The Elements of Social Architecture
Issue № 279

The Elements of Social Architecture

We are pleased to present a shortened and edited excerpt from the second edition of Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web. – Ed.

Article Continues Below

Published in 1977, Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, contains the collective wisdom of world cultures on centuries of building human housing. It had a resounding effect not only on architecture and urban planning, but also on software design. In it, Alexander and his co-authors explored 253 architectural design patterns. For example:

203. Child Caves#section2

Conflict: Children love to be in tiny, cave-like places.

Resolution: Wherever children play, around the house, in the neighborhood, in schools, make small “caves” for them. Tuck these caves away in natural leftover spaces, under stairs, under kitchen counters. Keep the ceiling heights low—2 feet 6 inches to 4 feet—and the entrance tiny.

Every pattern explores ways of designing space to meet human needs and promote happiness. It doesn’t take great imagination to apply these architectural principles to information architecture—taking them out of the real world and into the digital world.

Humans can behave in surprising ways when you bring them together. In an information space, a human’s needs are simple and his behavior straightforward. Find. Read. Save. But once you get a bunch of humans together, communicating and collaborating, you can observe both the madness and the wisdom of crowds. Digg, an online news service in which the top stories are selected by reader votes, is as likely to select an insightful political commentary as it is an illegal crack for a piece of software as their top story. This unpredictability makes architecting social spaces the most challenging work a designer can take on.

While your designs can never control people, they can encourage good behavior and discourage bad behavior. The psychologist Kurt Lewin developed an equation that explains why people do the crazy things they do. Lewin asserts that behavior is a function of a person and his environment: B=f(P,E). You can’t change a person’s nature, but you can design the environment he moves around in. Let’s explore some of Alexander’s patterns I’ve observed in my work and the design work of my fellow practitioners.


Conflict: Who can you trust online?

Resolution: Give each user an identity, and then allow him to customize it as he sees fit. The identity allows the user to express his personality, and is typically accessed and protected via a unique log-in. Participation is rewarded by enhanced reputation and the ability to collect items in the system (bookmarks, history, relationships, and so on).

Identity is the bedrock of social architecture. In the brilliant essay “A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy,”  Clay Shirky writes:

If you were going to build a piece of social software to support large and long-lived groups, what would you design for? The first thing you would design for is handles the user can invest in.

Elements of identity#section4

To allow your user to successfully create an identity, you need to provide ways for users to reveal themselves online.  Four elements of online identity are:


A profile is a collection of information about the user, typically including a short biography and contextually appropriate facts. Orkut, Google’s foray into social networks, collects and displays gender and marital state prominently. LinkedIn, a business networking site, doesn’t touch any of these bits of information, focusing instead on job history, skill set, and education.

Orkut user profile

Orkut user profile.

LinkedIn user profile

LinkedIn user profile.


One thing any inviting and vibrant community needs is a sense of life. Presence is a way for a user to express themself and populate the online space. Presence can be a status,  history of activity, or location.


On a website, your reputation is equal to the sum of all your past actions on the site, good or bad, where the community defines “good” and “bad.” Since human memory is fallible, and of course, new members or visitors don’t always know the history, reputation systems are built into web software to track behavior and how the community judges it. Amazon’s “Top 500 Reviewer” or eBay’s “Top Seller” designations are great examples of reputation systems.


Conflict: On a web site with thousands or millions of people, how do you make sure you can keep track of the people you care about?

Resolution: Create ways for people to identify, connect, and organize the people they care about, as well as the information those people produce. The complexity of relationship classification depends on how your customers will use your web site.

Relationships are always present in communities. Online, site software manifests and categorizes relationships according to the community’s needs. It can be simple, such as Twitter’s flat following mode. Twitter is based on the concept that people broadcast to others and subscribe to others’ broadcasts as they would to a magazine. The Twitter system design doesn’t recognize that mutual following might be a proxy for friendship. The entirety of the relationship is, “I’m interested.”

Following on Twitter

Following on Twitter.

Offering more choices to define the nature of relationships allows the user greater control, but introduces complexity. Flickr offers categories for “friends,” “family,” and “contacts,” which the user applies as they see fit—including marking as friends people who are really family and as family those who are really friends.

