Friday, March 25, 2011

Language Matters: Name Your Feature Carefully

Chances Are That We May Never See
'Add As Foe' Button, But It Underscores
Nature of Complex Human Relationship
Just the other day I saw my colleague posted his unofficial feature request to Facebook: Add as foe. In binary world of Facebook where everyone is either a friend or not, either likes what you wrote or not, having this additional dimension to express your complex love-hate relationship seems to be a natural next step. Who knows? This maybe be the next big idea for new wave of social networking sites.

I don't know how realistic it will be to expect love-hate social dimension to be implemented in Facebook. But what is clear to me is the power of semantic. When we talk about a new social networking feature, it is very important to name it right to give the right meaning.

At the software binary level, feature does not have any semantic. Software program expects domain of input, processes the input and returns certain range of output. It behaves exactly as programmer codes and does not carry any social semantic.

But to users, every feature has its semantic. For example at software level, friending some body on Facebook is nothing but subscription and access request action. Once you become a friend of someone, it means the new friend's status update will be shown to your Facebook home page and you'll have access to the friend's personal data.

If you change this 'friend' feature to, let's say, 'foe'. Then our familiar Facebook friend relationship will take an completely different meaning. People will no longer want to send subscription request to someone they love because its semantic is declaring the person as enemy.

Changing 'friend' feature to 'foe' will be an extreme example, but there are examples that we see today from Facebook and Twitter that underscore this point.

1. Facebook Share -> Like

Facebook used to offer 'share' option for each posted articles. Functionally 'share' reposts the article by creating one's own status update. When you 'share' an article, this means you want to pass the article along to your friends.

Facebook recently announced that they are obsoleting 'share' and replacing it with 'like'. 'Like' means you are endorsing the views expressed by the article and/or showing your approval. Facebook is saying that 'share' and 'like' are semantically close enough and people will not miss the capability to repost article without adding personal endorsement.

2. Twitter Favorite

Twitter has been providing 'favorite' feature for a long time. When you make a tweet 'favorite', it essentially makes a bookmark of the tweet so that you can easily come back to. It's a bookmarking functionality.

Because it's named as 'favorite', however, it has semantic of personal endorsement. This means even if you see a tweet that you want to bookmark and come back to, people are discouraged from using this bookmarking because it's called 'favorite'. A tweet that you want to come back to may not necessarily be one of your favorite tweets.

3. Twitter What Are You Doing -> What's happening versus Facebook What's on your mind?

Twitter Used To Ask "What Are You Doing?";
Now It Asks "What's Happening?" Because
It Wants To Be Breaking News Channel
When Twitter first started about 5 years ago, it started out as simple microblogging tool that enabled easy SMS message update with 140 character limit. It used to ask "what are you doing?" to solicit status update from users.

Since its initial launch, Twitter users started using it for many other interesting purpose, such as one line advertisement tool to share headlines to articles, organizing civilian uprising and creating its teenager fans for new breeds of internet stars. Once these interesting new use cases are popularized, Twitter took a notice.

Now Twitter is trying to become breaking news channel service, and they are now asking "what's happening?" because they are interested in events happening around you.

These are subtle yet powerful examples of how language matters a lot when it comes to social media product features. Do you see examples of incorrectly named features in social networking sites today? I would love to hear your examples and views. Please chime in!

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