Names of Social Networks and the Experience Architectures They Engender

Consider the names of social networks — MySpace, Facebook, Hi5, Tribe — and how they inflect the experience of each site despite the fact that each site enjoys more or less the same functionality.

MySpace is precisely that — a space for and by an individual. It is a user's space on the web, there for him or her to mark up, blog, spin. Sure, there are friends and hook-ups on MySpace but somehow Facebook came to own that function.

Facebook references the old printed facebooks of collegiate yesteryear in which upperclassmen were given a book of the faces of the incoming class. A facebook is essentially social. It is a vehicle to interact with others.

Hi5, too, is essentially social: a high-5 takes two, after all. And, like its name, it is a social activity for the young with a suggestion of the groovy. And such is the site: young and cool.

Tribe, too, is social — but suggests nodes, groups, bound by common interests. And such is Tribe.com.

All four of these sites do basically the same thing — profile pages, news feeds, messaging. And yet each offers a distinct architecture of that experience — leading into this room before entering that, emphasizing this feature and not that.

And it is the name — among other factors, no doubt — that sets this all up, that inflects the experience just so.

And in turn inflects the entire architecture of the experience — from what visitors expect to what the company develops. In the name, is a vision — like it or not.


Naming and The Experience Architecture of a Brand

A name figures a thing. We say "moon" which references the cyclical nature of that rock in the sky. The French say "la lune," speaking to the luminescence of the same thing. But is it the same thing? The French see light; we see cycle. Of course, they see cycle, too, just as we see light. And yet the different names figure the terms of the relationship to the thing.

Recently, I've been thinking a lot about all the different ways you can spin a product or brand, the diversity of ways you can situate an offering. For any given product, and especially for interactive products, you can emphasize this or that component, construct the experience in this or that way. I call this the experience architecture.

Now, everyone these days talks about building a relationship with consumers, building a dialog. And this is no doubt important. But what I've been thinking about are the different ways you can construct the terms of this relationship — the terms of the promise, of the delivery, of the effect and affect of the thing.

Any product has multiple qualities — a sneaker may be comfortable, light, sturdy, cool, chic, expensive, inexpensive. A brand chooses to emphasize some of these components, not all of them (usually). Take Volvo and Mercedes. Mercedes is the safer car and yet safety is not what Mercedes emphasizes. Volvo takes safety.

In the grand scheme of things, this is arbitrary — Mercedes could just as easily "own" safety. But it doesn't. Why?

Well, there are a lot of reasons. But I want to suggest that one main reason is that both of these companies have a clear vision — a clear experience architecture — of their respective brands. They may do all sorts of things but the clarity of their visions set the terms of the dialog with their customers.

So now it's time to name something. I look over the brief. It tells me the name should be fun, memorable, short; it tells me the benefits of the thing I'm naming — it makes life easier, safer, healthier; the brief tells me we want to suggest something dynamic yet easy to use.

But what the brief doesn't tell me is the architecture of the experience. For instance, does this thing coddle me? Or is it there when I need it? These are two fundamentally different postures — always there vs. actively nurturing.

In interactive software, these architectures can become quite complex. Is the product a cockpit for the user to drive his way through the web — Pilot.com? Is it a magnet that draws things in and lets the user organize it all — Magneto.com? These can describe the same functionality but they describe two very different visions of the experience: moon vs. la lune.

It's my job to name the thing. It hence becomes my job to cast the terms of the experience architecture. I wonder, however, if at least part of such a discussion shouldn't come earlier, shouldn't be driven by the vision of the stakeholders?

What is your vision of how your product interacts in the world? What is your vision for how your product shapes experience? What is the relationship between information, time, human bodies, human desires?

I almost think companies should start by mapping their visions, how they imagine their products interacting and distributing the different elements. This, I believe, would help make a brand, an experience, and a dialog with consumers more powerful and more effective.