The Opacity of Users in Transparent Technologies

Social software and social media sites present an interesting challenge to those of us interested in the user experience. Where the user experience in “conventional” software can be examined according to assumptions we (know how to) make about the user’s goals, needs, and objectives, when it comes to social media we have to think outside the proverbial box.

The conventional view taken up in the world of software draws a straight and unbroken line from the user to the software application. The user’s agency is goal-directed, values success and effectiveness, and engaged in needs-oriented activity (e.g. transferring funds online). But in social software sites, the user uses the “software” to engage with other users.

The user’s activity is an encounter with the world of meanings produced by other users participating in some form of organized, structured, formal or informal “interaction.” At times the user simply reads the contributions of others. At times s/he communicates with those others. At times s/he is in a self-reflective mode, aware of how things reflect on him/herself. At times s/he becomes immersed in an online encounter and is taken up with it.

Each of these variations–and I’ve sketched only a handful–involves a complex set of relationships, real and possible, among known or familiar, present or absent, individual, group, or collective, identified or anonymous participants. Investigating this matrix creates immense and radical challenges to UI, UX, and interaction designers. Psychology, sociology, economics, and anthropology each suggest theoretical approaches worth considering. But few of them can accommodate the medium, the technology itself, without upsetting some of the fundamental positions from which they are argued.

The intervention of a communication and publishing medium and the substitution of interaction tools functioning asynchronously –often through text, image, and sometimes video, but always involving a representation of the user’s presence–requires us to think differently about what users are up to when they head online. These technologies shift ourselves away from ourselves, giving us a screen on which are painted words, statements, links, lists, pictures and whatnot, in place the other (person) him or herself.

If we are to make progress on the user psychology and relation to his experience of social media, we need to accept the basic fact that the “social” in social media is optimistic, perhaps deceptively so. Sure, we encounter others online. We “talk” to them through our blogs and comments. We “collaborate” with them, sharing files, bookmarking and tagging sites, creating photo sets, group blogs, and more. But communication that is mediated neither unfolds like it does when it is face to face–when people take an interest in each other as well as a shared social encounter–nor does interaction move through the rhythms, speeds, or intensities of activity that are possible in a live situation.

A new set of relations is emerging. They are not the obvious ones, those we’ve described until now as organizing activity on social media sites like those that serve dating, career networking, learning, socializing, buying/selling or other themed social practices. This new set involves the self to him or herself. It engages psychological factors like projection, introjection, transference, internalization, externalization, and so on.

It involves relations of number, from the couple to the triad/triangle, to clans, tribes, groups, crowds, and audiences. It might engage in the shifting and circulating economy of attention, of debts and gifts, governed by etiquette or set in a chaotic classroom melee. It can compel a user to an insight of self-realization, or develop into a fascination with an other (user). It might be organized or informed by acts of communication, suggestion, flirtation, admiration, appreciation, and these might become known through blog posts, emails, comments, discussions, messages or other gestural substitutes such as those offered as icons at many social software sites. And there are many more possibilities.

But they all engage a relation of self with self, and involve an impression of the other that is founded on the other’s own attempt to present/express him or herself. All of this culminates in an enormously-varied experience of developing awareness of the other and of oneself at the same time, sometimes as a reflection off the other, sometimes as a projection of one’s interpretation of the other. Interpretation and projection, substitution and displacement, talk as conversation and as its short-form exchanges–all unfold on a ribbon of time itself unreeling through discontinuities, fragments, segments, chains, and aborted episodes that do not come together so much as occur concurrently.

The social world online is a hall of mirrors in which it’s hard to hold an image standing still, let alone in motion. More on this in the next few weeks.

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