When your Flickr contacts grow to 100, “friends” becomes a useful tool to watch some people a little more closely, because your friends appear in the center of your homepage. Additionally, you set viewing permissions based on these distinctions. For example, a college student might show his most intimate photos only to a list of close friends labeled family. He may label actual family members as friends or contacts. Each label has a built-in set of assumptions that may or may not apply to the user’s needs. But having clarity on who sees what, no matter their label, is useful.

Flickr friends and family

Flickr friends and family.

Elements of relationships#section9

Relationships on the web are just as important as relationships in real life. Three key elements of relationships are:


Give your users a way to classify the humans in their life. It can be as simple as just saying, “I know him,” or “I don’t know him,” or as complex as saying, “We were college roommates, but we haven’t spoken in ten years.”


Groups are another relationship structure, based on shared interests or experiences rather than personal connection. They include alumni groups, work groups, and professional organizations.


While walking into a biker bar wearing a Yamaha tee shirt might get you killed, wandering into a Star Wars forum and saying, “George Lucas ripped off Joseph Campbell, and he didn’t even do it well!” will generate 500 flames an hour. We call those who violate norms “trolls,” and it’s best to prepare for them. Create rules for behavior and consequences for violating the rules such as a time-out or a ban.


Conflict: If there’s nothing to do on a site, then it doesn’t matter if all your friends are there or not. The site has no more interest than an address book, and it won’t get affection or traffic.

Resolution: Create activities that are useful to individuals but are much improved by group participation.

The third major pattern in social software is community activity. This is just like being a party planner: you’ve brought people together, now what? Happily, humans have things they like to do together, and if you get them in the same spot and give them even rudimentary tools, they’ll start talking, sharing, and collaborating.

On 43 things, people share secrets and dreams, and support each other in their shared goals

Shared goals on 43 things.

Elements of activity#section14

The more things your users can do on your site, the more time and energy they’ll spend there. Some elements of activity are:


Gift giving is a primitive human behavior—it binds us. When one person gives something to another, there’s gratitude, and a desire to reciprocate. In online community settings, where the nature of the medium ensures you retain a copy of any files you give to someone else, gift giving becomes sharing. Sharing gathers people of like interests, and allows for an exchange of ideas. As the community tightens, sharing permits exchanging dreams, hopes, secrets, and fears.


Conversations and communication—that’s the heart and soul of a community. No matter how much software we build, people build the relationships, and they build them out of words first. If you don’t have a place for people to put their words, community devolves into viewership.


Social software was envisioned as a tool to allow work groups to collaborate. While the “social” part may have swept the web, there are still plenty of tools that focus on allowing smaller groups to get things done.

Architecture for Humans#section18

Humans are complex, and the web is dynamic. Many more innovations and patterns of excellence will be defined. Yet human contact and interaction is not new. From A Pattern Language:

36. Degrees of publicness#section19

Conflict: People are different, and the way they want to place their houses in a neighbourhood is one of the most basic kinds of difference.

Resolution: Make a clear distinction between three kinds of homes: those on quiet backwaters, those on busy streets, and those that are more or less in-between. Make sure that those on quiet backwaters are on twisting paths, and that these houses are themselves physically secluded; make sure that the more public houses are on busy streets with many people passing by all day long and that the houses themselves are exposed to the passers-by. The in-between houses may then be located on the paths halfway between the other two. Give every neighborhood about an equal number of these three kinds of homes.

This pattern decribes the design of a town, but can be applied to social network design. Facebook was initially lambasted over what has become its most popular feature: the news feed. The news feed is the equivalent of the town square where you can see what’s going on with everybody and chat about it. Some people want to live on the town square, so they don’t miss a thing. Others like to live at the edges of town, away from prying eyes and overwhelming updates. Social architecture’s ongoing challenge is to find intelligent and subtle ways of allowing people to choose degrees of publicness (including shelter from other people’s publicness).

If we remember the social in social architecture, we can continue to make new products that delight people as well as change their lives.

About the Author

Christina Wodtke

Christina Wodtke teaches dreamers how to make change happen. She speaks everywhere from conferences to universities to boardrooms and opines across the internet, but is found most often on or Boxes and Arrows. She's rumored to be writing a book, but procrastinates on twitter under the name cwodtke.

