and rightly so. Here’s a snippet:

Here’s how I sum it up: The bottom-up hive mind will always take us much further than even seems possible. It keeps surprising us in this regard. Given enough time, dumb things can be smarter than we think.

At that same time, the bottom-up hive mind will never take us to our end goal. We are too impatient. So we add design and top down control to get where we want to go.

He does speak to “how” we do that, but the word for me is “recalibrate” — we need to recalibrate the apparatuses we use for managing & governing collective behavior. It’s all about cultivation, not dictation.

Flourishing, Friending & the Evolution of "Social"

As networked social applications mature, they’re evolving more nuanced ways of constructing and maintaining an identity. Two of the major factors in online identity are How you present yourself, and Who you know.

How you present yourself: “Flourishing”

Flourishing is how we ornament ourselves and display ourselves to others. Think of peacocks flourishing their tail-feathers. It’s done to communicate something about oneself — to attract partners, distinguish oneself from the pack toward some end, or even dissuade the advances of enemies.

I don’t know if this behavior has another name, or if someone else has called it this yet. But it’s the best name I can think of for the technologically enhanced version of this behavior.

Humans have always used personal ornament to say something about themselves, from ancient tattoos and piercings, “war paint,” various kinds of dress, engagement and wedding rings, to larger things like their cars and homes. We’ve long used personal ornament to signal to others “I am X” in order to automatically set initial terms of any conversation or encounter.

It expands our context, and makes physical things about us that our bodies alone cannot communicate. Often these choices are controlled overtly or subtly by cultural norms. But in cultures where individual identity is given some play-room, these choices can become highly unique.

So, how has digital networked life changed this behavior? For a while, I’ve thought it’s fascinating how we can now decorate ourselves not only with things we’ve had to buy or make, but with a virtual version of almost anything we can think of, from any medium. My online identity as represented by one or more ‘avatars’ (whether that’s an avatar in an environment like Second Life, or a MySpace profile that serves a similar, though 2-D purpose) can be draped with all manner of cultural effluvia. I can express myself with songs, movie clips, pictures of products I love (even if I can’t afford them). Our ability to express ourselves with bits of our culture has increased to vertiginous heights.

Just as I started blogging about this thing that’s been on my mind for a while, I thought I’d look to see if anyone has done real work on it. I’m sure there’s a lot of it out there, but one piece I ran across was a paper from Hugo Liu at MIT, entitled “Social Network Profiles as Taste Performances,” which discusses this development at some length. From the introduction:

The materials of social identity have changed. Up through the 19th century in European society, identity was largely determined by a handful of circumstances such as profession, social class, and church membership (Simmel, 1908/1971a). With the rise of consumer culture in the late 20th century, possessions and consumptive choices were also brought into the fold of identity. One is what one eats; or rather, one is what one consumes—books, music, movies, and a plenitude of other cultural materials (McCracken, 2006).

… In the pseudonymous and text-heavy online world, there is even greater room for identity experimentation, as one does not fully exist online until one writes oneself into being through “textual performances” (Sundén, 2003).

One of the newest stages for online textual performance of self is the Social Network Profile (SNP). The virtual materials of this performance are cultural signs—a user’s self-described favorite books, music, movies, television interests, and so forth—composed together into a taste statement that is “performed” through the profile. By utilizing the medium of social network sites for taste performance, users can display their status and distinction to an audience comprised of friends, co-workers, potential love interests, and the Web public.

The article concerns itself mainly with users’ lists of “favorites” from things like music, movies and books, and how these clusters signal particular things about the individual.

What I mean by “flourishing” is this very activity, but expanded into all media. Thanks to ever-present broadband and the ability to digitize almost anything into a representative sample, users can decorate themselves with “quotes” of music, movies, posters, celebrity pictures, news feeds, etc. Virtual bling.

I think it was a major reason for MySpace’s popularity, especially the ability to not just *list* these things, but to bring them fully into the profile, as songs that play as soon as you load the profile page, or movie and music-video and YouTube clips.

This ability has been present for years in a more nascent form in physical life — the custom ring-tone. Evidently, announcing to all those around you something about yourself by the song or sound you use for your ring-tone is so important to people that it generates billions of US dollars in revenue.

Here’s what I’m thinking: are we far from the day when it’s not just ring-tones, but video-enabled fabric in our clothes, and sound-emitting handbags and sunglasses? What will the ability to “flourish” to others mean when we have all of this raw material to sample from, just like hip-hop artists have been doing for years?

