The Aesthetics of Social Networks

Danah Boyd is an information management PhD student at the University of California, where she researches how people negotiate their presentation of self in online communities and other social contexts. Jon Lebkowsky serves as CEO of the Web technology consultancy Polycot. Honoria Starbuck works as education director for Polycot. And Molly Steenson teaches interaction design at Institute Ivrea in Italy.

Danah Boyd is an information management PhD student at the University of California, where she researches how people negotiate their presentation of self in online communities and other social contexts. Jon Lebkowsky serves as CEO of the Web technology consultancy Polycot. Honoria Starbuck works as education director for Polycot. And Molly Steenson teaches interaction design at Institute Ivrea in Italy.


At SXSW Interactive, the panelists explored the explosion of Net-based social networks and the opportunities for group forming, analysis, and intent connections. What follows is a partial transcript of their discussion.

Jon Lebkowsky: Social networks are most simply stated people connecting to people. Some people are just nodes and don’t have many connections. Some people are hubs and have many connections. Some people are connected indirectly through degrees of separation. There are potential ways to map social networks through immediate connections and light hops through degrees of separation. Network terminology is not too obscure.

Where aesthetics is concerned, we’re talking about beauty. We think of the appearance of social networks as well as the beauty of harmonious connections between people. Social networks were originally about people connecting online. Several years ago, some people did a Web site called Six Degrees where there was some experimentation with the concept, but only in recent years has there been a lot of work done in this area. There’s some connection with virtual communities, but now there’s more than 100 applications that allow you to connect with your friends, see who their friends are, and connect with their friends.

Ryze business networking was the first one I encountered, and it’s basically that. The aesthetics of Ryze was mostly around photographs, and people were going crazy with photos until Ryze came up with some guidelines regarding intellectual property. Friendster is more of a social network and some people see it as much more of a dating network. LinkedIn is a business-focused social network for people who want to make deals, get hired, or further themselves professionally. You figure out who you want to contact, and then you figure out who in your social network stands between you and them. Eventually the connection is made. is a cool, fun place where people hang out. I don’t know how much business people do there, but you can set up tribes. Then there’s Orkut, which is kind of the latest and greatest. More people I know are there then any other site.

The big question on all of these sites: Are you my friend? The more friends you’ve got, the cooler you are. That’s the way it seems, but that’s not the real value of these social networks. You can get a real sense of the shape of your social network. HP did a paper with Orkut called A Social Network Caught in the Web that provides additional background.

Honoria Starbuck: By aesthetics I mean not just technical elegance but balance, beauty, and social values. Social groups go through birth, growth, decline, and death. The cycles — forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjoining — have aesthetic beauty. These patterns have connections between individuals, but they also have technical patterns. Networks are in the movies, in the minds of visionary architects, and in the maps of technological geography. Sidewalk artists on the Infobahn use social networks as chalk.

There are conversations, conversations in graphics like Photoshop Tennis, and communities of music. We’ve seen the aesthetic beauty of networks, but we’ve also seen the other side. There are trolls out there. An Internet troll is someone who fishes for people’s attention and confidence. Trolls may also try to dominate people with personal attacks and bullying. We have evolved ways to combat trolls. The most common way is to ignore them, to create your way around them, and to ban them. Many groups have been destroyed by trolls. But it’s natural for groups to die.

Media are alive. Successful group activities can only handle so many separate voices. Evolving new patterns of social networks must involve mixed technologies for closer understanding. Groups can use these to elect a new president, to find business partners, or to identify potential lovers.

Focused aesthetics can involve blogs and author-controlled aesthetics as well as clustering, which involves reputation by association. Your aesthetic values as you build the changes, your communication design, is a space for art and culture as well as a foundation for sound and safe business practices. Your aesthetic awareness is key to the cultural distribution of color, truth, and beauty.

Molly Steenson: I don’t know if I agree with Jon. I might start by looking at a slightly different approach. Before we get into this, I want to take a step back. I advocate the design of social networks, which involves understanding social network dynamics and designing for those exchanges. The field of networks is huge, and the study of social networks crosses over sociology, mathematics, physics, computer science, and biology.

Historically, it comes from graph theory. Books like Linked, Six Degrees, and even Urban Tribes, deal with this approach. Social networks does not equal social software all the time. You need to take into consideration the complex systems and the value exchange, The end result could be social software. But the end result could also be a physical space.

Beyond social software, social networks have a lot of relevance. We’re all a part of social networks. You can log into the Internet never, and you’re still part of social networks. What’s passed across isn’t independent, autonomous units but relational ties and links. There are actors in a social network. They can be a node, an individual, a business transaction.

So what is social software? Software for social networks. That includes blogs, instant messaging, friend-of-friend networks, email, cell phone software, and the whole Web. We need to open up the bigger question of what people are really doing and then come up with the things they need to support that.

Has anybody here read Don Norman’s new book Emotional Design? He’s a cognitive psychologist who wrote a book called The Design of Everyday Things. These days, he’s discovered that beautiful things somehow work better. That operates on a number of levels. Beautiful things are easier to understand. If you make something beautiful and navigable, it’s more useful.

The challenge is to find ways to rephrase the questions and consider the networks that youre designing for. Find the best graphic representations, and you’ll hit a higher state of aesthetic quality. Don’t use the same interfaces that already exist. We don’t need more of the same. We don’t need more Orkut. We dont more Wiki. We need more possibilities for the future.

Danah Boyd: When I started to think about what it meant to have aesthetics in social networks, I started thinking of various theoreticians and what they said about aesthetics. Look back at the rhetoricians. They say that aesthetics comes from how you see yourself.

There are two ways that social networks come about. One is graph theory. And one is kinship. People figure out who people are based on how they’re connected. This comes from Judith Donath’s Visual Who. Whenever you put out a map of people and their relationships to other people, people look for themselves first. Then they look to see who else is around them. The people around you are the best representation of who you are.

A few years later, I did a project on social network fragments. I took people’s email and made maps of people based on their interactions. The scary thing is that if I build a visualization of my email, I don’t just say something about me, I say something about all of my friends. Another version looked at IM buddy lists. This came out of CalTech and was called Buddy Zoo.

This is fundamentally different than what we saw with Six Degrees, Ryze, and Friendster. Friendster is an articulated social network. These are the people I say I’m connected to and who are related to me. The first thing people do after signing up is looking for their friends. But not just to see them, but to see who they’re connected to. Who invited them? Then clusters form.

I love people talking about which one is the best? Which one should I join? Which one looks most like you? That’s when it becomes interesting. People immediately try to find their clusters. They create tribes, groups, fakesters. They also try to do it through visual language. People would put up images to communicate how sad they were about what was happening in Spain.

This has a different aesthetic than traditional social networks. What people are representing here isn’t real. What do you do if someone asks you to be their friend. Do you say I don’t know you? Or do you say no and feel guilty? I’ve also talked to people who have quit these sites. What makes people quit?

What draws people in is their friends, seeing their friends, and seeing their communities. It really is about seeing themselves in a context.