Thursday, April 9, 2009

Social Architecture

Patti Anklam recently asked whether we need to define social architecture and if so, how should we do it? I never shy away from defining new terms, as long as:

  • The term identifies some meaningful thing or quality
  • The thing being defined is new and/or unlabeled (and therefore difficult to discuss without some shared terminology)
  • The term is not completely ambiguous*

My gut feeling is that social architecture would be a good thing to define. That said, let's start with what it is we are defining.

The Definition

Social architecture is the conscious design of an environment that encourages certain social behavior leading towards some goal or set of goals.

By environment I mean a bounded set of physical or virtual structures, functions, or events where people interact.

I say "certain social behavior" because you are designing for specific interactions with the aim of achieving some goal. You are not designing a generic space where people congregate and interact in whatever way they please. (Unless, of course, that will achieve your goal.) You are designing towards some purpose, such as encouraging conservation (wiserEarth) or grassroots sharing of ideas and innovation (barcamps).

On the other hand, I am intentionally vague about what constitutes an "environment". If we are just speaking of digital spaces, then there is very little difference between "social architecture" and "information architecture" or "interaction design". Designers of social software might very well call themselves "social media architects". But that is not inclusive of everything that is needed to instigate and drive social behavior. Barcamp is an example that requires digital spaces to organize, but also a physical space and event logistics to pull off.

There is an ongoing debate within the Enterprise 2.0 community that E2.0 is not just social software inside the firewall. It is a change of culture. Well, that change of culture cannot occur without establishing the appropriate environment to foster it, including a coordinated set of capabilities, recommendations, influences, and incentives. The design of such an environment is social architecture.

Is a Definition Necessary?

Why even bother with a definition? Well, the argument within the Enterprise 2.0 community is a good example of why a new term is needed. I won't go into the details of why discussing changing culture is unproductive -- Venkatesh Rao has done a far better job explaining it than I could do -- suffice it to say that rather than complaining about a resistant culture, designing a system that utilizes inherent social behavior to recognize and reward a different approach is more likely to result in change.

Unfortunately, social media is being applied within corporations as if it were a large hammer, cutting a wide swath through traditional, stovepiped corporate approaches to knowledge. Even when the new applications are well received (which isn't always the case), one of the side effects of this approach is an "us vs. them" mentality. The old approaches are not removed; the new social applications are set up in opposition to them, creating an unnecessary barrier between the traditonalists and new agers. This friction is often amplified by a lack of integration of the social software into the existing corporate infrastructure.

What is needed is a more systematic approach to integrating social applications -- and the activities and interactions they incite -- into the corporate environment. From a technical perspective, this means integrating the content into intranet search and actively feeding social content streams into traditional environments, such as intranet web sites (e.g. the latest Yammer messages on the team site, the employee's blog and Twitter ID becoming part of the corporate whitepages, liveblogging status meetings, etc.) From a operational perspective, structuring the social interactions around meaningful topics and goals helps avoid competing approaches.

This type of coordination does not require extensive resources or a major overhaul of existing systems,. But it does require planning and often a complex set of small, coordinated adjustments to systems and processes. And the best way to describe this approach is social architecture.

As a side note, despite my examples, corporate environments are not the only possible target for social architecture. However, I mention them here because intranets are an area with perhaps the greatest potential use of coordinated architectural approaches because of the need to address deep rooted hierarchical processes.


We also need to check to see if the new term we are defining is so ambiguous it will be misinterpreted or quickly misused. In other words, is there a better term?

I happen to like social architecture for several reasons:

  • It fits well into the lingua franca of social computing, where terms such as social media and social software are already established.
  • It is distinct from the existing terminology which tends to focus on either the technology or the content, but not the overall strategy.
  • It is relatively intuitive as a term and does not require a significant amount of explanation.

On the negative side, there is ambiguity with previous uses of the term within the realm of physical architecture and sociology. (There is at least one reference as far back as 1876.) In physical architecture, the term social architecture tends to refer to the application of architecture towards humantarian aims. Housing for the poor, sustainable architecture practices, and designing for larger social goals all seem to fall within this category. The Wikipedia entry on social architecture is a stub referring to social structures, a sociological concept not too far from the environments and goals discussed in my definition.

Although there is ambiguity here, it does not seriously invalidate the use of the term in reference to web-based systems. More importantly, there is sufficient crossover between the definitions to to avoid direct conflict.

Existing Usage

Finally, I make no claim of originality in defining social architecture. Besides the use of the term in other fields, there are already a number of references to it as applied directly to social software and the internet:

  • Stowe Boyd defined it in 2005. Although he appears to define it as an existant state ("the foundation of the blogosphere") rather than as a specific activity.
  • Sam Huweatt describes it in his blog. His definition is very similar to what I outline above. He also makes a distinction between social architecture and social media architects.
  • Christina Wodtke lists the elements of social architecture in her book Blueprints for the Web (summarized in A List Apart).
  • In his slide presentation on Social Architecture: Modeling the Next Generation, Sean Madden makes the point that "social networks have limitless potential but we need to work towards designing them that way."
  • Amy Jo Kim, in her bio, defines herself as designing "social games and social architecture[s]". Her book Community Building on the Web pre-dates much of what we now consider social software, but is still the pre-eminent text on designing for social interaction. She also calls her blog "Musings of a Social Architect".

I take these all as good signs that the term is both useful and sufficiently clear in its meaning. On the other hand, there are at least two other uses that do conflict.

There are a number of people (in particular, Ryan Turner) who use the alternate term "web information architecture" to define much the same thing as I defined as social architecture. My preference for the shorter term comes from the fact that "web", by this point in time, is pretty much redundant. Almost all information and interaction in modern life now involves the web to at least some extent. But at the same time, as I mentioned in the definition, not all activity involving social architecture is web based (for example meetups, Big Urban Games, and barcamps).

There is also at least one case where social architecture is equated to an existing term (Information Architecture = Social Architecture). Although this is well-intentioned, I believe it is inherently wrong. Not all information is social (in the social media sense) and at least some aspects of information architecture -- such as navigation and metadata definition -- that are determinative, not social. And not all social interaction design can be considered a part of information architecture. They are definitely related fields, but not identical.

*I'm sure others would go for more precision, such as "not ambiguous". But if that were the criteria we would define almost nothing.


Patti said...

Andrew, my thanks (and comments) are on my post at TheAppGap.

You've started an amazing dialogue.

RyanT said...

Wow Andrew, that's really a great post. I agree with you, by the way, that social architecture is not the same thing as, or a newer facet of, information architecture. I actually wrote a post a couple years ago title "The Elements of Social Architecture." ( It was the first of what was going to be a series of three posts, but the other two are still languishing in my Drafts folder.

My idea then was that social architecture was analogous to information architecture, and that in place of the famous users/content/context Venn, you could envision a Venn diagram of identity/relationships/media.

I still sort of like the idea, but I also think there's a reason I never (or at least haven't yet) finished those other posts. First of all, defining social architecture feels like boiling the ocean, but even aside from that, I started to get the sense that social architecture was less an analog of IA and more a mirror image of it.

So I end up unsure: Is it really just an extension of the same way of thinking? Or even just a new way of talking about it? My gut says no to both, but I can't prove it.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Andrew. I'll look forward to more.

Greg said...

Great, thoughtful definition and analysis of "Social Architecture". I quoted and recommended your post in comment on Andrew McAfee's "Toward a Pattern Language for Enterprise 2.0" and hope to see the term and your definition in widespread use. Ref

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Mark Pugsley said...

Nice blog post on social architecture. I specially liked the background study given on who has previously contributed to understanding this concept.