23 Reader Comments

  1. This stuff is interesting. I watched a movie called ZeitGeist Addendum, and it talks about social architecture. I really think the most important part about all this new-fangled social media is the fact that a new form of monetization will emerge, and our society’s media sector will transform.

  2. I can’t decide whether it’s good or bad that this sounds like the Facebook feature list! That’s not a criticism of the article (in case it sounds like one). I’!ve just spent a lot of time recently thinking about the way different social networking apps appeal to different people, and it always comes back to Facebook! More specifically, the fact that its success seems to come down to a ‘Jack-of-all-Trades’ approach – offering non-portable, cut-down versions of services like Flickr, Twitter, etc.

    People familiar with the web (probably including everyone here) are happy to go out of their way for the advantages of these more open services. But my old college mates, distant family, and whatever are more likely to sign up to one service that does everything adequately.

    I just find all this interesting to look at in the context of the article’s ‘main streets and backwaters’ metaphor. Although I’d like to share my Tweets and Flickr content with everyone I know, I have to ask them to ‘travel’ right out of their way. And often, that just isn’t happening. A centralised identity would obviously help here – being able to use an OpenID (for example) to accumulate reputation between services and make signing up to a new service quick and simple. In a small way, this idea has been taken on by the current generation of games consoles – using a single profile to collect ‘acheivements’ and maintain a single identity between all games, as well as giving external access to that data through APIs and the like.

    Anyway, thank you for a thought-provoking extract. I’ll definitely be picking up the book very soon.

    bq. I really think the most important part about all this new-fangled social media is the fact that a new form of monetization will emerge, and our society’s media sector will transform.

    Well, I think that is something that happened years ago. Also not sure what you mean by a _new_ form of monetization – looked very much like the old sort! Get people in one place, looking in direction, and then put ads there 🙂

  3. The psychology behind the dynamics of social architecture are fascinating. I think its vitally important to understand how social interactions happen offline, to better understand how online social behavior lives, breaths and dies. Understanding the interaction points will help us design better websites from the side of the consumer, and also increase conversion rate for the business by giving the consumer what they want.

  4. A nice summary for the major points for social architecture. But it is difficult in such a short article to fulfill every single brick, which is important for the complete house.
    You article comes right to “Webciety”, which is spotlight of this years cebit.

  5. I think this is an oustanding article and I’ll even take things one step further.

    When designing social sites I think it is vitally important that there be a consistent architect, whether that is a person or a “voice”.

    There is nothing worse for first time tourists than a city with 30 different areas, all constructed independantly of one another.

    To translate that to the online world (specifically design), a rule that applies on one area of your site should also apply on another area. People come to rely on the tools you initially give them as structure and an orientation mechanism. Even if you think a separate page of your site should be able to have different rules catered just to that page, one must keep in mind the entire user experience, and the behaviour those users are expecting.

  6. Great and very useful article. I think the social architecture and the psychology behind is ver interesting. I introduced myself in the world of the social networks for a quite long time already and this article does a very close overview. I have a project called and it’s a vertical social network site of cinema (in spanish). When i started the project i was very inmature in this “social world” and didn’t have in mind some of the basic points that this article exposed. But the project evolved, as i evolved with him, specially with articles like this one. I still have a lot of work trying to lead this project to the correct path, but that’s the beauty of it i guess.

    (sorry for my bad english)

  7. There is so much of psychology and dynamics sytudy at play behind social architecture. The social architecture is prompts the users to bring out their personalities in the online world without even them realizing that they are revaling too much of themselves. Good social architecture can go a long way in making the web a safer place!

  8. This article is so interesting to ponder. Where will we be in just a few short years? We’re having so much fun watching the social media landscape change while we play in the Cloud Computing space. Keep writing…please, and we’ll keep architechting!

  9. As Andri Farr had said, “Get people in one place, looking in direction, and then put ads there”

    It is basically what most Web 2.0 entrepreneur aim for.

    To clarify Web 2.0, it is bringing people together, and having those people generate content for you.

    This is one of the “core” concept to “The Elements of Social Architecture”.

    It as if we were Car engineers.

