A recent article on MIT Sloan Management Review sparked my interest. The article listed some lifecycle stages and suggested that people at each stage have different needs for social media. It is a short article, so I had to add some of my own thoughts. Here are some ideas:
Early adolescents are strongly affected by peer pressure and have a need to belong to the in-group. So the design of the social network should make it easy for someone to join a group and look good in the group while making it hard for the group to exclude someone or make them look bad. Since many perceptions at this stage are as much imagined as real, testing should look into whether designs make a teen feel excluded or bad even if no overt action was taken.
Late adolescents have a strong need to find themselves, develop an identity, and perhaps try out some alternatives that might not be popular. So the design of the social network should support experimentation. It should be easy to get information about a group’s story, perhaps through testimonials, group psychographics, and similar information. It should support anonymity so people can try out a group without being trackable by their peers.
Young adults have a need to develop one-to-one relationships, including intimate ones. I am not just referring to on-line dating, but also communicating with a good friend or finding and interacting with a mentor. Other channels could include interacting with a sports partner, a doctor/patient pair, or any number of specialized relationships. The social network should support private one-to-one connections, making it easy to find the person and communicate.
Mid-career adults have a need to feel productive and valued. I would suggest the Community of Practice model that I have published on extensively (Yeah, self-plug. I am a mid-career adult so I need to feel valued J). Use extensive reputation management to make posts, comments, and other contributions more valuable. Use contestification to reward activity. Lurkers (which is often 90% of the users of a CoP) can be supported through anonymity and learning badges.
Later-stage adults (retirees) need a way to reflect backwards. The social network can support a more organized personal portfolio, groups focused on the past, a way to reconnect with old groups or individuals, probably in a more casual and limited way (you may want to know what happened to that old girlfriend, but not THAT much).
Notice that this whole approach suggests that a single time-line that is the same for everyone (this means YOU Facebook) is not particularly helpful for anyone. And it can actually be counterproductive in cases where it is important to make it easy for a member to show content to limited subgroups of their social graph or to protect anonymity.
If you disagree with the lifecycle stages or the basic needs of each group, you can blame Gerald Kane over at Sloan Management Review. For the design ideas, blame me. Comments welcome.