And the truth (or at least, an attempt at redressing the balance)

How I finally understood the value of “Social”

I’m something of a sceptic of social media at times, as this blog has previously documented. Having built much of the Guardian’s Facebook app, I’ve experienced much of the social giant’s promotional guff surrounding how making your products ‘social’ can impact their success hugely. While the Guardian’s app has been surprisingly successful (pretty much solely down to its social nature) I’ve still doubted that it can work for anyone who isn’t¬†operating at Facebook’s scale.

The last few days have proven me wrong, though, as ever. I’ve been using a cycling app on my phone which a few people had brought up in conversation. It’s called Strava and I was immediately impressed when I downloaded it at just how pretty it was. As an Android user I’m pretty used to its apps looking a little, well, underloved, so it was a pleasant surprise to see Strava’s attractive and well-designed UI. Design praise aside, the way the app works when you’ve been using it to track your bike rides was something of a revelation to me.

It’s pretty simple to use: start it up then shove your phone in your bag and get on with riding your bike. Upon reaching your destination, stop the app, then wait for the upload to complete so the number crunching can begin. Here’s a sample of the kind of thing it gives you when your ride is done:

So far, so straightforward. There are a ton of other apps that provide this kind of functionality.

It was only when I started exploring the UI that I figured out the real benefit of Strava: “segments”. A segment is basically a user-submitted area of a route (whether cycling or running) of a range of lengths, usually covering a specific street or area. One of mine, for example, is the fearsome Blackfriars Bridge (just the bridge itself). You can see a segment highlighted on the graph below:

The segments are shaded green on the elevation chart above, and users can click through on them for more detail on that segment. There’s also a pretty table below listing the ones you covered, and allowing you to submit your own. But wait — there’s more.

Upon clicking a segment, you reach a page detailing the route and its elevation and other details. But – but! – this is where it becomes social. First, at the top, you see a little sidebar with this kind of data:

Here, at-a-glance, we can see the best times (broken down by gender), and my own best time (today, since you ask) alongside it. If we scroll down, though, we get the really fun part:

For this segment, I can now see all the registered members, and their best times for this ride. My own ranking of #14 means I couldn’t quite squeeze into this screenshot, but I’m taking some comfort in knowing that most of the top records have been stuck that way for a year, so they must be pretty tough to beat.

The upshot of this data is that for the first time this morning, I found myself accelerating with effort across the aforementioned Blackfriars Bridge as I mentally pictured a few dozen ‘ghost cyclists’ whizzing past me — the member list of that particular segment. “Must… beat… jds_1981…” I panted to myself as I dodged a few confused tourists. Of course, I didn’t quite make it to the top. But the idea that now I was participating in a bit of friendly competition with other app geeks was quite exciting. I always scoff at the suggestion that developers should “gamify” real life, but the people at Strava have managed to do just that.

As well as these global rankings, Strava also lets you unlock Achievements for beating your own personal bests, if not that darn jds_1981 fellow. While not strictly social, the emphasis on turning something you did anyway into a positive way to track and improve your performance is awesome.

To clarify: I’m not claiming Strava invented these concepts or pioneered their use in the field of sports tracking apps. But for me, this was the first time I’ve really seen it done in such a way that I felt the¬†benefit as an end user. I haven’t added any friends on the app yet, not having too many cycling geek mates, but even the prospects of ranking my rides against other London cyclists is interesting enough, if only to answer my burning confusion over whether I’m an average rider or better (or worse…).

In short: you can keep your bloody Like button. This is what proper social sharing should be like.