Less Social Networking and more Situation Networking

Why do people join groups online?

There are many reasons to become part of a group online. To organize events, get support and help, be associated with a cause, gain knowledge or simply show solidarity. We use different apps for different group types depending on the contacts in the group and how we want to communicate with them. It works well enough but there are some cases that haven’t yet been well catered for – either because we make do with what we have or no-one has yet invented a solution.

One of the most common use cases for an active group is organizing an upcoming event. The group usually needs to chat, make decisions and share information requiring a form of communication that’s quick and easy to set up. After the event, the group is deleted or more likely sinks lower down your chat list and eventually forgotten. Whatsapp (or other chat apps) provides a natural place for this type communication before and during the event and Facebook (or another network) gives you the ability to create the group and make people aware of it in the first place. Mostly that scenario is well served.

Another reason to join a group is to identify with a chosen cause or topic, becoming part of a club that makes it clear to other people that you belong there. In these types of groups, activity isn’t that high but most people will join up, view and occasionally like and comment, being satisfied with association and little else. LinkedIn has many of these types of groups and most people join knowing their interest is being shared among others and hoping it may lead to more new networking contacts.

Family based groups often follow the event use case except the events happen more frequently, are likely to be smaller scale (e.g. a visit to another family member) and the contacts are all known to each other personally. In terms of features, other than chat, there isn’t much more that’s needed. However, there are a few uses specific to a family that isn’t tied to communication e.g. Apple’s find your phone to track location or family sharing for purchases on iTunes or Apple music. There could be more use cases for families that are useful and unique to families. They would likely be extremely non private like sharing passwords, instantly connecting to video chat without permission, controlling home devices remotely – anything that only your core family would want to share. I haven’t come across anything that fulfills that all, but maybe the requirement is not there because a host of separate apps make the same functionality possible using admin access for multiple people. The question of whether having one family app to combine everything provides any more value (or is even possible) is up for debate.

There’s nothing like a situation to bring people together as a group

There is another use case that I haven’t seen implemented well. This is where people become part of a small, highly conversational group based on a specific situation (sometimes brought on by an event) with people they didn’t know before. For example, in forums, people meet and continue to converse while the situation is happening but disappear naturally after it has passed. This is different from a regular event group because the person isn’t invited and it’s not a single event but rather a situation that occurs or that the person is part of in that moment in time. Examples include visa/immigration tracking sites, expectant mothers running along the same timeline, moving to a new city or looking for a new job, people going through any life situation that doesn’t necessarily have an easy available support or interest group because of its transient nature. There’s not much available in our current group apps to facilitate communication in these types of ‘situation groups’ especially among strangers. Rather it seems to be a side effect of other types of groups where you might be lucky enough to stumble on an active and friendly group. Where these groups do form and find a stronghold, the bonds can be strong because it’s often when a new situation is unfolding, that the need to speak to others is most strongly desired. This interesting use case promotes the creation of new meaningful connections, something that social media has done well but only among contacts you’re supposed to know (e.g. Linkedin), contacts you invite (e.g. Facebook) and contacts you follow (e.g. Twitter or Instagram).

In most social networking, it’s hard to find new people and make any kind of meaningful connection but perhaps having a common situation might be the most natural pathway to it.

Experiencing a situation that is time related could involve preparing for college or becoming a parent of a toddler – or even more granular such as deciding what to pack for college or getting some real time sympathy among other parents trying to get their toddlers to sleep. There is access to relevant groups in online forums but often the forum structure is not the best for timely conversation – the content is hard to find, out of date when it is found and probably lacking active conversation as people lose interest and leave.

In such a situation based group, it’s the experience you are going through at that moment in time and the details around it which is the only thing you need to know – no other personal details or history is required. Timing is key – you want to talk to people going through the same thing live at that moment, and not after the situation is past being relevant.

Perhaps there is a place for situation based group apps that could help us chat to people who just happen to be going through the same thing. The networks we have right now, with their lack of privacy and tendency towards peer pressure or playing to the audience may not be the right place for it. We need something new and the situation people find themselves in, rather than the social requirement may just be the key.

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