When designing a social application, whether for the enterprise or public social media, you want it to be so engaging that it goes “viral,” meaning that you don’t have to promote it because the app’s users do that for you.

At Enterprise 2.0 in Santa Clara, Jonathan LeBlanc shared a “a few basic principles you can use to socialize your applications and make them relevant to your users social and interest graphs.” A developer evangelist for eBay’s X.commerce business unit, who previously held a similar post at Yahoo, LeBlanc is the author of Programming Social Applications and a member of the board guiding the development of OpenSocial, which has both consumer and enterprise applications. He also participated in a Designing Social Applications panel discussion at the show.

For his talk on creating viral experiences, LeBlanc focused on the basics of what makes for an engaging social experience. It starts with the social graph, “a deeply interconnected web of people,” he said. “There’s a whole new realm emerging right now, building on the graph concept, which is the interest or entity graph. This is people’s social connections to things–things they like, things they own, and things they are interested in. That can tell you so much more about them than their social graph ever could.”

1. Map the Interest Graph

LeBlanc said one of the most effective ways of getting people to reveal their interests is by inviting them to join interest groups. Social websites have done this for years, but cutting edge sites are making it more automatic. With Google+ Circles, users categorize their contacts at the same time they form those online connections. This makes it relatively easy for users to share with subsets of their total audience of connections, although some critics say maintaining the circles quickly becomes a chore.

Facebook Smart Lists go even farther, inferring list associations from data Facebook knows about you and your contacts, for example grouping people who are local to each other, or who work at the same company.

“Facebook Smart Lists are just starting to come on the cusp of how the group model should be, because it is able to group people automatically,” LeBlanc said. Anything your application can do to infer associations from user behavior, and help them form connections, will make your application more viral, LeBlanc said.

2. Model Identity

One of the basic decisions in social application design is how to identify people. “There is no be all and end all solution to identity out there, it’s all about compromises,” LeBlanc said.

The public Web is full of anonymous users and fake identities. Most common on social networks are identities that are presumably true (look legitimate) but have not been verified. When websites allow social login using OpenID, they save the user some of the hassle of registering on multiple websites but run the risk of pulling in fake identity data, LeBlanc said. What he called true identity is rarer, although he put in a brief plug for PayPal Access, a social login confirmed through commerce data like verified credit cards and bank accounts.

Some other lightweight identity mechanisms can also be useful. For example, the WebFinger project is reinventing the old Unix protocol that allowed you to look up basic contact information on someone based on their email address. In the Web incarnation, this can also include links to social profiles, providing a uniform way for people to identify themselves on the Web.

He also gave a nod to the Mozilla Foundation’s BrowserID, which provides a browser-based means for users to identify themselves to multiple websites.

3. Set Defaults With Care

Facebook has recently exemplified the trend toward sharing by default, with applications that share your news reading or music listening habits automatically, without you having to click a “share” button.

Making things automatic can be a convenience, but the “opt in” versus “opt out” decision on activating such features is a tricky one, LeBlanc said. Anyone who has been overwhelmed by updates from a friend who has fallen in love with FarmVille should understand the downside.

“All of you have seen annoying application traffic,” even in a system where the user proactively pushes out updates, LeBlanc said. “Just imagine if user didn’t grant approval for that every time. If you take that aspect of control away from the user, you can get really bad gray areas. If the users feel like it’s out of their control, they won’t tend to use it, because they won’t know how it will react.”

4. Use Open Technologies

As a developer, LeBlanc understands the urge to build everything yourself, believing you can do a better job. “But then timelines are cut, budgets are cut, and feature creep comes in until we wind up with a perversion” of what we intended to create, he said.

Take advantage of the work others have done, and you have a much better chance of success. One of the best open standards social software designers can take advantage of is the Open Graph Protocol. For years, Web architects have extolled the vision of a semantic Web in which content would be encoded with meaning, rather than just formatting. Metadata standards have been proposed, defined, and put into use–only to drift toward irrelevance because they are used by so few sites. Then along came Facebook with the Open Graph Protocol and “brought the semantic Web back to life,” LeBlanc said.

Facebook uses the Open Graph Protocol, together with other elements of its platform, to allow other websites to embed elements such as the “Like” button, which integrate with facebook.com. When the user clicks the button, Facebook reads the metadata in the associated Web page to classify that content and assign a headline, summary, and image to the blurb that appears in the user’s activity stream.

The Open Graph Protocol is closely associated with Facebook, “but it’s a complete open standard, so why would we not leverage off all the hard work Facebook has done for us,” LeBlanc said. OGP is a simple tag language you can use to pack a ton of contextual information into your website, “and the best thing about an open standard is it can be extended if you need something else,” LeBlanc said.

Source: David Carr, Information Week

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