    And to quote Chris Meeks take on the element: “People come to rely on the tools you initially give them as structure and an orientation mechanism.”

    Not only do we give them a tool, we give them a environment, a isolated place where anyone can reach and have one common interest.


    “Bring People together with a common interest, give them something that is in common with them, and see what happens”

  10. I was excited to find this. Inspired by Doug Schuler’s work on a pattern language for communication (, I recently started gathering notes and thoughts for a social web pattern language. It’s great to see that someone’s already done some of this work. It would be worthwhile to create an open project around it, similar to Schuler’s ( but focused on the social web.

  11. Thanks for sharing this information. The psychological impact of a website and how the appeal can vary so greatly between users is very interesting. I have built a social networking site that is quickly approaching 1,000 members. Some of the stuff you mention here, I have done correctly — but there are a few things I could add that I believe may encourage more growth.

    Thanks for giving me some new ideas and pointing out some of the seemingly small things that will make a huge difference.

  12. I really love this article. I was reading How Buildings Learn and was so surprised to see how the insights was applicable for web design. I think this article deserves a sequel 🙂

  13. I really like the idea of Web 2.0. The fact that users can help contribute to the content of a website is one of the very best things that has happened to the Internet, in my opinion.

  14. This is an interesting article, with I feel one important flaw.

    In the introductory paragraphs Ms.Wodtke says, “While your designs can never control people, they can encourage good behavior and discourage bad behavior”

    However nothing in the article and nothing in these comments that discuss the ethics and social responsibilities of those that set up social sites.

    Take for example, the ongoing controversy about what Facebook thinks it can do with information that people post on their pages.

    There is the question of copyright. It is ironic that when there is a great hoo-ha about downloading music from the net and the infringement of copyright law that this implies, the owners of Facebook believe that what you put up on the site belongs to THEM to do with whatever they wish. And it is not just Facebook, you will, for instance, find a clause expressing a similar view in the terms of use of Gmail.

    Are we to trust “social achitects” because they know what is best for us ? Or are they like bankers, a race apart who know best and reap the rewards, looking down on the common herd – who pay ?

    I think this concern needs to be addressed precisely because much of the information that is gleaned from social networking sites is used to perfect the algorithms used in the manipulation of information and, by inference the people that access it.

  15. Hey Christina,

    haven’t read the book yet, but it seems pretty good, so I just added it to my wish-list 😉
    anyway, sometime ago, I’ve presented at Web2Expo Berlin a presentation on social design patterns, the idea was to identify and categorize design patterns that aid or foster social interactions and see what consequences each and everyone of them has in the community where it’s deployed, reading this excerpt I couldn’t help by feeling that these are somehow complementary to that study so I just leave here the address for that presentation:

    Anyway, thank you for sharing 😉

  16. Very interesting. This reminds me of “Designing for the Social Web” by Joshua Porter. A critical part of IA is understanding the user’s needs structure. The analogy is brilliant. Psychology is to architecture what motivation is to web design. Good job!

  17. The best part of the new web 2.0 and the new social architecture is that the user shows what they need.

    We look at what they are talking about. the hot topics and then try to provide them more of it.
    This way the users of the system self regulate what they want and reveal their demands.

  18. Social Architecture – – A term which have been used with increasing frequently is “social architecture,”? particularly in the context of explaining an area of expertise. To some, social architecture is best thought of as a cross between three elements: interface design, social media functionality and user engagement strategy.
    Great article!

  19. The need for effective “social architectures” within organisation is critical if we are too ensure that we develop future leaders, to drive innovation and to create an organisation that has a great legacy. If we examine our leadership, I’m sure we’ll find that meetings are where we do much, if not most, of our leading.

  20. Fantastic article on social media and why it is what it is. I’m not altogether convinced that twitter/facebook/whatever is anything more than a fad as nobody has yet been able to think of a suitable revenue model, maybe this will be what “web 3.0” will fix?

  21. Superb article. Makes one think carefully and brainstorm about what activities one could incorporate on a social networking site, and how to ‘bind’ various communities together.

    I am currently working on a social networking site, and it has given me some food-for-thoughts as well as a host of ideas regarding where to take the site next. Nice.

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