Social Architecture

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= Social architecture is the intentional use of social media in the design of how people work. [1]


"Social architecture is the conscious design of an environment that encourages certain social behavior leading towards some goal or set of goals." [2]

or: Social architecture is a user experience oriented approach to the design and analysis of social tools. (Stowe Boyd)


Pieter H. :

"Social Architecture by analogy with conventional architecture, is the process, and the product, of planning, designing, and growing an on-line community. Social architectures, in the form of on-line communities, are the cultural and political symbols, and works of art of the Digital Society. The 21st century will be identified with its surviving social architectures.

As Social Architects, we participate in communities, we identify successful naturally-occurring patterns, or we develop new patterns, and we apply these deliberately to our own architectures. We apply psychology (our social instincts), economics (how we create common wealth through specialization and trade), politics (how we collect and share power), and technology (how we communicate). We continually adapt our toolkit based on new knowledge and experience. Our goal is to create on-line communities that accurately solve the problems we identify, that grow healthily, and that survive by themselves.

All successful communities are based on the inherent contract of mutual benefit. That is, it is possible to build a billion-dollar business based on volunteer labor, but only if every participant contributes for selfish reasons. Often participants do not realize, or care, that they are part of a community. However, every single act is economic. Thus, "crowd sourcing" (as the exploitation-for-profit of volunteer labor is sometimes called) only works when the crowd really wants to solve the problems you throw at it." (


Successfull Patterns for Social Architecture

Pieter H. :

"Impossible mission. In a world filled with interesting problems, the community needs a clear, long-term, and challenging mission that stands out. The mission defines the community. The mission must capture attention quickly, and hold it for as long as it takes to grow a mature community. To attract the best people, the mission should be close to impossible.

Volunteer contributors. Money makes us stupid. More accurately, when we're paid to take part in a community, we follow the opinion of our clients or bosses. This rapidly turns the group stupid. Smaller voices get shouted down, and decisions are made by people without competence to make them. A community must attract volunteer contributors who can express themselves independently.

Freedom of access. When searching for the answers, the more diverse inputs, even irrational ones, the better. A good idea gets stronger when challenged by other ideas, sane or insane. A bad idea that goes unchallenged can become orthodoxy. So how diverse is a group and what defines this diversity? Mainly, if the group is self-selecting or has significant barriers to entry, i.e. membership is by invitation only, at a price, or determined by physical presence, its diversity will be low. If anyone can easily join the group, its diversity can be high.

Weak group identity. Emotions produce toxic logic, as Mr Spock so often observed. Some groups are driven by logical purpose, and others by more emotional factors such as peer-pressure, the herd instinct, even collective hysteria. The main factor seems to be the relationship between the group and its members. We can quantify this: do members "belong exclusively" to the group? Exclusive membership means putting the group's existence above its work. Exclusive membership ends in conflict with other groups. Membership must be a badge to collect, not an identity.

Well-written rules. All groups suffer at some point from conflicts. We survive these by developing rules that people can refer to, and which resolve conflicts. The insight that lets anarchists join wise crowds as happily as anyone is that the crowd can, of course, develop its own rules. Typically, these rules govern ethics, ranking, remixing, identity, and so on. Rules can be in many forms, but they must be simple, clear, and explicitly written down.

Fair authority. Without authority, rules have no strength. The community founders and main contributors are its de-facto authority. If they abuse their authority, they lose their contributors and their project dies. Authority needs to be scalable and transferable, as the group grows and changes over time.

Space for conflict. A healthy group must encourage and digest conflicting opinion. Critics, iconoclasts, vandals and trolls keep a group on its toes, and help keep it coherent. Wikipedia thrives thanks to, not despite, those who click Edit to make a mess of articles. But while we want to get broad discussion, even argument, a community must not trust contributors until they've proven their competence.

Freedom to choose tasks. Some people like to be told what to do but the best contributors and teams choose their own tasks. A successful community recognizes problems and organizes itself to solve them, and it does that faster and more accurately than any top-down management structure. This means the community should accept contributions in any area, without limit.

