The American Society for Information Science and Technology has an in-depth look at user experience in social applications. While probably no one will agree with every point here, they certainly do raise some good questions. At least they've articulated many of the issues.
Their article promises "Five Principles, Five Anti-Patterns and 96 Patterns (in Three Buckets)". It's a long read, but worth it for anyone who has responsibility for - or advocates for - better UX in social media applications.
Here's the first bit - the principles:
Of the myriad principles we've unearthed so far, five cut across the entire experience:
- Pave the Cowpaths
- Talk Like a Person
- Play Well with Others
- Learn from Games
- Respect the Ethical Dimension
Here's some detail on the "Pave the Cowpaths" principle, in this case touching on something I've butted heads against myself:
The second application of Pave the Cowpaths comes later in the lifecycle of your site, when you’ve got a user base and they start doing things you never anticipated. Often the impulse is to stamp out these rogue behaviors and enforce draconian rules requiring only the behaviors you had planned for. This course of action really only makes sense if the behaviors you are trying to stamp out are truly destructive or evil. There are many anecdotes about thriving social sites that killed themselves off by legislating against fun and forcing their users into exile to find the activities they had been improvising “incorrectly” in the site they had to leave.
A better plan is to support the behaviors your users are engaged in. Let your users tell you what the best and highest use of your interface may turn out to be. Don’t be so arrogant as to assume you know everything about how the social dynamics you’ve unleashed need to evolve.
I have this same beef with the owners of an educational site I'm part of - though the issues are better articulated here than in my rants on the subject.
Basically, they insisted on obscuring the ways in which their students could download their video content and watch it while offline, slow it down (it's a music education site), take it on the train, etc. The owners went so far as to delete posts offering tips to other users, and reprimand the posters.
My contention is that you're never going to stop people from doing this (hint: Video Download Helper for Firefox is your friend) - you're just going to make it more difficult for the people who are less technically adept.
Instead of fighting your user base, why not learn from them? Maybe they really are smarter about what you're building than you are - there are certainly more of them, and they use your application more than the owners typically do.
When your customers are coloring outside the lines you have two choices - yell at them for being messy and not following the rules, or re-think where your lines are.
Or, as the quote above says, "Don't be so arrogant."