Six Spaces of Social media

[This is a post originally written back in 2007 (!) when I was starting to commission online projects at the UK broadcaster Channel 4. I wanted to come up with a way of thinking about how we use online spaces that was not about technology, but about behaviour and expectations. I think these ‘six spaces’ still make sense, especially with the recent rise of Snapchat/WhatsApp/etc. Something to explore in a future post, perhaps…]

TechCrunch has an illuminating report on the Bear Stearns suggestions for Yahoo, and includes their definition of four kinds of social network:

Leisure-Orientated Sites: entertainment sites, open to all users — eg Myspace, Facebook, Friendster, Bebo, Orkut, Windows Live Space, Hi5

Professional Networking Sites: Sites focusing on business networking — Linkedin, itLinkz

Media Sharing Sites: sites focusing on the distribution and consumption of user-generated multi-media content, such as videos and photos — Youtube, Flickr

Virtual Meeting Place Sites: sites that are essentially a 3-D virtual world, built and owned by its residents (the users) — Second Life

These definitions feel a bit haphazard and thrown together — a mixture of user behaviours (networking, leisure) and media objects (video, photos). I’m not sure these distinctions are that valuable as an tool for analysing social networking — they don’t speak enough about user’s motivations for using services, nor the kind of relationships and behaviours that the services engender amongst their users.

As part of my current job, I’ve been trying to find a way of describing social media spaces in a way that can be shared by both traditional media indies and digital media agencies. The former understand genres and formats, whilst the latter understand platforms and networks. After a few weeks of gradually finding out what doesn’t work, I’ve ended up adopting a more user-centred model, based on the assumptions users have about what they can *do* in certain kinds of space, who they’ll be doing it with, and what kinds of behaviours are expected. I’ve been meaning to write this up for a while, so here they are — six different types of social spaces, based on behaviours and expectations, not platforms, genres or formats. Caveat — this a crude analysis, and the examples are not exclusive — there are lots of overlaps between these spaces; and they exist both online and offline:

Secret Spaces
Behaviours: Private, intimate communication, normally with only one or two others, often using private references, slang or code
Expectations: Absolute privacy and control over the communication between users, and no unauthorised communication from third parties (eg spam)
Examples: SMS, IM

Group Spaces
Behaviours: Reinforcing the identity of a self-defined group, and your position within the group, eg ‘stroking‘ behaviour to let the group share a sense of belonging, or mild competitiveness to signal hierarchies within the group (eg who has the most friends, posts, tags, etc)
Expectations: A shared reference point for the group — eg a band, football club, school, workplace, region, etc. Rules about approving membership of the group, and icons for the group to signal their membership (badges, profiles, etc)
Examples: Facebook, Myspace, Bebo, etc

Publishing Spaces
Behaviours: Creating your own content or showcasing your talents to an audience outside of your usual social group
Expectations: The ability to control the context and presentation of your creative content. Ways to receive feedback, comments and advice from other users.
Examples: Flickr, Youtube, Revver, etc

Performing Spaces
Behaviours: Playing a defined role within a game structure. Experimenting through simulation, rehearsal and teamwork to achieve a goal. Iterative exploration or repetition of activities in order to perfect their performance
Expectations: A clear set of rules that is understood by all players. Clear rewards for success or failure. The ability to test the boundaries of the game structure, or to perform extravagantly to show off your talents
Examples: MMORPGs, Sports, Drama

Participation Spaces
Behaviours: Co-ordination of lots of small individual acts to achieve a common goal. Shared belief in the goal, and advocacy to encourage participation by others.
Expectations: Rules or structures that help co-ordinate activity towards the goal. The ability to create micro-communities within larger participation groups — eg a group of friends going on a political march together, or a workplace group created to train for a marathon
Examples: Meetup, Threadless,, MySociety

Watching Spaces
Behaviours: Passive viewing of a linear event as part of a large group. Organising a group to attend an event, and sharing experiences afterwards
Expectations: Spectacle, entertainment, a feeling of thrill or joy. A shared sense of occasion, or of being taking out of your everyday existence for the duration of the event. Mementos or relics of the event (eg programmes, tickets, recordings, photos, etc)
Examples: Television, Cinema, Sports, Theatre, etc

So — I’ve been using these six spaces to try and get people to think outside of platforms, technology, genres or formats, and to think instead of what users might be *doing* in these spaces, and what they might be doing it *for*. Using these spaces as the inspiration for designing interactions should help us to think about how users’ *feel* about the services they use, and what kinds of implicit expectations they have of the service and other users. It asks questions for people designing services, or projects that are based on these services. Who is in control of what elements of the service? What kind of conversations are users having, and with whom? What kind of behaviours are accepted, and how are they rewarded? What kind of behaviours are rejected, and what are the punishments?

I’m sure there are many, many variants of this kind of analysis around the web, but I’ve found it really useful as a way of helping people think of the ‘register’ the project is operating within, to design from the point of view of the user, and to make sure we don’t cross implicit boundaries that will offend them or discourage participation.