Paradoxes of social media: Twitter, Facebook, and status culture

All social media work only because we use them. And thus it’s a given that the social technologies that attract and get the most use tell us something about what works: from a technical standpoint as well as from a cultural standpoint. The “status culture” that now exists around use of twitter, facebook’s status updates, and a myriad of related tools for talk clearly shows us where the action is. And in social media, it’s all about activity. Activity now occurs not only through the use of these tools, but in tracking, monitoring, measuring, and otherwise attending to the activity served by these tools.

Those of us in the business of social media, because we are ourselves users, share an interest not only in using the tools but in knowing what makes them useful. It’s our profession to know more than our own experience of the tools, and to understand how others use them, what for, and why. If we are forward-looking, we want to be able to speak intelligently about how these tools can be improved, about how they can be co-opted, assimilated to other uses, extended, and of course what might come next. But the very fact that each of us is a user can easily distort our understanding, insofar as what we get out of a tool is only one user’s perspective. We would like to be able to talk about social media objectively. But there is a difficulty in that: we lack an established framework, and good research is hard to come by.

Conventional software design has a framework. It is based on the utility of software and its use. Use of non-social software has value to the user that can be grasped as “use value.” Users use software for the value of its uses: hence the value of utility. Software that does stuff. And what simplifies the design frameworks (user interface design, interaction design, user experience design) is that utility can be framed with a reasonable degree of objectivity. Success and failure of software can then be designed for, and evaluated, on the basis of the software’s ability to meet expectations of user needs and objectives. In short, use and utility go hand in hand: use validates uitility, utiliity is the primary reason for use.

But in social media, the social interaction designer’s challenge is a different one. Each of us has uses for social media, and they vary greatly. They may vary in terms of habits of use, expectations of use, distracted uses, strategic uses, and so on. Each of us has our own subjective experience of social media — and taken together they do not produce an objective description, but rather a myriad of unique perspectives. Objectivity and objective descriptions of software in the social media domain simply don’t exist, for the reason that they are tools used for subjective reasons, satisfying individual interests, and according to each user’s personal and interpersonal competencies. Social utility, if there were such a thing, would offer a false promise, were we to set it as a design and experience goal. Use of social software is not utilitarian. We have to accept that in social media, use is not measured in terms of utility. What then, is it? And how do we, as professionals, estimate even the most simple questions addressed to social media: what is it, what is it used for, who uses it, and why? For if we can’t answer these questions, we would have to admit to ourselves that there are no design principles for social media, that in all likelihood its evolution is uncontrollable and chaotic, that successes are impossible to predict, and that users simply do what they want with them in ways that are impossible to anticipate or predict. Not a good basis for design and engineering professionals — let alone the markets hungry to uncork the power of social media!

We can take on the first question, What is it? by dismissing the question outright. Yes, social media are technologies, are tools, are applications, sites, and so on — they exist materially in the real world, and have features that function and structure experience. But they are not objective events — the social interactions and personal uses that animate them subjectivize them.
Social media are not objective media, but subjective media. Used by subjects to interact with other subjects, they are best thought of as verbs, not as nouns. So the question is moot: “What is it” is a noun phrase — a misaligned and misguided question in matters of social activity.

Better would be to ask What do people do with it? That focuses the question on activities and uses. Social media involve users in socio-technical practices, that is, doings that are possible only by means of a technology. They are not doing what the technology does, but are using the technology for what they want to do. Hence the awkward but more accurate term “socio-technical” practices. If we rephrase the question Who uses it? we are even better aligned. For we are now focused on the user of the technology.

User centricity founds the social interaction designer’s perspective, as it does the conventional software design. But in social media design, we know that nothing happens without a community of users. So we extend user centricity to the social, and to the social practices that emerge when many users use a social media application. Now we’re getting to the heart of the matter. For good social media require that many different users, each an individual with unique interests and expectations, social competencies, “share” some common experience that is rewarding enough that they continue to do so. Nobody forces us to use social media — each and every user is an interested user.

But is every user interested in the technology? Not really. And this raises a common misunderstanding among those who fund, develop, and run social media. Users by definition use a tool for their own reasons. And these may vary greatly from the reasons the funders and builders created the technology. In answer to the question Who owns social media, it’s clearly the users who own it. They may not own the application, but they own their experience.

We now face a bit of a conundrum. If the technology is a real and functioning “thing,” but its functionality and use lies in subjective experiences, where does a social interaction designer even begin to formalize the design constraints and feature specs of social media? If architecture is not materials, mass, volume, and space but is people coming and going, what’s the design language? What does it talk about, and what can it say?

Social interaction design needs to take one more step away from the technology, away from hard definitions and into the soft of software. The “you” and “I” need to be restored to UI. More, even, for the user interface, really, is better thought of as a social interface.

Which brings us back finally to where we started. This time, however, more properly attuned to the matters at hand. Status culture, or the set of practices that have emerged around social media designed for short-form messaging, micro-blogging, and feeds of personal news and activities, involves new forms of talk. As new forms of talk, the uses of twitter and other feed-based applications engender new ways of communication, new formats of communication, and new experiences of communication. In social terms, talk and communication serve purposes of activity, of reaching understanding, of coordinating actions, of maintaining relationships.

These social media represent new personal experiences of new ways of being social. The tools enable users to contribute and participate for their own reasons — and produce, at the other end, a record of user-created content. Individual uses and habits, and experiences, are de-coupled from the byproduct, which can again be used by others (searched, quoted, linked to, embedded, and so on). This de-coupling of the act from the product, of the talking from content, and of social “performance” from the social artifacts left behind, defines the tools’ essential functionality.

