Single User Utility In A Social System

The first web 2 style social network we invested in at USV was delicious. We learned a lot from that one even though it was a short investment for us.I still wonder what might have been. But that’s not the subject of this post.

One of the most important lessons we took from delicious was the value of single user utility in social systems. It might seem odd that systems designed to leverage interactions between people can have (should have?) single person utility. But I strongly believe they should.

The first users of delicious were barely aware of and rarely used its social aspects. They just wanted to store their bookmarks in the cloud instead of in their browser. And they liked the tag based classification system. And they liked being able to use their links from any device. That was the single person utility delicious was built on.

But because bookmarks were public by default which resulted in most links being shared with others, a large social system developed. The delicious popular page was an important web destination in its day and most of those visitors never posted a link to delicious. They consumed others’ links.

I was reminded of delicious this week as I used foursquare to plan out a bunch of single day itineraries for our family visit to Tokyo. I use foursquare to do this because it works great on all of our phones, the lists automatically geosort depending on where we are, and because the map view of lists makes a great walking map of a neighborhood or city. This is all single user utility for me (or small group utility for our family).

I was surprised to see folks saving these lists to their foursquare accounts. I can understand why someone might want to save a “best of Tokyo” list but saving our day’s itinerary wasn’t an obvious move to me.

I put together my best of lists on foursquare specifically for others. I put these single day itineraries specifically for me and my family. But big open data rich social platforms are interesting places. One man’s single person utility is another man’s social value.

And, as I have said before, network effects help on the way up and hurt on the way down. If I get great single person utility from your service, it is less likely that I will follow my friends out of it when your service ends its stay on the hype cycle and the iTunes leaderboard.

So I encourage the product teams in our portfolio to think hard about building single person utility into their products. Its a paradox of sorts but by making sure its useful to just one person you are insuring its useful to tens of millions of people.