Social Navigation

There has bit a lot of recent buzz about social navigation, including some debate about what the phrase means. I dug into the archives and found a paper from the CHI ’94 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems entitled “Running Out of Space: Models of Information Navigation”. In it, Paul Dourish and Matthew Chalmers distinguish between semantic navigation and social navigation:

[semantic navigation offers] the ability to explore and choose perspectives of view based on knowledge of the semantically-structured information.

In social navigation, movement from one item to another is provoked as an artifact of the activity of another or a group of others.

Back in 1994, the Web was only starting to reach a broad audience. The authors cite two examples of social navigation: personal home pages, where people listed sites they found interesting, and collaborative filtering (specifically, the Information Tapestry project at Xerox PARC).

Today, a decade and a half later, the web has scaled by several orders of magnitude, search engines have largely obviated the listing of interesting sites on personal home pages, and collaborative filtering, while still going strong as a social influence on user experience, hardly feels like navigation. It does seem that the term “social navigation” deserves an update.

Following Dourish and Chalmers, let us define social navigation as the ability to explore and choose perspectives of view based on social information. Importantly, social navigation is user-controlled navigation just like semantic navigation–only that the user is navigating by changing the social lens on the information rather than specifying semantic constraints.

One example of social navigation is the ratings information at the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). For example, we can see from the ratings for Live Free or Die Hard that the movie appealed most to males under 18.

Fandango (an Endeca customer) takes this concept a step further, offering users faceted navigation of the space of movie reviews, where facets include age, gender, whether or not the reviewer has children, and whether the reviewer lives near the user.

More sophisticated interfaces will intermingle semantic and social navigation. Here is a screen shot from a prototype some of my colleagues put together and demonstrated at HCIR ’07:

Social navigation, defined as above, offers users more than just the ability to be influenced by other people. It offers users transparency and control over the social lens. It allows us to think outside the black box.

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

6 replies on “Social Navigation”

Interesting. I hadn’t heard the term “social navigation” before, but the first thing that popped into my mind was the “social search” problem that people in various fields (Sociology, Physics, Complexity, Comp Sci.) have been working on.Something I’d like to see someone pick up is the notion of using social networks to route queries to individuals that can answer them. Most of the work I’ve seen suggests that people can do this, but there is still an incentive problem (Why should I forward this query on?) as well as interface problem (How do I pick who to forward this on to?). That’s neither here nor there, I just thought it was interesting that the term brought to mind a different concept.


[…] I encourage you to check out David’s latest project: Freebase Parallax. In it, he does something I’ve never seen outside Endeca (excepting David’s earlier work on a Nested Faceted Browser) he allows you to navigate using the facets of multiple entity types, joining between sets of entities through their relationships. At Endeca, we call this “record relationship navigation”–we presented it at HCIR ‘07, showing an how it can enable social navigation. […]


[…] Exploratory search is another story entirely. For all the work that’s been done on faceted search, it is used almost exclusively to help people narrow search results. Progressive narrowing is great if you have a pre-established information need, but it is not the best interface if you’re hoping to evolve your information need through exploration. Instead of just “help me find what I’m looking for”, I’d also like to see more “help me figure out what I want”. I’d like to see an innovator applying faceted search to broaden queries, not just to narrow them, as well as going beyond collaborative filtering and “related items” to create a compelling browsing experience based on semantic and social navigation. […]


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