Decentralization. If a group is geographically concentrated, it becomes homogenized, all members getting much the same inputs and triggers. Close proximity also lets a minority dominate the mindset of the group, and quash unorthodox ideas. Surowiecki explains how the Columbia shuttle disaster was caused by a hierarchical NASA management bureaucracy that did ignored the knowledge of low-level engineers. If a group is decentralized, its members are more independent, they receive more diverse inputs, and they are also likely to be more diverse from the start.

Openness and transparency. Secrecy and incompetence seem bound together: groups that work in secret do not achieve wisdom. Transparency is necessary for many reasons: to get rapid feedback on ideas and work, to magnify the social credit of contributors, to attract new members to the crowd, to make it cheaper and easier for people to participate, and most of all, to expose flawed reasoning to mass critique. Digital society does its best work in the public eye. Ironically, the most efficient models are those that remove the barriers that traditionally generate profits.

Free workspaces. A community needs space in which to grow; in Internet terms this is typically a web site or collection of sites, and related structures like email lists, blogs, and so on. We've seen that it's become very cheap to create "space" in the digital society. The question is, can individuals create their own spaces within the community? If so, they will invest more in the collective project.

Remixability. Communities work by generating new knowledge out of old knowledge plus information. When individuals can freely remix the work of others, and be assured that their own work will always be free for remixing, they can invest more. The state of the art is "share-alike" licenses for digital content, which guarantee remixability and are backed by copyright law.

Regular structure. As a community grows larger, it gets harder to navigate. Complexity turns people away. There are classic ways to subdivide a community: by function or domain of interest, by language, and by hierarchy of power. These smaller communities can often replicate the structures of their parent — rules, authority, etc. — at their own level. The structure should be regular and easy to navigate.

Smooth learning curve. The ideal community is trivial to join, and offers a smooth curve of gradually increasing challenge. Every participant should be able to join and move along the curve until they reach their difficulty level. This ensures you get the maximum contribution from each person without any formal training process. In software projects we might start by "report a bug" and end with "maintain a core project".

Measurable success. Competition between projects is very stimulating, but only works when there are visible measures of success. The best criteria are popularity of some project within a given market, which defines relevance and usefulness (to that market, at least).

Competition. A volunteer wants to be admired for success, individually or as part of a team. How do we rate success? By comparison to others. Competition needs metrics, ways to measure. So a good way to motivate volunteers is to encourage participants to compete for high scores, preferably measured by peer approval rather than luck. Since success is relative, digital society has developed "everyone wins" models where people mainly compete against themselves, and so get better over time. Digital society can sometimes resemble a complex game.

Clear enemy. Mostly, emotions are bad for communities, but sometimes they seem constructive. Anger and fear can be effective at creating a common sense of purpose. In the FFII we used to say, "positive campaigns don't work". Campaigns with no enemy would just fizzle out. Campaigns with a clear, precisely identified villain could spread around the world. It should not be too serious.

Sense of humor. Humor is a way of defusing conflict. People don't hit the joker unless the joke is old or badly told. More subtly, humor defuses tribalism and emotion, and lets people work together even when they have huge differences. A shared joke creates strong bonds because it proves the intersection of minds. Humor is an essential part of a community and reduces stress." (

Compare them with the social anti-patterns, see


Andrew Gent:

"By environment I mean a bounded set of physical or virtual structures, functions, or events where people interact.

I say "certain social behavior" because you are designing for specific interactions with the aim of achieving some goal. You are not designing a generic space where people congregate and interact in whatever way they please. (Unless, of course, that will achieve your goal.) You are designing towards some purpose, such as encouraging conservation (wiserEarth) or grassroots sharing of ideas and innovation (barcamps).

