Pool is a social networking site and online community for media practitioners and people with an interest in storytelling. It was set up by people in ABC Radio National as a ‘keeping place for experimental practice’. And built in conjunction with a group of media and design educators who saw a way to be involved in what was about to become ‘social media’.
The research and redesign project aimed to construct a picture of the community, its motivations and behaviours, and from this to restructure the site’s information architecture and interface design. Alongside investigating the community we spoke toa range of stakeholders from the ABC and outside who had some interest in Pool. This could be a strategic interest, such as people in ABC management who saw Pool as a place to explore social media; through to educators and researchers who could envisage new ways of creating media.
We surveyed Pool users and asked a mix of questions, such as:
- How people discover Pool
- Their main reasons for signing up
- The activities they engage in on the site
- The types of content they like, and
- Suggestions for it’s future direction.
We spoke to the Pool team and ABC staff, like RN Producers, to get an understanding of their side of the experience. And we talked to management about their interests and knowledge of the site.
From this we externalised the information on a wall in the studio – as a way to literally watch to see what ideas would surface. A number of ideas began to emerge. One of the clearest was that the community, while small, was active and positive. This raised the question: why so? It is a community of people who are there for a purpose, possibly not a common purpose, and maybe individually focussed. Nevertheless it appeared interesting that the site, which is relatively difficult to use, bought together this set of people.
Analysing the survey and discussion we figured that many of the regular site users are people who have some sort of interest in media. This seems to be at the storytelling end of the spectrum, rather than news and current affairs. But, in any case, it is more media centred than art centred, for example. Because of the input from Radio National it is understandable that a fairly high proportion of works are audio and radio-like. It also became apparent that many people became regular users because of the proximity to the ABC. It was clear then, that one of the motivations of people in the community was professional. In other words they wanted to be seen by professionals in the ABC and receive feedback that would help advance their own work; and possibly open up professional opportunities. This type of motivation encourages the user to use their own name, so if they are noticed it is not lost; and also drives them to act positively (and professionally). These give some indication of why the site is active and positive.
But there was also something else playing out in the community that fully answered the question. The Pool team had set up a new role that they named the Social Media Producer. This draws on similar roles in social media, but takes it further. In fact we identified three iterations of the role. The ABC staffer who has the title of Social Media Producer is primarily a community manager/moderator. Because the general attitude on the site is positive the later task or moderation is not needed as much as on other sites. The effort can go the to stimulating the community, making links between people and projects and working with people to get their work seen. So the role moves from an administrator towards a producer—someone who produces something out of the community and their work.
The next level is significant. It is the radio producer who takes up the opportunity to ‘play’ in the community. A Radio National producer has the ability to use their radio program to set up a ‘call out’, requesting listeners as well as Pool members to respond to a theme, such as City Nights. A micro community forms around the call out, works get created, the producer feeds into the call out community with ideas, feedback, and resources such as archival material for use in the media. Members of the community work independently or in small groups to create work, but also to discuss the work as it is being created. As one of the respondents in the conversations says: “people on Pool think about their work and want others to think about it”.
This iteration of the Social Media Producer is particularly interesting because it appears contradictory. On the one hand we have the notion of social media being non-heirarchical and assertively amateur, on the other we have the radio producer being strongly production orientated. However the hybrid makes sense in this case because the creator’s motivation is to advance their work, both in terms of production standards as well as putting it in front of a professional.
The third iterations is like a super user role that is often part of a community site. It is someone who takes on an organising position, makes links between people and develops working networks. This is yet to fully develop on the site, but will be encouraged in the new site infrastructure. For it to work well there needs to be a number of functions added. The first is an ability to track a community member’s ‘vitality’ that is, the level of activity the participate in, such as commenting, making links, favouriting works and so on. Once they are ‘noticed’ by the ABC SMP they will get extra administrative privileges like being able to create clusters of groups, drawing together larger numbers of other community members.
The first two iterations pointed to something that we hadn’t noticed at first. That was that Pool was different in the sense that it was a social media space that was operating at an intersection with a traditional broadcast media organisation. I will take this up in more detail in a following post. But it is worth noting here because it alerted us to the idea that this was a unique research site, a sort of behind the scenes opportunity to watch things emerge out of a hybrid space.
The research then led to the next stage of making sense out of the data and pulling together some findings.
Jeremy Yuille created a ‘mental model‘ of what we found out about the motivations and behaviours of the Pool community. A mental model brings together the things that people do, in whatever way they can on the site, and looks for the functions that support that activity. This highlights the functions that must be kept and enhanced, It also shows where the gaps are: a need to do something but which is not supported. So, for example, communication on the site is essential to satisfy the desire to ‘have someone think about a work’ and then to communicate those thoughts to the creator. The mental model is a ‘chunking’ process that draws together ‘like’ activities and functions. The final stage is to condense this into simple and knowledgable areas. In this case we come up with: produce something; gather interesting stuff; belong to a media community and be part of the ABC.
The next stage is to create a structural design that supports these areas of activity, then a visual interface design that makes it legible.
A number of research areas were opened up in this process, which we aim to take up at a later date. They include the intersection between the striated (traditional) and smooth (participatory) media spaces; the nature of the audiences for a site like Pool, including those who are ‘sit-back’ (conventional entertained audience) as well as ‘sit-forward’ (interactive, co-creators); plus the potential to observe new n=media forms emerge out of social media.