Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Reading :: Building Social Web Applications

Building Social Web Applications: Establishing Community at the Heart of Your Site
By Gavin Bell

Gavin and I have been following each other on Twitter for a while (he's @zzgavin), partially because we both share an interest in social media and activity theory. Since he was in town last week for South by Southwest Interactive, I swung by and picked up a (signed) copy of his new book, an O'Reilly title on designing, building, and maintaining social web apps. It's quite good (and Gavin is a great guy in person).

The book is pitched toward people who are building social apps, who have an idea, but who may not have the experience to execute. So it takes us through topics as varied as building APIs, creating and managing community relationships, managing change, making choices about relationships and privacy, managing identities, understanding social network patterns, and organizing the site. Gavin draws on many examples from familiar sites, including Twitter, Facebook, and FriendFeed among others. These are tremendously useful.

For instance, I was struck by his example on p.72 of how Facebook initially rolled out its Mini-Feed in 2006: they had tested it internally, within a smaller, generally colocated group of coworkers (Facebook mployees), and had assumed that their experience would be identical to that of Facebook's general users. But FB's general users tended to friend people they didn't know - and suddenly the Mini-Feed made them feel exposed to all of these not-really-friends. Interestingly, as I read this story, I realized that I had just heard almost exactly the same story - from the GMail/Google Buzz group at their SXSWi panel. If only they had read this book!

Gavin draws on activity theory and actor-network theory to underpin his ideas on social web applications, although they are explained mostly in a sidebar on pp.94-95. He credits Jyri Engestrom, from whom he borrows the concept of social objects, but also points us to Kaptelinin and Nardi's excellent book. Activity theory isn't discussed in great detail - it's not that kind of book - but Gavin clearly thought about it a great deal as he thought through this book.

If you're thinking about launching a social web app, if you're teaching students about the same, or if you just want to better understand how these sites work, I highly recommend the book.

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