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Designing online social networks: The theories of social groups

Online communities (facilitated by Web 2.0) have become very important over the past few years - not only to niche communities, but now to mainstream brands. Social networking is about human connection and links between people. The reasons why people join groups and social networks are typically that groups can:

  • Provide encouragement and support
  • Establish identity with others and fulfil the need to feel included
  • Provide the outlet for some people to establish their need for recognition, social status, control and/or leadership
  • Alternatively, provide the necessary control over aspects of lives for those who don't want to be leaders (e.g. Weight Watchers)
  • Help establish friends, relationships and the opportunity to interact with others

Historically group membership has served an evolutionary survival function - put simply, there's safety in numbers

There's been much research into group psychology but not so much about how this applies to a marketer trying to monetise an online community or introduce one to their brand. Here are some interesting phenomena about groups designed to help a brand owner capitalise on networks and the social phenomena:

Social comparison

Social comparison theory suggests that we form our own attitudes and behaviours by comparing ourselves with other people and their opinions. Mostly we compare ourselves against people whom we believe we're reasonably similar to.

Facebook8 capitalises on people's drive for social comparison by offering a plethora of applications like the visual bookshelf that lets you see what books your peers are reading and the 'Compare me' application that allows you to find out where you stand relative to your friends for various categories like cutest, sexiest and smartest. This is very similar to the surveys often found in women's magazines - 'How emotionally intelligent are you? Take our quiz to find out!' It's compelling to benchmark ourselves against others to see where we fit in.

Ecommerce sites can capitalise on this by offering 'most popular' products so site visitors can see what others have purchased. Amazon offers 'Customers with similar searches also purchased' which is along the same theme.

Real group feedback is also extremely helpful and often more trusted than 'official' comment. For example LOVEFiLM9 displays the Radio Times film review followed by those from ordinary members. Similarly, the 'Study buddy' application (now discontinued) let students see when their fellow students are studying which allows them to compare themselves and so shape their decisions and behaviours accordingly.

Social learning theory

Social learning theory is a broad theory developed by the psychologist Albert Bandura. The premise is that people learn new attitudes by observing others and noting the consequences of these actions. If those observed are rewarded positively then those observing are more likely to behave in the same way.

Observing others succeed and being able to interact with them is hugely encouraging. Sites that are designed to highlight success and which reward people succeeding set up a strong social learning dynamic. For example, QuitNet.com10, a site for those who want to stop smoking, highlights success stories throughout the site and provides a discussion forum for interaction.

Similarly, Tesco Diets.com11 displays many success stories to reinforce positive behaviours. Ebay distinguishes successful sellers by providing top seller status and Amazon has top reviewers, offering both prestige and status as reward.

Social facilitation

As humans, we perform better when being observed or in groups - this is because we're concerned about our social image and how others perceive us. Sports psychologists have known this for years and it explains why top sports people are often lifted by the crowd to give world record-breaking performances at big events.

Interestingly, the opposite is true for tasks that we find difficult. For example, when being watched better pool players get better, whilst novices get worse (source: ChangingMinds.org12).

This social facilitation phenomenon extends to virtual presence of others too. For online behaviour this means people might strive to lose more weight if connected to a virtual health facility where others can see them, compared to going it alone. Or someone might bid more on an online auction if they know others can see what they're doing.

The virtual presence of feeling watched is enough to positively change behaviours.

Social conformance

Also known as peer pressure, people may change their attitudes and behaviours to match the expectations of their peer group. If they don't agree then they face being ostracised by the group.

Social acceptance is a huge driving force and the threat of rejection from a group is often enough to change people's behaviour. This obviously extends to online groups too. People making inappropriate remarks in an online group discussion would quickly need to change their behaviour or find themselves out in the cold. Social sites should offer group members the option to flag unsuitable content.


When designing online communities or group websites, it's necessary to understand the underlying psychology of human group behaviour. Armed with this knowledge you stand a much better chance of delivering an effective site that supports interaction between users.

Provided you listen to your customers, concentrate on offering a first class service and win people over then you can let the social networking machine work it's magic - namely to broadcast information freely and easily (both positive and negative) about your brand. A friend-to-friend recommendation is the strongest endorsement a company can possibly have.

And, as with any Web 2.0 application, don't rush into creating social networks for the sake of it - get the basics right first. Find out what communities are saying about your brand and engage with your customers.

This article was written by Lisa Halabi. Lisa's crazy about usability - so crazy that she's head of usability at Webcredible, an industry leading user experience consultancy13, helping to make the Internet a better place for everyone. She can often be found developing information architecture14 and is extremely talented at writing for the web3.


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