A visual social network?

Adam Procter shared a video detailing what he's working on for his PhD research: reimagining digital tools for design education because they are "fundamentally broken" being a literal translation from paper to screen. He talks about possibly using Spatial Hypertext for the interface (where there are more visual representations for information chunks and their interrelations) rather than linear walls of text pulled straight from textbooks.

This reminded me of an idea I had for a visual social network a few years ago (as part of #Write365) inspired by the Ripples feature from Google Plus.

I first wrote about Ripples after their introduction in 2011 as the notion of visually tracking the spread of conversations and ideas via social shares really appealed to me. I envisaged Ripples forming the basis of an analytics offering but, at least until I left Plus, this never materialised - although by 2014 they had added a little of what I imagined such as basic influencer information.

The social web became a lot more visual but this normally refers to the proliferation of images and videos, but what if we could take a more visual, and tactile, approach to text based conversations? Social networks are linear constructs because it is far easier to both design and read if there is form and structure:

post -> comment -> response.

Re-shares may take a particular conversation in a new direction but we are then just dealing with isolated, parallel linear experiences.

Beyond Ripples

I thought, what if this visual format

"could be applied directly to a social network? An interactive social mind map ... What if we were able to instantly visualise the conversation itself rather than just an indication of it's spread?"

We already have collaborative mind mapping software but this is usually small scale, designed for teams. What it we had something similar that was public? It would allow us to:

  • follow trains of thought visually rather than flick between discrete threads
  • examine multiple conversation threads concurrently
  • better cross-reference and create new links and connections between items.

I imagined a visual representation of social data that allowed users to manipulate the layout of conversations to suit their own purposes, align threads, drag items into more convenient places and manually create links between related items - all without affecting the actual data structure. These changes could be shared with others as snapshots (restricted to individuals or groups, or made public) the links becoming "wormholes" between different points in the social graph; rubber bands able to twist and stretch, connecting nodes within this spatial rendering.

The big problem, however, would be whether it was possible or even desirable. Would it be too complicated to present social data in such a manner? Would users be willing to invest in such a system and would it be too difficult to navigate? I also wondered if it would be possible to add this as a layer on top of an existing network (Ripples suggested it could be) or would it need to be a new network, purpose-built, specific.

Thinking about this again after a four year gap, the appeal of such a representation would, no doubt, be limited. Casual users would be unlikely to need or want such a means of examining the social landscape - the simpler the better. It would also not be practical on a mobile phone - a traditional feed would still be required here.

Perhaps such a visualisation could be limited to "chunks" of data, the current conversation's immediate neighbourhood, making it easier to consume and manage but I still feel the amount of use it would get would probably not justify the work involved in creating it.