Changing Contexts: developing secondary social networks for a not-quite information-based culture.

As many of you know, I have been developing websites from Mexico and Guatemala for the last year or so. In particular, I have been working on a personal project for a tourist oriented website/social network in my time between gigs. I am lucky to have worked with a variety of now-mentors who are also experts in the field of developing secondary social networks for non-profit organizations and technologists.

I would define a 'secondary social network' to mean a network that is not competing or trying to replace other larger networks like Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn or Meetup or Flickr. In fact, these 'secondary' social networks often will have a strategy to incorporate the other biggies in various ways, in order to better facilitate and utilize the 'information capital' that is being created on those other networks.

A 'not-quite information-based culture' in my mind is one in which internet is widely available, but few citizens (as distinct from tourists) actually own devises on which they can surf the world-wide-web, and even fewer have internet at their houses. I am currently renting a house in Mexico, and developing the pilot website for the town in which I am living. I live in a peri-information culture (as in perimenopause: not quite there, but I can see it coming).

The word on the street is that to build a website that does not tip it's hat in some way to social networking or social network integration is almost not worth the effort, much less the money.

For the purposes of this discussion, online 'social networks' contain these central properties (as defined by a study done at Rice University):

  • Social Networks are User-based. Users modify and create content.
  • They are Interactive. In other words, users can interact with one another using various programs.
  • They enable and are driven by the communities that use them.
  • They enable the building and maintenance of relationships
  • While the content might vary, the connections catered to between users are emotional in nature.

Context: Mexico

In a culture where the majority of people do not have access to internet in their homes or on their own personal computers, the behavior users (ei: the people who you are going to need to in some way mobilize in order for your project to succeed), changes in some key ways that are important to take into account when building websites that are also serving as secondary social networks.

  1. Time spent networking or socializing on a computer is typically reserved for the biggies: Twitter, Facebook and others.

    Folks who do not have home computers or internet access in their homes have to be much more aware of time than the typical computer user in a more information-based culture like the United States, Japan or Europe. For that majority of people, access to the world wide web happens vis a vis internet cafes that typically charge an hourly rate, or through friends/family who have access. In either case, time is limited, and the behavior of a typical user changes to compensate.

    Usage patterns more resemble a frantic running of errands or a checking of fishing lines than they do 'surfing'. As a result, if your implementation strategy necessitates that they 'use' your site regularly, you are bound to either struggle or fail.

  2. Updating is sporadic.

    If there is content on your site that needs to be kept current, a strategy needs to be created for updating that does not rely on the user 'organically' updating their information.

  3. Communication and socializing happens on Facebook/Twitter/Skype or it happens on the street.

    In other words, there has to be a larger imperative for the user to interact with others with your online tool, and that imperative is often financial.

    If your network can help them drive customers (and you can demonstrate that), then the likelihood of participation is higher. Creating tools that satisfy needs other than those of socializing or communicating with friends is imperative because the value you are REALLY adding cannot be that of repeating what Facebook and the other 'biggies' are using if you want to succeed in your endeavor.

  4. When local businesses list their 'websites' the url is often a Facebook page.

    This is a point of leverage if you use it right. What it indicates is that having a presence in the world wide web is still not something that is accessible to people from the standpoint of economics, information, and locally available internet professionals and technicians. What this means is that if you build something that enables them to house a profile (even if you have to hire someone to fill it out for them) you are increasing their web presence significantly.

    If your project enables the user or participant to have a presence on the web that is attractive and user-friendly, and that enables them to showcase their various wares and services, you have often functionally doubled their web-presence.

    But there is a hitch: in addition to enabling the community you are serving to enter their own profiles (which some folks will appreciate), you cannot rely on that as your main strategy. Instead, you will want to hire someone to go around, door to door, with papers to fill out and stickers and business cards, etc, and then transcribe those papers to the site. If you rely on people to self input or self-update, you will invariably be disappointed.

  5. Translations.

    Especially if the site is geared towards westerners (which they often are) take the time to develop and implement a translation strategy of some sort. It is important that the site be translated/able into at least 2 languages - the local language, and English - but preferably more. Google has some translation services, and there are also widgets that have been created to work with Google Translate. Whatever you do, just do it. It's important.

Stabilizing your project by planning for both scenarios equally.

Having a foot in both worlds takes twice the energy, but it's an investment that will pay in the long run.

As access to internet and technology shifts in Mexico, there will be less of a need for both. However, in the interim it is imperative for a multitude of reasons (the most important of which are cultural and important to respect) to integrate virtual tools into the fabric of a peri-information culture by taking it to the streets (literally) in the form of vendors who circulate door to door soliciting interest and profiles and advertising and stickers and even t-shirts, and then other vendors who enter the information into the virtual mind.

In this way the predominantly information-based tourists can tend to virtual in order to find out where they are, while the peri-information based local businesses can (if they wish) exclusively tend to the non-virtual as they love to and have done for a very very long time.