Stupid pitfalls of social media

This American Society for Information Science and Technology paper by Yahoo's Christian Crumlish has a tidy little cosmology of dumb things that social media does:
Briefly, the Cargo Cult means imitating superficial features of successful websites and applications without really understanding what makes them work...

Don't Break Email warns against the practice of using email as a one-way notification or broadcast medium while disabling your users' ability to hit reply as a normal response...

The Password Anti-Pattern is the pernicious practice of asking users to give you their passwords on other systems so that you can import their data for them, thus training them to be loose and insecure with their private information...

The Ex-Boyfriend Bug crops up when you try to leverage a user's social graph without realizing that some of the gaps in a person's network may be deliberate and not an up-sell opportunity...

Lastly, a Potemkin Village is an overly elaborated set of empty community discussion areas or other collaborative spaces, created in anticipation of a thriving population rather than grown organically in response to their needs (see also Pave the Cowpaths)....

The Information Architecture of Social Experience Design: Five Principles, Five Anti-Patterns and 96 Patterns (in Three Buckets) (via Beyond the Beyond)


  1. I love that the site telling you how to make a better website is a fixed width, so with a widescreen monitor, you get a 3 inch stripe of text with 6 inches of space on either side.

    I don’t bother reading website advice from people who can’t get thier own right.

  2. Teehee, I thought Schwal was talking about boingboing at first. (They do, after all, do the same thing.)

  3. @Schwal #3 You don’t have to run the browser full screen! Fixed width makes it easier to give a consistent experience to users, and I doubt you’d enjoy reading a paragraph of text that is 1920 pixels wide, anyway.

    At some point in the future when CSS makes multi-column flowing easier, that may mark the end of fixed-width layouts, but until then, it’s really the best solution.

  4. stop hijacking the thread.

    This is a great article. Too many MBAs are bending the ears of corporate boards with buzzword-laden BS and over-excitement about getting “Social” and jumping on the next Twitter of Facebook. Just because you have a Twitter account, it doesn’t mean you are cool, or that anybody cares about what you have to say – committing resources to building a community site for your company is most likely a waste if your ecommerce site’s problems are being neglected.

  5. I see the ‘Potemkin Villages’ all the time. Usually with webcomics, which after about ten updates think they’re so user-friendly and well-read that people are going to want to start posting multiple comments today on hastily assembled forums. They end up looking more like ghost towns.

  6. Not to threadjack, but I agree with first poster.

    This single column of text uses only 20% of available screen space.
    And my viewable browser area is relatively square since I use the side-tab plugin for Firefox.

    So what if my monitor is 1920 pixels wide, I use a proportionally larger font!

    The whole point of the web is that it’s supposed to be open and pliable so the user’s browser can format content in a way the user is comfortable with.

    They constrained the text to the size of a slip of thermal receipt paper.

    The larger I make the font, the more garbled the text becomes.
    Screw them, they should go back to design school.

  7. Interesting article. The pitfalls mentioned above illustrate exactly why I leave sites. As for principles, I think we could all find examples of sites that did it right: I think Twitter definitely followed “pave the cowpaths” by adding functionality based on how the users actually used the site; they also “play well with others.”

  8. People, the reason sites used fixed width designs is because “liquid design,” where the content flows to make the best available use of the available monitor size and dimensions work inconsistently among different browsers.

    Now, to the article: I feel that some of these tips remind me of the saying, “Hindsight is 20-20.” In other words, it is easy to see what works and what doesn’t…after it has already been done, unsuccessfully by some and successfully by others.

    Finally, although I was initially unconvinced, I think Mr. Crumlish has some good points, and I’m glad the article was published.

  9. RE: Fixed width – another benefit to fixed width (at a reasonable width, natch) is that people can track lines of text easier than if they sprawl across an entire page. Yes, you can fit more lines of text on the fluid layout, BUT on wider monitors, with the browser at full size, it becomes harder to track and reading speed decreases.

    I personally prefer fixed width for my sites, but understand that some folks prefer to be able to expand and utilize the entire screen.

