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Some thoughts on social conventions, comparisons and recommendations – on and offline

October 2nd, 2013 by Jeremy Lloyd

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Since the dawn of time, human beings have employed a wide variety of techniques and social conventions to control who we communicate with. As Wikipedia details, ‘in a social context, a convention is a set of agreed, stipulated, or generally accepted standards, norms, social norms, or criteria, often taking the form of a custom.’ We are taught from a young age to offer up our bus and train seats to elderly passengers, not to kiss our partner in-front of our parents, always offer guests food or drinks, treat managers or anyone above us with respect, tailor our choice of clothes to suit the occasion and for those who lived in ancient China, even experience castration as a means of gaining employment in the imperial service! Those who rebel are either labelled outcasts or praised according to the cultural context.

In an ever-diversifying society experiencing a decline in traditional moral values, many choose to favour the ‘personalisation’ of the latter, but some social situations are even more multi-layered. We might share details of our love life with friends at a bar that we wouldn’t necessarily share over a family meal. Conversely, we might tell our families about medical or financial decisions that we wouldn’t discuss at a nightclub, or a first date. And we lower our voices when we want to make sure the couple next to us doesn’t overhear.

So how are these age-old social conventions echoed and extended into the digital world?

In 2013, it is a well-known fact that more people seem to be spending less time speaking face-to-face, choosing to communicate digitally instead. But the early web was vastly different from today. Users faced a stark choice between posting information on public sites or sending via private email, with little in between. The new generation of social media tools help bridge the gap and create an un-interrupted flow of ‘always on’ communication. Twitter gives you the choice to make your tweets and lists public or limit access to people you’ve specifically approved. Facebook allows us to decide whether our profiles will be visible to others with a specific email address, whether friends-of-friends will be able to see our photos, and even whether our profiles will show up when someone searches for our name. Because the web now has many aspects of broadcast media, people often talk about the information we put on social media sites as ‘public,’ as though posting on Facebook is like appearing on national television. In reality, this isn’t the case.

But is leaving a tip for your waiter the same as liking a friend’s Facebook post or sharing a piece of content? Is the daily ritual of showering and brushing your teeth the same as posting a Facebook status up or tweet? Do Facebook Fan Page followers obsessively scan every wall-post in the same way they might attend their local church or mosque and is marriage the offline equivalent of updating your relationship status rather than remaining single or indeed, anonymous? To publish or not to publish? That is the question. Facebook has opened us up to the possibilities of sharing experiences online, but these tend to be only one part of our lives, i.e. the good bits.

Some companies, such as Visible Nation, the world’s first social comparison platform, believe that we all need social data to be honest and allow us to make real decisions but in many cases, anonymised data is the way forward.

Of course, when it comes to the online world, there’s more than enough room for improvement. Not everyone chooses to remain anonymous. Many users find social media tools inconvenient or hard to use, and some are careless about posting information that could become embarrassing or indeed, present a threat to them in the future. We hear daily failure and success stories about how abiding closely to social norms online have either paid off or backfired. Facebook has had its fair share of casualties, with users losing their jobs, stalked by ex-partners and falling prey to hoaxers.

But we shouldn’t be too impatient. The offline world has a centuries-long head start in developing privacy-preserving tools and social conventions. But more importantly, will future technological developments in social media and product design mean that we will develop a new form of social etiquette?

Progressing onwards from digital social etiquette to the current hot topic of social recommendations, the likes of Yelp, TripAdvisor and Amazon all hosting user reviews isn’t enough these days. Crowd insights are no longer as meaningful as before because they’re “user generated.” It used to be that consumers would be given purchase recommendations from acquaintances, salespeople, and perhaps even celebrity endorsements on TV or radio, but now they have even more options leading to a diversity of choice that has powerfully influenced consumer preference.

But consumers do share one overarching priority: personalisation. And some companies are already catching on. Spotify took music to a new level by personalizing playlists by taste, and also by enabling sharing with people meaningful to its users. Much the same, Etsy‘s Facebook connection lets people discover gifts for friends based on Likes and interests. Within the crowded mobile application sector, Loyd Mobile, the world’s first social discovery app has created a platform to provide users with an insight into what apps their friends, brands and favourite celebrities are using, at the same time simplifying the navigation of the ever-growing number of apps on the market in a fun and sociable way. Another example is HireJungle, the world’s first peer-to-peer marketplace that allows users to hire/hire out goods and services by posting unlimited free classified ads.

A new consumer is starting to emerge but trust, taste and time will be key in driving today’s new era of social recommendation services.

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