Who’s motivating your users?

Alfred Hitchcock used to say that he never made a “Whodunnit” movie. His movies were “For whom was it done?” In fact a lot of his movies begin with the crime. In some, the victim of the crime turns out to be the criminal himself.

In all of Hitchcock’s films, we the audience witness some aspect of the crime. And because Hitchcock was a master of camerawork, and used his camera to let the audience in as a witness, we’re usually in on something that one or more characters don’t know. Jimmy Stewart’s neighbor leaving his apartment in Rear Window, as Jimmy reaches for something he has dropped. The killer’s shadow on the shower curtain in Psycho. A vertiginous zoom in on Kim Novack’s curled hair — an audience reveal that winds up the plot’s second, and formal spiral in the mystery Vertigo.

Hitchcock’s films were as riveting as they were not only for his splendid choices in casting his lead actress, but for his singular talent at subordinating characters to formal puzzles and logics. He is credited as being the first to involve the audience in solving, or “creating,” the film. He was notorious, too, for glossing over his actors’ needs and for attending instead to the visual narration of the particular puzzle at hand. It mattered more to him the direction in which his actors were looking than capturing their motivation.

Hitchcock knew that a mystery thriller could become endlessly suspenseful if actions were not simply as they appeared, but were instead motivated by another, for another, or on behalf of another. This allowed him to continuously shift the “guilt” and “suspicion” from character to character. We in the audience had the job of figuring out who was who, and who was who to whom.

The solution to the puzzle, and to the crime, always came out when relationships among the characters could be resolved.

Action is more interesting when it is a matter of interpersonal motive and relationship, rather than the accomplishment of the task itself completed by the action. It’s a pity there are few good imitators of Hitchcock. (Although there are some; and social films like Crash, Amor es Perros, Red, White, Blue, Babel, and others in which relationships form out of coincidence and chance in a way capture the state of social fragmentation endemic to contemporary society.)

We in social media can learn from Hitchcock. We can learn to ask not “What did the user do” but “For whom was it done.” Was it done for his/her own self-image and repute? Was it done for the attention of another? To solicit reciprocal interest of another? To gain notice by a group, club, or circle of peers? To obtain status in front of an audience, or to receive the validation of peers?

I wonder what kinds of social media Hitchcock would design, if he were in our industry. How might he use his “camera” to show the audience something that was off screen to the actors involved in a situation or social interaction. What kinds of relationships he might put people in if he were designing social games. And how he might reveal clues and thread his plot points. Whether the audience might be involved in passing that thread through the warp and woof of a networked social fabric. And how interesting and engaging some of his creations would be, designed not around Who said something but For whom was it said?

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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  • Ming Yeow

    Good stuff! I am not a hitchcock fan, but this certainly made me think. =)