Social Networks Await a Renaissance in Real Applications

Facebook is a good example of a technology seeking its mission critical use case; true, such systems extend the interaction model between people in the online world, but would we all be that much worse off without a Facebook profile? Thousands of almost useless or inconsequential Facebook apps and  extensions only serve to underline this revelation.

But, there is an entirely untapped, mission critical application space that could showcase social media engines: technical service  applications that foster interactions and mutual support among users of complex products ranging from consumer electronics to industrial and professional equipments.

Currently, high-end durable goods  enthusiasts  (take motor sports for example) use  typical text-based user forums to communicate with one another; this has been a great boon for folks like me, (a scooter enthusiast), who can post technical issues and observations among my forum members. The kind of forums that I frequent allows for a (fairly inelegant) posting of images, links, etc. There is also the typical conversation threading, some have tags, etc. This is where the depth of information and interactivity stop.

So much more could be done through a Facebook paradigm. Users of technical equipment, whether HD video technicians or motorcyclists, could potentially avail themselves of a much deeper, richer, and interactive collaborative experience.

What would such an add-on Facebook app look like for a motor sports enthusiast interaction model? Well, I’ll throw some things off the cuff without even thinking it through, and  towards the end of this article, I will try and  extrapolate the  lesson for more mission critical technical product support services that might make use of these social media engines.

So now, how would social networks improve  the sophisticated, technical product owner’s lot? Speaking for myself, (the owner of an expensive Italian Maxi Scooter), I can say that the free user forums that I belong to are better than nothing, and that the folks that install and maintain the forum are performing yeoman’s duty. But we enthusiasts need a richer model:

  1. Making issues manifest:

    It seems that the number one use of user forums is to surface issues and quirks that often come as part and parcel of technical, sophisticated products, be they motorcycles or computers. Forum threading by topic seems like a very clumsy way to survey the collective thoughts of a user base.

    Dozens of times, I have seen users ask, “where was the post on fuel injection, stalling, etc”, and just as often, some helpful person responds, “use the search feature”. The problem is, I have often used the forum search features in vain….latter, a smart power user will forward me a saved link, a saved search query, and I see why my search was not  fruitful.

    Social networks, somehow, give me the hope that hot issues can be tied together and brought out of the  darkness where forum searches have left us somewhat wanting. How this will be done through the API’s of the various networks will be a fun and fascinating study.

  2. Showing where you’re at and where you are going

    Every product relationship, especially those involving expensive and complex toys, creates a usage time line that is not always centered around failures or issues of redress. Very often, issues of the learning curve, customizations and accessory installations, and novelty issues  result.

    While the long-hand method of forum postings have been the norm, these narratives are  tedious to compose, and  the variable quality of the contributor’s writing skills sometimes muddy what might be a really compelling issue.

    There has to be a better way to show the pilgrim’s progress through the ownership cycle – symbologies, tags, photos, videos, etc. But some other, indefinable thing needs to be added to cull the issues into appropriate topics and concomitantly arrange the user interactions into focus.

    Showing the context of what’s happening now, vs. what is old news, is also important. Forums are bad at that sense of time and timeliness.

  3. Documenting of Authoritative Service Issues

    One of the prime problems of user centric interactions, as they are crystallized today in forums, is the documenting and quantification  of customer service technical issues of redress, Very often, a manufacturer will monitor forums and sometimes take note of issues if there is sufficient noise.

    More often than not, the technical representatives of these manufacturers will do nothing but take notes, as counting and weighing the most important issues can be difficult in a text-based forum. Social networks, with their potential ability to connect users by relationship and issue-of-redress, may make it possible to elevate hot topics of concern.

    The third party market that could potentially monetize such a reporting structure is important.

  4. Extending Service Networks and Increasing Diagnostic Reach

    So many technical product support issues can be steered away from factory support, if only the the user was properly guided and informed. The foremost issues of operation, basic troubleshooting, and maintenance are all fair game. Even if the support provided is no more than a centralized document repository, user access figures could be compiled and linked in more interesting and interactive ways.

    Many motor sports products also have the ability to provide embedded diagnostics.  While its a far stretch to think that tomorrow’s  street bikes might someday be connected to distributed, dedicated social networks via a USB cable, we do see an increase in the use of laptop computers for tuning and diagnostics, mostly by the advanced hobbyist.

This is just a taste of how a social networks, perhaps Facebook-like systems, might create a better user interaction experience by enhancing the quality of connections between users, creating better technical support reach and alternate channels of contact, and someday, help all of the invested parties make better sense of the product life cycle.

More to come soon. We haven’t scratched the surface here.