  10. TheCrawNotTheCraw @8

    People, the reason sites used fixed width designs is because “liquid design,” where the content flows to make the best available use of the available monitor size and dimensions work inconsistently among different browsers.

    I’m not a website designer, so forgive my ignorance…

    I wonder to what extent “inconsistency” is really a problem if you’re not a website designer. That is, just because a layout is interpreted inconsistently, does it necessarily mean that some of those interpretations are bad?

    I have a suspicion (only barely founded), that some designers automatically rule out a design that’s inconsistent, even if it just means that a line weight is different somewhere, even if there’s nothing really wrong with it. The problem is that the site doesn’t conform to their vision of what it should be – that line must be three pixels wide, dangit!

    I’d rather use a site that has a good usable layout, and looks somewhat different on different browsers, than one with a perfectly consistent bad layout.

  11. Interesting article – I suppose I knew, intellectually, that there must be some formal analysis going on of patterns and models in social networking sites, but I had never run across it before. Funny how naming the beasts suddenly makes their presence obvious (recent Facebook victim here).

    I write web apps (no social ones, some downright anti-social), and I know first hand how tricky user interaction is. Building an app whose entire purpose is user interaction is sort of a worst-case scenario.

    Oh, and the whole point of fluid-width design is that I can size the browser such that the text is easy and comfortable for me to read, not suffer through what someone else thinks is comfortable and easy for me to read. Max and min-width are not so hard to implement. Sure, making a site that looks good at the extremes and in the middle is more work, but damn is it worth it. A site that feels like it doesn’t fit on my screen is simply uncomfortable to spend time on.

    On that subject I think I might add, if I were the author of the paper, the anti-pattern of enforcing interfaces and designs “for the user’s own good” – Just because someone somewhere decided that 500 pixels was the “optimum” width for written text does not mean that a 500 pixel wide site is going to make your users happy. The “intuitive” interface is a holy grail of design, but I think we get a lot closer when we allow flexibility and customizability in the interface than when we slavishly adhere to a “best practice” that doesn’t even make sense in many contexts. The interface to social sites, as with any software, needs to be adjustable to the user’s needs and habits – whether it is how IM and messaging works, how wide the main text is, or how to upload pictures. If it is confusing and I can’t make it work they way I expect it to, I avoid using it.

    </ rant >

  12. tried signing up to comment but I’m not receiving a password. This is the author of the Bulletin article. Needless to say I did not design the rendering of the article on the web, which fits into an existing site for better or worse. You can also get the PDF for a possibly better (or worse?) reading experience.

    We welcome feedback on the patterns and suggestions for other ones we should be addressing. The project is coming out in book form in September but it’s also an unbook (unfinished book) in wiki form and we hope to continue to evolve it in collaboration with the wider web development community.

    Not doing things “for the user’s own good” is an interesting idea and I’ll try to add something about that to the section on core principles. Thanks everyone for the feedback!

    Christian Crumlish (xian)
    @mediajunkie on twitter

    Designing Social Interfaces (wiki)

  13. @Kennric

    Yeah, I can see what the designer was trying to do, but they make the classic mistake of someone who is a graphic designer first, web designer second — they use exact dimensions.

    Unless you’re dealing with image elements of a known size, you should always make all of your page elements a relative size.

    500 Pixels for the web designer may have been %80 the width of the browser, but it isn’t for me.
    And there’s no reason to use an exact pixel size, they could have just had that div explicitly take up %80 of the width, and the browser would have adjusted.

  14. Ah, Facebook does the crime of asking people for their mail password. It’s disgusting because a clueless user then thinks “Oh, if Facebook’s doing it, it’s okay.”, that he/she then proceeds to give their Hotmail password to some dodgy site when asked, a site that then would use their MSN account to spam their buddies with messages about acai berries… fuckers.

    Also, some random guy sold me something on eBay 3 year ago, he sent me email, I replied, last week he registers on Facebook, he lets them access his email account, and what happens? I see his name in “Friend Suggestion”. Fuckers.

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