Contingencies in Social Media

There’s a concept we don’t use nearly enough in social media, even though it describes what is possibly the single-most important phenomenon of online interaction: contingency. It means, roughly, that one thing is contingent on another. One act is contingent on another. Contingencies are critical because they separate the possible from the probable. All systems are subject to contingencies.

In social media, the most prominent contingency is the response. Communication goes nowhere unless it is picked up, or taken up, either as talk or in some other form of online social interaction. Blogs are linked to, favorited, bookmarked, or commented on. Tweets are replied to, re-tweeted, or solicit a direct message response. Twitterer’s follow, and are followed. Videos are uploaded and then viewed, favorited, added to playlists, commented on, or responded to with a video response.

The value of any user’s action in any kind of social media is always contingent on the act of another user. In some cases just a view is enough, and is still counted by many social media systems.

Contingency is not just specific to social media. Markets have contingencies. Our current credit markets are frozen because of their contingencies: is the counter-party solvent; will the trading partner still be around; are securities worth their rating?

When contingencies go unresolved, either by interacting partners or by the system itself, ambiguities threaten to overwhelm the system and erode its utility and functionality. In twitter, a rise in spammers and dishonest/strategic users increases the ambiguity surrounding Who the user is, and What his/her intentions are. This translates into a certain kind of ambiguity: the identity of the user. Which creates systemic uncertainty, and infuses interaction with risk. (There are two kinds of nteraction on twitter: talking and following, so each one is vulnerable. Do I follow; Do I respond?)

Systems, unlike structures, aren’t stable. They’re dynamic, and they rely on continuous participation/interaction to reproduce themselves. They can endure only as long as they can manage (and their users manage) the contingencies they permit and produce. When the users or participants in a system have to handle these contingencies themselves — when the system fails because its own system constraints are failing — the burden of contingency can kill off the system. Users are required to handle the contingency presented with each transaction individually, where when the system is operating well, those contingencies are handled by the system.

This is the loss of trust problem. The trust that is lost in other users (trading partners, twitterers) corresponds to a loss of trust in the system. Architects of social systems that place a high level of trust in their users need to think carefully about how their system responds to abuse and trust violations. If it cannot correct these at a system level, its own survival becomes a matter of contingency.

The system becomes contingent on the trust invested in it by its users. When this trust begins to erode, system’s operation is threatened.

Contingency is doubly contingent in systems. And it is circular (reciprocal).

Current financial markets are all abuzz with talk about loss of confidence and trust — when systems are growing, their benefits are distributed to participants, who are motivated to keep it going. But when they lose trust in the system, their loss of confidence freezes up the system and a crashing system behaves very differently from a growing system.

it seems that we need to better understand these contingencies. We are heavily invested in open, free, and voluntary interaction systems, and whether for trading, exchange, messaging or other purposes, system architects need to recognize that social system performance will always be constrained by two types of contingency: user-to-user contingencies; and user-to-system contingencies.

Now would be a good time to consider the social interaction controls available to twitter users for improved handling of consequences of system-level failure (problems relating to twitter’s architecture, functions, and UX). If twitter is unable to constrain abuses, its users must be able to better regulate and manage their experience. System transformation, if not crash, is otherwise unavoidable.

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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  • Russell

    Yes, it's an exchange and as such mediated by trust. I guess the big question is does the trust exist between the exchangers or the system of exchange, the currency or the bankers,: i.e., the communicators and the medium – us & Twitter? Or are they all contingent on each other?

  • adrian chan

    Russell,

    It’s a bit of each.

    We invest trust in a system, more the more complex it is. This transfers to other users of the system. This is the crisis hitting world credit and financial markets: trading partners are often at the end of a long chain of intermediaries — a chain too long for trust to be invested by means of degrees of network — and thus “borrowing” from trust placed in the system itself.

    Interactions in systems usually have “symbolic tokens” or currency of some sort. Money is the most common form. But in a very interesting way in social media, communication is now one also. Because it is the form of contribution on twitter.

    Under normal conditions, communication can be trusted (“I take you at your word”) as long as the speaker/listener trust each other. But in mediated communication, there’s no way to trust either the speaker or what s/he says unless the whole communication system supplies that trust.

    So in a strange twist of media, the social currency in twitter is the tweet (speech itself). Communication in the mediated age is a symbolic form of its own! Now, it might be real direct communication. Or it might be insincere, false, and strategic.

    Our trust in twitter is contingent on trust in our currency — tweets. We’ll stop paying and spending in this medium with our attention if it turns out that social capital is corrupt!