Online communities will often fall into a single style of communication. Sometimes this is done on purpose to foster an objective. Sometimes this happens naturally, on accident. Either way, a large contributing factor to this organic growth in how people converse is how the platform itself is built. The structure of the platform is sometimes even a stronger contribution than its marketing. Despite not always being able to predict how people will begin using a platform, by evaluating how individual tools invite interaction from the user, project teams can greatly influence how the conversation is driven between all participants.
When user-generated content was first booming on the web, services like Blogger and Wordpress gained quick popularity. Wordpress was originally advertised as a “personal publishing platform” that had been built as a state-of-the-art service for web developers. Everything about Wordpress was developed to make it as simple as possible for teams to publish professional work onto the web. The language on the site did a great job of letting a viewer know that the service should be treated just as professionally as the print publishers the content creator worked with at the time. But how exactly did the platform’s tools actually follow up on that promise?
Wordpress’s text editor in its early iteration, versus today’s WYSIWYG editor
Wordpress features a — similar to what is commonly referred to today as a WYSIWYG (pronounced whizzy-whig) — rich text editor. This “what you see is what you get” editor gave authors all the options that they would need to create content for their site. By giving creators formatting options that they can see immediately in the editing window, they could write an entire article, and it would appear exactly as it would on their final web page. And that’s exactly what they did.
With no character limit, and the ability to organize articles together by using tags and categories, authors began using Wordpress as one-to-one analog of their everyday writing. Users began creating diaries, written postcards, news articles, critiques and more, just like they would previously have done with printed media. Online blogs became the new outlet for long-form writing, but with all the benefits a digital delivery network provides.
Services like Blogger used the same toolset that Wordpress provided, but shifted the message towards more individual, independent authors. By lessening the focus on a fully developed publishing platform, Blogger was able to foster an environment of faster long-form posts by people who did not write for a living. These sites were the start of the fast-paced social media environment that exists today. As internet and cellular technologies developed, users showed they needed a shorter, faster alternative.
Twitter was released in 2006 as a way for users to send mass text messages to groups of contacts, directly from the web. Blogs asked users to tell the stories of what was happening right then with all of the flourish and length of print. Twitter’s goal was the exact same. And they went so far as to come right out and ask. Every time a user logged in, they would be greeted with a simple prompt of “What are you doing?”
Due to the limits of cellular messaging technology of the time, most providers set a cap on how much information could be shared in a single transfer. The average cap then was around 140 characters per transfer, Twitter’s developers determined. In order to not have to break out a message into multiple transfers, Twitter limited the number of characters a message could include to 140 as well. This meant that users would have to hurry and get to the heart of a message if they only wanted to send a single text.
As internet usage grew, and more people began to use Twitter, they began simply answering the question, “What are you doing?” Not with the intent to organize a meet up with their friends, but just to simply answer the question. With the tight character limit, users began abbreviating as much as they could, to try and say as much as possible within those 140 characters. Acronyms like “bc” (short for “because”) or “idk” (short for “I don’t know.”) and abbreviations like “u” and “ur” became a permanent part of the community’s lexicon. Making sure your post or text had proper grammar and spelling meant taking more time to think about how to structure your message. With time becoming a more prominent priority for digital society, users began sacrificing those perfectly composed thoughts in the favor of tweeting their newest idea to the world as fast as possible. The technological “limitation” meant that speed and back-and-forth communication became an inseparable part of Twitter’s personality.
Twitter picked up on the natural change in the usage of the platform relatively quickly. Now that the platform had grown to focus on instancy and brevity, how could Twitter reinforce that behavior? Whether it was to counter-act the increase of “poor English” as some would describe it, or to encourage the speed, and therefore quantity, that people would tweet, Twitter announced that it would no longer count media like images or video, or hyperlinks to count as part of the 140 character limit. Users no longer had to worry about structuring their message in a way that would get their point across and still convey the crux of their idea.
Twitter also shortened their own messaging, reflecting the now instant, secular community that had been created.
With services like Twitter creating these styles of communication as a by-product of their platform, shouldn’t the inverse be true as well? Just as Twitter drove the delivery of generated content, Facebook changed the conversation with a single prompt: “What’s on your mind?” This text box was essentially the same exact feature as Twitter, but the change in tone created an entirely new style of communication within its user base. Rather than sharing events and ideas to the world, Facebook presented itself as a platform to share information and connect with people in your area.
Starting out as a “Who’s Who” for Harvard University, Facebook’s primary function was to let a student find someone in their university and learn more about that person. Because Facebook was created as an alternative to the printed student “face books” for Harvard’s Greek life, getting information legally on a student would prove to be difficult for a single developer. The solution was to resort to user-generated content. Users would upload their demographics and other personal information into the system which would then be shown to any student who searched for their name.
Facebook spread to other colleges, and eventually to business as well. Even when the platform become completely public, the idea of sharing your personal information with a close-knit group of friends and acquaintances remained. Facebook set out to reinforce that intimate environment by asking users to talk about their day from their own point of view. The phrase “What’s on your mind?” encouraged users to vent their frustrations or their praises just as they would in a diary.
Facebook has and continues to cultivate a personal experience. Interactions on Facebook still revolve around the people you personally know. The company has found ways to encourage those same connections in its current version by adding locally social features. Users can now send out polls, or meet up invites, but they will also get a notification on a friend’s birthday.
These companies got to be as big as they were partly because they saw how the conversation had changed, and they were able to adapt appropriately. Whether retroactively, or from the outset, Wordpress, Twitter, and Facebook have all given tools to their users to support a specific kind of communication. By replicating print media, Wordpress allowed users to easily adapt their writing to the web. By limiting the amount of content created at a time, Twitter helped to speed up the global exchanging of ideas. By only giving users access to the platform from within a niche community, Facebook fostered a very personal means of discussion.
Taking it a step further, these companies have shown that by combining your marketing message with how your service is built, you can maximize the potential success of that service. Use your voice to reinforce the ideas or tools that your service provides. Be mindful of how users will interact with your platform and use that to your advantage, but don’t be surprised if they begin to leverage those tools in a way your team didn’t anticipate. Decide how you want to drive that communication, and make sure you are providing the right means to maintain or change that conversation. Part of any successful platform will always be looking at and evaluating how your users interact within it, and with each other.