On the other hand, I am intentionally vague about what constitutes an "environment". If we are just speaking of digital spaces, then there is very little difference between "social architecture" and "information architecture" or "interaction design". Designers of social software might very well call themselves "social media architects". But that is not inclusive of everything that is needed to instigate and drive social behavior. Barcamp is an example that requires digital spaces to organize, but also a physical space and event logistics to pull off." (

Gender-biased social architecture

Pieter H.:

"Fundamentally, Social Architecture rests on psychology. If you believe human behavior is socially indoctrinated, you will make a poor social architect. If you look at psychology as an evolved set of mental tools that are sharpened and polished by experience, you will do much better. Many of these tools are gender weighted, i.e. they are more male or more female. This affects how we organize. Let me summarize some key differences between the male and female minds:

- Human males organize around problems and opportunities for profit. They create temporary alliances based on mutual need and capabilities. Males communicate by boasting, telling stories, describing possibilities, developing plans and tactics, and expressing dominance. Male power is a function of number of followers. Male minds accept authority, so long as it is competent. They are happy to become part of a larger group, if that group will win some prize. Male social debt is measured in favors.

- Human females organize around knowledge of people and events. They create long-lasting peer-to-peer networks based on mutual value. Females communicate by exchanging knowledge about people and events. While male stories are "What I did last summer", female stories are "what he and she did last summer". Female power is a function of network size and quality. Female minds detest authority. They are happy to be part of a larger group, but not anonymously, and for knowledge, rather than material rewards. Female social debt is measured in knowledge.

We can classify social architectures as more "blue" (male oriented) or "pink" (female oriented). Most of the patterns I've described in this chapter are blue. That is, you will not use them successfully to create communities aimed at women.

However, the top web sites have all succeeded in attracting fairly equal gender ratios. In Facebook and Twitter, women dominate by almost 60-40. The news portals (Yahoo!,, and QQ) appear to attract more women than men. I can't find figures for YouTube and Blogger but would assume these are fairly balanced, like the search engines. Wikipedia is perhaps the only solidly "blue" architecture, and as I'd expect, heavily dominated by male contributors.

Look at Facebook's slogan: "helps you connect and share with the people in your life". It's aimed directly at women and the way female minds measure status and power: how many people you know, and what they know. Twitter's slogan is fluffy: "Follow your interests. Instant updates from your friends, industry experts, favorite celebrities, and what's happening around the world". It clearly works, but feels alien to my male mind.

Facebook and Twitter succeed with men despite their pink exteriors. Facebook says to men, silently: "helps you stay in touch with women", and Twitter's unspoken slogan for guys is "whomever collects the most followers wins".

So the evidence suggests that to build a web site that gets massive traffic, you need to attract women first, men second. It's the nightclub model. If you want to build a community that thinks fast, and solves complex problems accurately, you should focus mainly on the male mind and its psychology of collaboration and competition.

Male and female society are very disjoint, even when counter-gender indoctrination starts at an early age. But human society is a whole, and male hierarchies do connect to, and depend on, female networks. There are digital architectures waiting to be discovered that connect these elegantly and naturally." (


Andrew Gent [3]:

  1. Stowe Boyd defined it in 2005. Although he appears to define it as an existant state ("the foundation of the blogosphere") rather than as a specific activity. [4]
  2. Sam Huweatt describes it in his blog. His definition is very similar to what I outline above. He also makes a distinction between social architecture and social media architects. [5]
  3. Christina Wodtke lists the elements of social architecture in her book Blueprints for the Web (summarized in A List Apart). [6]
  4. In his slide presentation on Social Architecture: Modeling the Next Generation, Sean Madden makes the point that "social networks have limitless potential but we need to work towards designing them that way." [7]
  5. Amy Jo Kim, in her bio, defines herself as designing "social games and social architecture[s]". Her book Community Building on the Web pre-dates much of what we now consider social software, but is still the pre-eminent text on designing for social interaction. She also calls her blog "Musings of a Social Architect". [8]

More Information

  1. Value Sensitive Design
  2. Protocollary Power