But how, if the use of social media involves a fundamental de-coupling and dis-embedding of talk and communication from the product and content of talk and communication, is this a design-able experience? How, if tools limit and constrain the experiences they enable, do we accommodate the fact that the uses of the tool are limited also by social practices? Can social interactions be engineered? Can talk be structured? How would a social interaction designer go about “improving” the user experience?

To demonstrate just how strange this problem can be for the social media designer, let’s take Twitter as an example. The tool was conceived of as a means of passing sms messages to the web. it has become something completely different (though it retains its 140 character limit — a hard technical constraint that has become an arbitrary stylistic necessity of writing on twitter). Twitter features a couple of unusual, and strictly defined, design “flaws.” But these flaws are essential to its appeal. First, the river of tweets each of us sees includes our own tweets among those of — not those we’re tweeting to — but those we’re listening to. Thus each of use sees an illusion: there is no conversation occurring between us and those whose tweets we see. The users who are listening to us are not the ones we see around our own tweets. A more accurate view would require two panels — one, our own tweets and those following us; the other, those we’re following.

This design sleight of hand creates a false impression and illusion — of being listened to, or of being in conversation with, the wrong audience. it works on facebook, because status updates are pulled from the same audience we update to. There is only one audience on Facebook: your friends. But on twitter there are two. And this is the second design “flaw” that engendered rapid adoption. One could appear to be popular, by follower count, simply by following people. The unilateral and asymmetrical relationships that define twitter’s audience aggregation method, like its river presentation, creates an illusion of visibility and relevance. An entire industry exists to measure not the content of what twitter users say, but the envelope of their activity and the impression of their social relevance.

My point is not to denigrate twitter or twitter culture, but to illustrate that in social media, dysfunctional design can be socially functional. If the individual user can make sense of the application’s design, and if these experiences scale, social practices can take hold that can make a social media tool successful (from that perspective — to say nothing of business models).

Twitter offers up further examples for social media designers. Twitter’s simplicity and lack of structure stands out. For a tool as stripped-down as it is, a remarkable amount of culture has grown out of Twitter. This, even, in spite of the fact that so many people continue to say “I don’t get it.” There are applications out there that people don’t like, or that they think are a waste of time. But there are few about which so many have claimed that they don’t see the point. This may or may not suggest a serious challenge for twitter in the months ahead ā€” if it turns out that many users are simply trying out what they’ve heard everyone talking about; and if this combination of novelty and churn results in social noise and spammy misuses. Nevertheless, there is a lesson for social interaction design in Twitter’s simplicity: the fewer the design constraints, the more uses and users.

Restraint in design itself, reflected in a tendency to “under design” the interface, the user experience, and interactions, opens up and sustains a greater number of possible uses. Furthermore, the less designed a social media application is, the more types of users will find uses for it. This is an architectural lesson. For while architecture delimits and constrains human experience in order to enable and facilitate some (desired, intended) experiences, it by the same token excludes and eliminates others. Twitter’s open approach to interface, experience and interaction design shifts the burden of framing the experience from application design to social practice. Where architecture is open, social practices absorb and form the constraints on experience and interaction. Social experiences need “framing” to achieve the consistency required if they are to be sustained. Twitter shows us that social practices will fill in when design does not.

If this constitutes a principle of social interaction design, it has a serious consequence. The more open and un-structured the design, the more open and flexible the user experiences and uses. We have mentioned that social media work by framing experience and engendering social practices. But the wider the range of individual experiences on the way in, the greater the chance of noise and rubbish on the way out. The user motive for Twitter may be described as “Whenever I feel like it.” If that describes when the user uses Twitter, the benefit gained by a tool that can be used anytime, anywhere, for whatever reason is mitigated by the challenge in getting more out of the aggregation of uses. Content produced on a “whenever, whatever” application may tend towards the lowest common denominator, and may want for the connectivity, continuity, and sustained threads that characterize higher quality conversation. Furthermore, the asymmetry that exists between creating and consuming in all social media is never higher than when a user can use the tool for whatever reason, whenever s/he wants. Tighter and more structured tools may limit their own appeal, but gain from a sense of common purpose and commonality of experience.

There is much more to cover yet, but we’ll take a break before this post becomes so long that it kills its own audience. In the next installment we will take a look at forms of talk, and lay out some basic laws of talk-oriented social media. These will include user centricity, social practices, communication, and mediation. And we will raise some design challenges created by the implication that for social media, social practices bear the burden of framing the experience.

Note: This blog post belongs to a series on “status culture.” The posts examine status updates, facebook activity feeds, news feeds, twitter, microblogging, lifestreaming, and other social media applications and features belonging to conversation media. My approach will be user-centric as always, and tackle usability and social experience issues (human factors, interaction design, interface design) at the heart of social interaction design. But we will also use anthropology, sociology, psychology, communication and media theories. Perhaps even some film theory.
The converational trend in social networking sites and applications suggests that web 2.0 is rapidly developing into a social web that embraces talk (post IM, chat, and email) in front of new kinds of publics and peer groups. User generated content supplied to search engines is increasingly produced conversationally. Social media analytics tools provide PR and social media marketing with means to track and monitor conversations. Brands are interested in joining the conversation feeds, through influencers as well as their own twitter presence.
This changing landscape not only raises interesting issues for developers and applications (such as the many twitter third party apps), but for social practices emerging around them. So we will look also at design principles for conversation-based apps, cultural and social trends, marketing trends, and other examples of new forms of talk online.
These blog posts will vary in tenor, from quick reflections on experiences to more in-depth approaches to design methodology for conversational social media.

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  • galah3

    Our research group is going to use social media with a community to share and learn about bushfires…that would be utilitarian wouldn't it?

    wonder if we might discuss how your social interaction design primer ideas mesh with learning about disaster preparation in a smallish comunity