W3C Workshop on the Future of Social Networking

Authors: Julian Pye, Wolfgang Schuster, Patrick Waters


With the increasing mobility of social network applications, Vodafone is very interested in optimizing enhanced system usability and offering users the best possible experience of social networks with mobile devices.

Many aspects are of interest to us, including topics such as: advanced social graphs; user value and motivation; advanced business models; distinctions between general social networks (personal, career) and segment networks (interest-focused, virtual worlds); filtering (blacklists, whitelists, intelligent filtering); automatic generation and  parsing/processing of activity feeds.

In this paper we would like to focus on the topic of adding context to location: What are the specific differences in how users use social networks on mobile and stationary devices? Consequently, how can the user experience and interface be optimized accordingly on mobile devices?

Adding Context to Location

The current buzzword for mobile applications is ‘location-based’. For most current applications, this means determining location information and offering solutions for users to find information and directions relevant to their current position.

For social networking applications location information is however dependent on the context that location takes on in the personal and social life of the user. If we assume many users using multiple social networks for different purposes (career, personal) with many different contacts (close friends, acquaintances, business contacts which may be local, regional or remote) a mobile device that can enable access to many contacts on many networks should also consider the context and social situation.

Location and temporal context (i.e. what role does the location play at the specific time in the life of the user)

The requirements of users for social network applications will differ in their various social situations. As an example they will demand different types of social interaction depending on when they are in an office/work location during working hours and when they are in public areas running errands or in semi-public areas (friends and venues) during leisure time. The factors here are the roles which the specific locations (office, home, friend’s places, city center, venues) play at various times (commute, working hours, running of errands, family time, leisure time, etc).

Usage dimension in the context of the ‘three screens’

Lean-forward context (extended, in-depth access and participation)

Users will wish to communicate with members from their entire social network;  make the equivalent to the ‘Sunday evening calls’ to remote friends; create declaratory activity feed statements; edit and submit artistic and long-term photos and other media;

Lean-back context (content consumption, ‘living room’ environment)

Users will wish to communicate and participate with a global community of people who share common interests (television series, movies, gaming); create automated activity feeds based on your consumption and interest of culture and popular culture; document achievements on living room platforms such as gaming;

On-the-go context (brief, intuitive access):

Users will wish to communicate with people who live in their vicinity, who they were in contact with the day before and people who they will be in contact with today and tomorrow, they will wish to create immediate activity feeds that express their current emotions which may be volatile and ephemeral, and to submit photos and media as instant, immediate and potentially volatile impressions

Adapting the user experience according to context 

According to the requirements determined by the location and context, the user interface of a mobile device should be adapted accordingly, prioritizing special groups of contact as well as special social functions. As an example during working hours users probably would prefer social network applications to have a career-related focus with business contacts gaining priority and with personal contacts focusing more on the closer and regional circle of friends. Equally, in leisure time work contacts should ‘move to the back’: once you leave your workplace and visit friends, work-related applications and profiles should have lower priority on the user interface. As a further example later on at night, during leisure time users’ activity feed generated should not be broadcasted to their work-relevant circles.

Another aspect is that the usability aspects should accommodate various amounts of contact pools (from small to large) and functionality sets (from limited to rich) in order not to overwhelm novice users and in order to offer all necessary tools to expert users. As an example a novice social networks user with double digit contacts will need different tools and feed filters than someone with triple digit contacts; in order to allow users with small contact pools with little activity to extend their session other types of more standalone applications need to be offered. For users who have crossed the ‘critical mass’ threshold social applications can be offered that make use of large contact pools.

It also will become important for social networks to ‘forget’ content, by ranking content lower in priority or even filtering it out from the public view after a specific expiry period. This may be especially useful for very volatile and ephemeral content and activity feeds. In additionally private content such as recorded content of direct communication (voice, messaging) could be integrated as private content in a user’s ‘life-feed’ and be hidden from sharing by default.


The mobile device is uniquely positioned for social networks as it accompanies users during their entire social and life situations. Once the phone gains awareness regarding the social situation in addition to the pure location information of the user, it can make use of the situation and offer users the optimal usability experience for accessing and using social applications, as well as in aiding them to optimize privacy settings of their own ‘life feed’.

Over time, with context and adaptation that will increase the usability and relevance of the social network experiences, the mobile will provide increased value to these applications beyond fulfilling an immediacy need that the mobile already offers.