The three-fold view of the social media user experience

Because I have an enormous white paper in the works on this one that I know I won’t complete any time soon, I want to appeal to like-minded social web thinkers on this with a short post. I spent much of the winter drafting a grand theory of social media practices, and when it came to exploring the user experience I spent a couple months trying to observe my own use of social media, and observe others, to see I could intuit core principles. I nearly went nuts doing it. Everything I was doing on facebook for a while I was doing as a self-observing participant, that is, I didn’t allow myself to “get into” it with friends and colleagues but instead tried to dissociate my actions from my agency in order to be able to reflect on my own motivations and inner dialogue.

I don’t know if this has happened to others, but I began developing self-reflexive loops and circuits that accompanied what I was doing. Even silly things like Poke. I wanted to know what Poke was, and what it might be to different people, so I tried being a different user when I poked. Poking to flirt, poking to reply, feeling a poke as an expectation, or as an annoyance, leaving a poke un-repoked to see at what point I felt obliged to poke back, or even to see if I thought my poky friend had noticed that I hadn’t poked back.

I was documenting all of this in order to flesh out a psychologically-oriented framework for the user experience. One that would replace straight ahead user “needs” and “goals”, which work for user-software interaction design, with a self-reflexive set of user interests — better suited for user-software-user, or social interaction design. It seemed to me obvious that user intentions, motives, compulsions, obsessions, fantasies, interactions, expectations, anticipations, preoccupations all played a part in the user engagement. That each user would probably have habits and routines of use that were a direct manifestation of his or her sensitivities in different areas of a) sense of self, self-presentation, and self image; b) perceptions of friends, unfamiliars, and audiences; and c) interpersonal communication, relationship handling, and interaction styles.

In short, it seemed that a rewriting of user experience approaches to social media would require a wholistic and integrated, and deeply psychological, approach.

The work is mostly done, in a frightfully intricate and bejungled draft. But it’s all in the noggin and there for easy access at all times.

I’d like to share a couple inventions that fell upon me through the process of structuring my experience as an observant participant and participating observer.

The first was that the user experience is structured around three axes: self/self image, other, and relationship. This now seems so clear to me that I don’t know why it took so long to see. The user experience of social media is not a direct interaction of user to medium. But rather one that involves the user’s self-understanding of his/her own activity, and in which s/he has ideas about how s/he is, looks, and appears to others. The reason is simple: all social media show the user an image or presentation of him/herself. There’s a doubling, if you will, of the self, because it’s represented.

Then there is the other (user), who’s not “there” in presence, but is represented. So any interaction with another user requires interpretation. You could say that we have to interpret what we each mean to each other, and in conversation, in everyday reality. But it’s different online and we know it. And interpretation is only possible if we know something about the medium and the other person — something requiring what I call “interpretive schemata” and which vary incredibly and are contingent on the site, users, activities, content, and much more.

Then there is the relationship, which is a real unfolding of interaction by means of digital recording/capture and re-presentation. So there are similarly numerous variations in the kinds of interactions handled online, and their meaning to users. What they mean to users is in part a reflection of their relationship tendencies. Any psychologist would support that.

The mental image that came to mind for this was a cool discovery. Software designers talk about transparency — that the software’s functionality and UI should be transparent. Ease of use suggests the goal of transparency (that the UI not get in the way or be something the user has to “think about” while using it). But I decided this isn’t the case with social media. The visualization was that the screen is three screens. Each ties to the three core axes: self, other, and relation. The three screens are mirror, surface, and window.

Users are in a relationship to themselves, through their self-reflection as mirrored by social media (think facebook profile). Or users are engaged, by means of interpretive schemata, with what’s on the screen, as videos, news, search, whatever. And thirdly, users see through the screen, as it provides a direct window onto another user, as in chat, im, email etc (where the “screen UI” really isn’t material to the user activity).

That’s it. Chan’s three-fold view of the social media user experience.

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  • Jerick Thomas