The 10 Commandments of the Social Web

Over the past year I have been covering Facebook and social networks obsessively. The more I write and the more I read, the more complex the social web becomes. The social web is the part of the internet where people socialize and interact with each other. It can be as simple as forums but the social web has come to embody a limitless number of tools from instant messaging to blogs to micro-blogs to social networks to lifestreaming services and more.

It’s clear that the social web has become increasingly complex and with so many places to communicate it is frequently challenging to figure out where the best place to go and talk is. This blog and others are all striving to cover the numerous tools available to you to express yourself to those that you know and those that you’ll never meet or speak to.

The social web embodies all of us and as we progress forward, I’m realizing that there are some really core concepts embodying all of these services. When it comes down to it, the social web is simply about communicating and no matter how many tools or websites are developed, it still all boils down to communicating with others. So after using tool after tool, site after site, I’ve come up with the 10 commandments that everything on the social web should embrace.

1. Thou shalt enable sharing with everyone

The fundamental component of online conversations is sharing. If you haven’t realized this yet, then there is a good chance your social web service is not doing so hot. People want to share information with each other. Take a look at your instant messages, wall posts, or any other site you are on. A large portion of the dialog is about the sharing information. That can include links to websites or personal stories.

The information being shared can also contain audio, video, photos or text which brings us to the second commandment of the social web.

2. Thous shalt support all forms of media

Humans communicate in many ways and on the social web it is no different. There are multiple types of media that users utilize for the purpose of communication. Audio (music, interviews, dictations, etc), video, photographs and text are the four types of media on the social web. Your platform must support all four forms if it is going to succeed. If you don’t support all forms of media, you must enable users to embed other forms of media.

3. Thou shalt provide provide users with a face

I’ve been to many social sites that don’t provide users with the ability to upload their image. For the longest time LinkedIn didn’t support users images and that was a critical mistake that they eventually remedied. A large portion of communication off of the internet is visual and on the web that same rule still applies. If users don’t have a way to express themselves (through their own photo or a logo), there is a large portion of communication that is lost.

4. Thou shalt provide granular privacy settings

The concept of “granular privacy settings” is a fairly recent innovation. I would suggest that many of these settings were a result of user backlash as well as the media coverage of privacy violations and sexual predators. Whatever the cause of granular privacy settings, Facebook has been leading the way in enabling users to control what is visible and not visible to other contacts.

Users should have the right to control what another person can or cannot see. If you don’t have granular privacy settings on your site, you will soon fall by the wayside as users go to another site. In the end the user must have complete control.

5. Thou shall not overload users with email notifications

I understand that getting friend requests provides users with a unique type of satisfaction but overloading the user with notifications is simply annoying. I would suggest developing a scalable notifications system which throttles the number of notifications based on the number of notifications a user receives on a daily basis. Also you must enable the user to turn off all notifications if they so desire.

6. Thou shalt provide a central request repository

This commandment of the social web follows closely to the notifications commandment. The bottom line is that there must be a single place where a user can manage all of their notifications. Whether it’s a friend request, a group invite, or more recently an application invitation, you must place all notifications in one location. Otherwise it will simply be too complicated to navigate.

7. Thou shalt provide a central activity feed

When Mark Zuckerberg developed the news feed for Facebook I doubt he realized that it would become a standard for the web. All social sites must now have a single feed where a user can view all of their activities on the site as well as their friends. In the best case scenario all of this information should be provided to the user via an external feed.

While Facebook doesn’t currently let users access their feed outside of the site, I believe it will soon become a standard to access your feed anywhere. FriendFeed is a prime example of this. Whether you decide to make the feed information public, all sites on the social web must provide users with an activity feed.

8. Thou shalt be absolutely transparent with users

Preparing to release a new feature that will track all of a user’s activities around the web (does the name “Beacon” ring any bells)? You might want to make sure all of your users understand the implications of the new feature and provide them with the ability to use it or not use it. As the social web becomes more integrated, the sharing of information across sites will begin to push the limits of user privacy and keeping users in the dark won’t work.

Be transparent with your users about what you are using their data for and how you are accessing their data. If you aren’t somebody will figure it out and release that information to the world. It sounds better coming from the company’s mouth than somebody else.

9. Thou shalt be a conduit for data, not the sole owner of data

A user comes to your site and enters a bunch of personal data. Do you: a) keep all the data to yourself and try and come up with cool graphs from the data, b) share all of that user’s data with the web, or c) let the user share their data as they please? The answer? C, let the user share their data as they please!

I know that the moment users start putting all types of interesting information into your database all you want to do is start coming up with interesting findings from that data. That’s fine! You are allowed to do practically anything with that user’s data within the confines of your own system. Before you start having all that fun though, why don’t you give those users a way to share that information with other sites if they please?

Whether most people realize it or not, it’s what the user wants to be able to do. Let them share their data with other services, other sites and other people. You still have the right to harvest their data and come up with all those interesting findings you were dying to calculate when they first started entering that information.

Just make sure to let the users do as they’d like with that data as well. This brings me to the last commandment of the social web.

10. Thou shalt provide an API for others to access

If you are collecting various forms of a user’s data and all of their communications you should let them come up with interesting ways to leverage that information. While you most likely have brilliant ideas about how to leverage that information (that’s why you created a product or service on the social web in the first place right?), they too have brilliant ideas. Empowering the users to create their own tools and services with they data they entered into your system will only help you in the long run.

Conclusion

Whether you run a start-up website, a long-running internet business or have been thinking about finally executing on that great idea sitting in the back of your mind, there are some basic principals you should follow. You may be thinking to yourself “Facebook didn’t follow all these commandments and they grew into a company that Microsoft has valued at $15 billion!”

Well you are right but in the past few years Facebook and other companies on the social web have learned many lessons, ten of which I’ve written above. While there are many other guidelines your social web tool or service should follow, these ten commandments of the social web should put you on the right track. Are there any other rules that you think social web companies should abide by?

P.S. Please forgive the cheesy image below. I will be sure to replace it with one that is much more beautiful!

Social Web Commandments

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