Social media, like all human activities, involves designed interactions in a complex environment. How we design for this space is as much about the social — and the complexity that results from it — as it is the media.
Yesterday I participated in a webinar on social media strategy hosted by the Program Training and Consultation Centre’s Media Network. The focus was on how public health professionals can use social media to engage their populations of interest to advance health promotion. Examples of how social media is being used were presented from ParticipACTION, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and my own research group’s Youth4Health initiative to show how these tools could enhance health communications.
What might have caught some of attendees by surprise was the introduction of complexity science concepts and design thinking into the discussion. These terms are not often used in public health, but as I’ve argued many times in this space, they ought to play a much larger role.
The other potential surprise for some might have been the emphasis on relationships, connection and the kind of things that Brian Solis showcases (see infographic above). Solis describes social media as:
Social media is a deeply personal ecosystem that I lovingly refer to as the EGOsystem. As such, there is a “me” in social media for a reason. It is quite literally a world in which we are at the center of our online experiences, a place where everything and everyone revolves around us. – Brian Solis
When a person is at the centre of an experience that is human formed and technology mediated, design is very important. How one engages with others and the opportunities afforded within that environment or EGOsystem is largely a product of design. For example, Facebook provides a great deal of opportunity to bring in your close “friends” into a conversation, but is relatively poor at bringing in strangers. In contrast, Twitter is about bringing anyone into the conversation, particularly strangers. As I like to put it:
Twitter enables you to learn answers to questions you never thought to ask, have conversations you could have never planned, and meet people you never knew existed
In both of these contexts, the manner in which one designs for interactions has a profound influence on what kind of conversations take place. To use Solis’ model above, attention to interaction design qualities of the technological and social space helps amplify the white arrows, dampen the effect of the blue arrows, with an aim of enhancing the power of the red arrow (belevolence).
This attention to these kind of patterns is at the heart (no pun intended) of complexity oriented planning and why social media, design and complexity require mutual consideration in developing strategy. When in complex spaces, the tempo, rhythm, and pattern of information exchange shifts constantly, just like in a regular conversation. So approaching the program from the perspective of a traditional, more linear-focused mindset will inevitably lead to a misalignment between program activities and the outcomes produced.
If you’re expecting to get a firm outcome from a social media strategy, you might be disappointed. If you are looking for surprises, consider more flexible outcomes, then social media may deliver the goods — but only if you design your strategy to suit the complexity of the context. A complex setting is one where there are multiple agents interacting and producing emergent new properties through such interaction. It it therefore fitting that the concept of interaction design be considered in examining how we engage in these environments.
Much of the discourse on social media from marketing and communication leaders hints at these concepts, but doesn’t name them. By explicitly making complexity, design and the social part of social media a focus we can more intentionally create better experiences that will engage our audiences, and in the case of public health, promote health.