The Inmates Have Requested Asylum

I spent much of yesterday afternoon listening to podcasts from a conference I wish I had attended: the IA Summit. The podcasts are up on Boxes and Arrows (thank you Chris Baum!) and are well worth a listen. I also found that they looked good in iTunes with the visualizer turned on.

I don’t know that I’m an information architect. I was a web developer for seven years but eschewed acronymic attributions on principle and felt that most of us were making it up as we were going along. The design agencies that billed for process and methodology took the designations most seriously, it seemed, and had the design talent that gave them the right to do so. After the dotcom crash many of those methodologies were shelved, as budgets for web work drew the line item for process out of the picture. The industry was commodifying, rates tumbled, and there were few compelling development projects available to small agencies. For a while many of us developers were working like architects being asked only to paint the exterior of a house. The real building contracts were fewer and farther between.

Then the social web began taking shape, and things got interesting again. I removed my entire web portfolio from my site and hunkered down to think about social software. Fascinated as i have always been with social interaction and communication — in theory and practice — it seemed to me that new opportunities would emerge for what I started to call “social interaction design” (SxD). I was not so allergic to labels after all — as long as they were my own. And i pretty much kept to myself, doing startup work and thinking about a conceptual framework for mediated social interactions.

Listening to IA pods yesterday got me thinking about where we now stand. IA, IxD, UX, separately or together is not so important — the institutional taxonomy and territorial distinctions being beside the point. For I have yet to see an IA drive a social media design or experience. Yet to see an interaction designer lead the team. Yet to see a user experience lead define what a social media application will do or how it will work. From my limited experience in Web 2.0, engineering drives features, marketing drives branding, bizdev drives platform interoperability and open-ness, and web design drives UI, navigation, information architecture. A coffee house, co-working space, or apartment serves as the shop or studio. And process is determined as much by whatever everyone else is doing and launching as it is by internal startup dynamics.

There is no high-level design methodology for social interaction or social media development. IA, IxD, and UX are regarded as a luxury, considered an unnecessary use of funds, and are largely irrelevant and out of the picture. How is it that the very field that should be in front of social media trails it so badly? Why is it that we are still trying to define a tidy set of concepts, for identity, presence, privacy, messaging or what have you, while “web 2.0″ startups are out there making this stuff up as they go? Why, failing the means by which to understand social interactions well enough to anticipate them ahead of time, are we cooking up dishes to throw them at the wall in order to see what sticks? Is agile a design process, or another way of saying “we don’t know what will happen?” Do we not know what will happen because that’s how social media works, or because we don’t know how to look at it?

I don’t have answers for these questions, but I have suspicions. I do think that design organizes and shapes the user experience. i do think that user experiences, together, produce social practices. I do think those social practices are consistent — with the designs that facilitate them as well as with the social themes and activities by which we all “know what we’re doing” and “what’s going on,” socially. Something has been built, that something is constrains and enables, and decisions have been made. But our field, the design of social media, is lacking the language and framework by which to conceptually grasp and reasonably anticipate (if not predict) design outcomes. In their absence, it is funders, technologists, marketers (all due respect, but they have their interests and competencies and they are often not user-centric in nature) and visual designers who are making the decisions that shape what a product is, how it (is supposed to) works, by whom it is enjoyed, and what their enjoyment will leave behind. And in the absence of clear thinking and an understanding of mediated social practices, our next best option is to rely on best practices — which, we know, do not travel well and are frequently lost in translation. (All social media do not need twitter.)

it’s nigh on the hour that we begin to furnish the industry, and ourselves, with a solid set of concepts for the “design” of social interactions. They can be obtained and drawn from insightful and principled works in sociology, psychology, linguistics, communication theory, and symbolic interaction. For the inmates have requested asylum. They’re not in the asylum. We’ve misunderstood the very word “asylum.” it’s not a place that “they” are, but something they want. Design of social media is not containers and spaces, is not identities, mug shots, and IDs. Presence is not roll call and privacy is not just control. People are the content, they’re not the contents. I get the sense that in our predilection for design and our visual-mindedness, we have become too comfortable with spatial architectures and confining spaces. That in our emphasis on the user we have forgotten her experience. We treat users as objects, put them in little boxes, and watch them from the panopticon that has been at the center of any post-industrial prison since the idea of control regimes was first thought up.

Design of social media is not a visual problem, as design should not be a method of control. Design should refer to how we think about social media and social interactions — not something we do in order to design the user’s experience. Design should, in this case, be our discipline and conceptual practices. Design should be what we create in order to anticipate individual and social experiences and interactions — with all of their contingent, dependent, and temporal dynamics intact.

Joshua Porter mentioned, in one of the podcasts, the case of corporate plazas. This oft-cited tale tells of how corporations failed to realize that in their aesthetic self-aggrandizement, they had built plazas and lobbies for themselves that looked good but were barren and bereft of life. William H Whyte, a must-read for anyone doing social, was one of the pioneering researchers to reclaim public spaces for public use and consumption. He proved that we like, and in fact want to be in the midst of, streams of social activity and noise. But he also demonstrated that it was not design, but humans, who negotiate and determine the flow of activity. Subway users in Tokyo, he discovered, could get through a revolving door and to a train in numbers and rates of flow exceeding the theoretical design limits of the door itself.

I worry that unless we catch up quickly, social media will continue down self-reinforcing, and thus increasingly un-imaginitive, cycles of best practices. That we will be left to design corporate plazas. And that we will do so with a taste for the neat and tidy that is our preference as practitioners, but which will only result in lifeless and unsatisfying boxes, and, well, arrows. Imprisoned in the structured containers of thought of our own making. While the inmates, having long left the building, scratch their heads in the yard.

There is so much to learn by thinking outside the box.

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