For now, it’s only possible to any large extent online. But maybe that’s enough, and the cultural-quoting handbags won’t even be necessary? Eventually, the digital social network will become such a normal part of our lives that having a profile in the ether is as common and expected as phone numbers in the phone book used to be (in fact, people in their teens and 20s are already more likely to look for a Web profile than even consider looking in a giant paper phone-book).

As physical and digital spaces merge, and the distinction becomes less meaningful, that’s really all it’ll take.

Who you know: “Friending”

Alex Wright has a nice column in the NYT about Friending, Ancient or Otherwise, about research that’s showing common patterns between prehistoric human social behavior and the rise of social-network applications.

Academic researchers are starting to examine that question by taking an unusual tack: exploring the parallels between online social networks and tribal societies. In the collective patter of profile-surfing, messaging and “friending,” they see the resurgence of ancient patterns of oral communication.
“Orality is the base of all human experience,” says Lance Strate, a communications professor at Fordham University and devoted MySpace user. He says he is convinced that the popularity of social networks stems from their appeal to deep-seated, prehistoric patterns of human communication. “We evolved with speech,” he says. “We didn’t evolve with writing.”

I’m fascinated with the idea that recent technology is actually tapping into ancient behavior patterns in the human animal. I like entertaining the idea that something inside us craves this kind of interaction, because it’s part of our DNA somehow, and so we’ve collectively created the Internet to get back to it.

It’s not terribly far-fetched. Most organisms that find their natural patterns challenged in some way manage to return to those patterns by adaptation. At least, in my very limited understanding of evolution, that’s what happens, right? And a big chunk of the human race has been relegated to non-tribal community structures for only a tiny fraction of its evolutionary history — makes sense that we’d find a way back.

Regardless of the causes (and my harebrained conjecture aside), who you have as friends is vital to your identity, both your internal sense of self and the character you present externally to the world. “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is an old adage, and there’s a lot of truth to it, even if you just admit that you can know a heck of a lot, but it won’t get you anywhere without social connection to make you relevant.

What digital networks have done is made “friendship” something literal, and somewhat binary, when in fact friendship is highly variable and messy business. Online, a “friend” could be just about anyone from a friend-of-a-friend, to someone you ran into once at a conference, to someone from high school you haven’t actually spoken to in 10 years but just for grins is on your Facebook list.

Systems are starting to become more sophisticated in this regard — we can now choose ‘top friends’ and organize friends into categories on some sites, but that still forces us to put people in categories that are oversimplified, and don’t reflect the variability over time that actually exist in these relationships. Someone you were friends with and saw weekly six months ago may have a new job or new interests, or joined a new church or gym, and now you’re still “people who keep up with each other” but not anything like you were. Or maybe you just have a fight with a friend and things have soured, but not completely split — and months later it’s all good again?

The more we use networks for sharing, communicating, complaining and commiserating, sharing and confessing to our social connections, the more vexing it’s going to be to keep all these distinctions in check. I doubt any software system can really reflect the actual emotional variety in our friendships — if for no other reason than no matter how amazing the system iis, it still depends on our consciously updating it.

So that makes me wonder: which is going to change most? The systems, or the way we conceive of friendship? I wonder how the activity of friendship itself will feel, look and behave in ten or fifteen years for people who grew up with social networks? Will they meet new friends and immediately be considering what “filter” that friend might be safe to see on a personal blog? Will people change the way they create and maintain relationships in order to adapt to the limitations of the systems or vice-versa (or both)?

Seven Years, and How Social Software eats everything

I can’t believe I’ve been “blogging” for over seven years. How the hell did that happen?

Actually, I think it was longer — if I remember correctly, my first blog was on some service whose name I simply cannot remember now, until I ran across Blogger in 2000. Then I switched to there, using their service to run a blog I hosted on server space my then-employer let me use for free, and even let me use their nameserver for my domain name … That name is now gone to someone or something else. But I did manage to suck all the old archives into my web space here. Here’s the first posts I have a record of, from August 2000.

This boggling (bloggling?) stretch of time occurred to me once I saw Ross Mayfield’s recent post about how he’s been blogging for five years. Of course, he’s much more industrious than I, what with a company of his own and writing that’s a heck of a lot more focused and, well, valuable. But of course, social software has been his professional focus for quite a while, whereas for me it’s been more of a fitful obsession.

“Social software” is turning out to be the monster that ate everything. Which only makes sense. The Web is inherently social, and so are human beings. Anything that better enables the flow of natural social behaviors (rather than more artificial broadcast/consume behaviors) is going to grow like kudzu in Georgia.

Anybody thinking of social software as a special category of software design needs to wake up and smell the friends list. Everything from eBay to Plaxo is integrating social networking tools into their services, and Google is looking to connect them all together (or at least change the game so that all must comply or die of irrelevance).