Social media’s third law: designing for communication

The third law of social interaction design is that communication is transformed by the medium, which separates what is said from the saying of it. In everyday face-to-face encounters, we say something by speaking.

But in mediated communication, speech is captured and produced only with the help of technology. It is then distributed: as a post, be it text, video, audio, or something else (e.g. virtual worlds, games, etc, which involve a specific kind of communication).

Communication in social media is talk, and social media are “talk technologies.” True, updates are written, but writing is the just the form. This is a particular kind of communication, and we need to unwrap it if we are to understand the social media design issues specific to it.

Our first observation is that the communicative form of the status update is that it is always new. It is neither writing, text, nor literature, in spite of how it is captured and published. It is a form of speaking; for each update is a new update. Even a retweet or pass-along is an act of authorship.

Because it is new, it attracts attention. It is attention-getting because we pay attention to new things, and to news of things new.

Updates are made by individuals. As a form of talk, the status update is some kind of self-narration, some kind of telling, telling to and telling about. It is personal, that is, it comes from the person doing the talking. The person posting the update must be able to reflect on him or herself, think of something that can be said online, and then post it. She or he must have a sense for what is worth saying, for what might get attention, responses, and so on.

All of this might seem obvious, but it is important in that it places status updating squarely within a user-centric framework.

This means, first of all, that talk means something to the person who talks. There is a payoff for the user who does the talking. Seen from a design perspective, the user action is: talking. Now, talking in-and-of-itself is not yet communication. Communication requires at a minimum one more user.

If one user says something and no other user catches it, only one user experience is involved (and it’s a poor one at that). Still, one user talking who believes s/he is being listened to is still one (somewhat) satisfied user.

Communication is a system of statements and responses using language, or some kind of symbolic form. Because it involves people, it involves what’s said and to whom. The statements themselves may be considered the content of communication; the relationship between users can be considered meta-communication.

In face-to-face encounters, meta communication has access to gestures, body language, and more. A lot is accomplished just by looking at and looking back. indeed, a sense of “understanding” is often accomplished not by means of saying things, but by interacting.

We can now make a distinction between interaction and communication, and between saying things with gestures and saying things with words. Here’s where things get interesting. Communication doesn’t produce its own meta contents or meta communication. Meta is possible only by means of observing the communication. In other words, one cannot say something and also say something about what is being said at the same time.

Unless one were to use body language, gestures, or some other non-linguistic means of expression… Which is of course what we do all the time in face-to-face interactions. “Facework” is the work done alongside speaking and saying things — and it gives us wit, sincerity, irony, and all other kinds of layered communication.

Recognizing now that the act of saying things doesn’t say everything we mean, we can see why communicating online may be neither a) the easiest way to make oneself understood nor b) the easiest way to reach an understanding.

Being understood is not the same as being in agreement. The latter assumes the former; but the former may sometimes be good enough. Both of these conditions, however, are complicated by the use of media. Use of the face, and of expressions, tone, and looking/looking back do seem critical to the kind of being together that is involved in a shared understanding.

To summarize where we are, we now can say that communication online is unique because:

  • it is a form of user action
  • it can suffice as user activity even if nobody responds
  • it is only truly communication if another user does respond (or take it up)
  • communication is more than just saying things the medium doesn’t do meta communication well
  • nor does it allow use of facework or gestures, body language, and so on
  • it creates challenges to making oneself understood and to reaching understanding with another person

We are now ready for the next step.

Online communication creates ambiguity. For the reasons mentioned above. Ambiguity in what is said, what is meant, who it is meant for, whether it is understood, whether it is agreed with — we have seen above how each of these kinds of ambiguity can arise strictly because communication is mediated. (There are more, unique to gaming, dating, and other kinds of coded or ritualized communication).

What is the status of ambiguity? Is it all bad? Is ambiguity the absence of meaning? Noise or confusion? Is it the lack of understanding? Not at all. Ambiguity is the engine of communication — it is why communication happens. If we understood each other perfectly and at all times, we wouldn’t need to communicate other than to instruct one another or express ourselves. Ambiguity is that which we seek to resolve, or sustain, when there is more to say.

Ambiguity, while not providing a clear message, signals that more communication is necessary. Communication, on the other hand, indicates what is an appropriate response. But mediated communication is accompanied by the ambiguity of intent, tone, and feeling. Mediated communication actually creates ambiguity.
Is it possible that ambiguity created by social media might be one of the reasons it is a compelling experience? Is it possible that ambiguity can make it sticky? Is it possible that because communication is the simplest way to create ambiguity, and the only way to resolve it, communication is the engine of all user activity on social media?

Let’s consider this, because it could be very important. We have talked about the challenge that online presents to full and rich communication — as a result of what the medium takes away. But what of all that is added by the medium?

We have focused so far on communication as a form of talk. But communication also includes printed and distributed communication — as in “the age of communication.” We have already mentioned that for communication to become interaction it must be taken up by another person. Online communication may reduce the possibilities of reaching an understanding with somebody; but it also increases the possibilities that communication is taken up.

Linking to a person, @replying to a tweet, is taking up their communication (yes, differently, but still). And communicating online provides infinite possibilities of distribution. Face to face communication, on the other hand, is very limited in space and time (barring use of a megaphone).

The fact that online communication requires some form of recording or reproduction, while decreasing the potential for direct understanding, increases the potential for indirect communication. It may not feel as good, but online, one can communicate without talking. And one’s communication can be picked up at any point in time and by anyone who chooses to take it up.

This means that there are two possibilities for understanding the user action of communication: the action of the “speaker,” which is to express; and the action of the “listener,” which is to act on what’s communicated. Two actors who would normally bind in a face-to-face exchange now act separately. Two people are still involved, but not in creating a shared sense of time and presence; rather each acts separately.

The speaker is more aware of what s/he intended; the listener is more aware of what s/he understood. Between the two is a gulf of ambiguity, but it is narrow enough to create both a sense of communication and wide enough to open up the possibilities of what happens next.

As a system, online communication leaves more possibilities open. It is a future-oriented type of communication, aligned to the kind of opportunity that rarely exists in face-to-face interactions. I don’t think we yet understand the significance of this: that the online communication system is a kind of communication for future possibilities much more than any kind of face-to-face communication can be. I don’t think we understand how important time is to social media.

We relate to the future through anticipation and expectation. I suspect, but don’t yet have a theory for it, that social media are a means of organizing ourselves and our relationships in time and in anticipated time — and that much of what drives our use o social media is a “future pull” as much as a “being here.”

(Note: In the interest of space and time, we will cover the corollaries in the next post.)

Related:Paradoxes of social media: Twitter, Facebook, and status culture
Social media’s first law: user centric design
Social media’s second law: it’s a verb, not a noun
Social Interaction Design: Primer

Social Interaction Design Primer II

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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