Social Networks: Color by numbers or connect the dots?

I’m knee deep in research about online community, interaction tools, wireless communication and technology, social networks, you name it. Through all the theories, methodologies, and other design approaches I’ve found, one thing stands out. And I don’t know if it points out a fundamental misconception of the transactional character of human relations.

There is in the various design theories, whether they’re influenced by motivation and intentionality theories, agency theory, activity theory, cognitive science, rational actor modeling, social network mapping, even instructional design and learning theory, a tendency to *VIEW* relations, that is describe them structurally. That’s to drop time out of the picture (you cannot draw time). Even many of those methodologies most interested in relations (social networking theories) map relations between people without indicating directionality. Lines are drawn between actors without any indication of tendency.

Not only do we need to bring temporality (and not incremental time, but lived time, or duration) back into our analysis; we need to understand and model the fact that in human relations, we are always in motion: towards or away from; identifying with or differentiating from; becoming close or losing one another.

This is in part because all human interaction involves a double contingency — we account for the Other. That other, be it a real “object” or “virtual object” (your lover or your mother) has been left out of the vast majority of the literature I’m reading on communication technologies and their design.

Whether or not we agree with rational actor modeling, that is, regardless of where we stand on agency being rationally motivated, the social context is far more dynamic than rational actor models recognize. If we’re going to successfully grasp the mechanics of interaction technologies, we must do more than map object-oriented design thinking (user, goals, needs, transparency, feedback, yes/no, etc.) to social relations. The double contingency (A’s action anticipates effect on B) undoes the clarity and structural causality of the standard interaction design approach.

More on this later…

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