Behavior: hard-wired or soft-aware?

Josh Porter has a nice post out this week on the importance of taking user behaviors into account in social experience design. In Behavior First, Design Second, he makes use of an example I often use myself: what if twitter removed the follower count from user profiles?

But I differ with Josh’s reasoning, specifically that some social behavior is hardwired. It may be the case that certain human qualities are enduring attributes of human nature (ack, don’t like that term…). It may be that from the Ten commandments through to the Seven deadly sins, qualities like vanity, jealousy, greed and some number of others are simply human. But if they are, I’m inclined to consider them impulses, inclinations, tendencies — effects but not causes. I like to think that these social qualities are most often reactive, are responses to situations, social context, and social relationships or dynamics.

Josh cites the accumulation of followers on twitter as an example of a tendency to collect. It might be that all humans are inclined to collect; I’m more inclined to think that collecting is a social phenomenon. Be that as it may, collecting is related in my mind to ownership and possession. It’s related also, but in a different way, to numbers and magnitudes. A collection is a number of things and a pile of things. It might be that I like the pile, or that I like the number. It might be that I can show off the collection, or talk about how many… Owning and telling are different in my book.

Collecting, then, isn’t to me the behavioral explanation that Josh puts forward, but is a behavior behind which may be different psychological motives:

  • Some twitter users may collect followers and be happy in their hearts for the number they can count
  • Some may think about being seen having a large number of followers
  • Some may think about their own status in terms of their follower count
  • Some may think about the attention they’re getting from their followers

In other words, counting followers is a design-related behavior in which other motivational and psychological (and psychosocial) factors are implicated:

  • status is derived from number of followers
  • attention is attributed to number of followers
  • status is projected onto number of followers
  • status is associated with some important followers (not all followers collected are the same!)
  • vanity is reflected in a number of followers

In other words:

  • Collecting can have a social function: expressing or standing for status or position
  • Collecting can have a communicative function: a representation of status to others
  • Collecting can have a personal function: making one feel that there’s an audience that pays attention

and so on…

Collecting is probably not the original or primary cause or motivation behind the follower behaviors seen on twitter. We may count things, but I don’t think that’s grounds to assume that we count people in the same way. Yes, we count the number of people, but that’s not quite the same. The number can represent and signify to others; our motives for signifying are not our motives for collecting.

I think it is probably more likely that the follower phenomenon on twitter can also be explained by means of interaction design. Twitter is a communication tool. Communication, as a system of action or interaction is contingent on the participation of another person. I can tweet, but I cannot do anything to make somebody else respond. This may be the single-most common reason that new users stop using twitter — they simply don’t get anything back. The only type of interaction that does work, independent of any other user’s attention, recognition, response (etc) is following.

I would claim that following provides success. It’s an action that works, an action that can be completed without involving interpersonal or social contingency. It’s an action that to many users may also serve as a friendly gesture (I’m following you!); which may also involve an expectation (follow me back!), and these have little to do with collecting and a lot to do with exploring the sociality of a tool using competencies developed over a lifetime.

In fact one could argue, though it’s a bit of a stretch, that the expectation for reciprocal following (which is the habit of new users) is a social workaround to the asymmetry of relations designed into twitter. That symmetry is preferred, socially speaking, to asymmetry: and an etiquette of reciprocity is the hack that overcomes the design flaw…

I just wanted to comment on this because it is endlessly fascinating. And because I think the motives in social interaction are multiple, escape attribution to a single behavior or practice (eg collecting), and should be understood and unpacked with an eye to the social dynamics of the site or service in question. Social media interactions are a result of social dynamics, and escape explanation by means of the behaviors of individuals only.

We should be talking about this stuff — and I’m glad to see it covered — because the social practices that emerge around mediated communication and interaction are a complex of personal, social, community, and public uses and utilities, values, and actions.

I hope this is taken in the right way. I want to move this kind of thinking along; my disagreements or distinctions are always with respect and, I hope, a shared interest in learning.

From Joshua Porter’s blog:

We don’t just collect attention, of course. We collect lots of things. Most video games are built entirely around the premise of collecting things. The more you collect the higher your score. The more coins that Mario and Luigi collect, the better they do. It’s a causal relationship. We understand when playing these games that collection is the way to achieve success.

As designers we must remember that behavior comes first. Always. The quirky, the obscure, the vain, the annoying, the wonderful. We need to observe human behavior if we are to support it in design. If people collect things, how can we support that? If people are vain…how does that affect the design? Will it kill some interesting behavior…or will it help drive adoption of the service?

So, back to behavior. Some behaviors that drive us nuts are core to the human experience:

We want attention.
We collect things.
We want status.
We are vain.
We make judgments accordingly.

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  • F. Randall Farmer

    “expectation for reciprocal following (which is the habit of new users) is a social workaround to the asymmetry of relations designed into twitter.”

    Do you have numbers to support this conclusion for reciprocal following? This seems like the self-admitted stretch you allude to. :-)

    I've seen endless so-called “twitter rules” lists that recommend it, but I've always thought that these lists contributed to the dilution of the value of a follower (count). And Spammers. Yeah.

    I think you are right about one thing – there's no one motivational model for anything associated with twitter, other than the need to connect. :-)


  • gravity7


    I know only anecdotally that newer twitter users (eg since last fall) have been described as more reciprocating in follower practices. I could dig up numbers, but numbers on twitter trends change all the time. The gist of the point was less the trend, anyways: I thought it was interesting that social practices can develop to work around design/architecture.

    The asymmetry of following has been cited as a contributor to follower behavior on twitter — and might contribute to the kinds of relationships/friendships that form on twitter. The asymmetry of following, however, raises questions of etiquette: is it impolite to not follow back? Does one have an obligation to follow back? I think those who have been using twitter longer may have slightly thicker skins when it comes to social etiquette of friending/following/replying and so on.

    So it seemed interesting that an etiquette of reciprocity could provide a social solution to a technical problem (with social dimensions). Indeed, rituals are precisely that: a coded form of behavior that reduces the personal risk or investment: waves, smiles, nods, and so on are impersonal in order to make it easier for us to to acknowledge one another w/o having to actually say so (what Goffman called “civil inattention”).

  • Larry Irons

    From my point of view there is nothing reciprocal about the mere act of following, especially if done automatically. Auto-following is a media response, not a social response. @replies and retweets qualify as social responses. Personally, I'd like to see the followers/following count removed and a ratio substituted. Maybe its just me, but when someone follows me the first two things I look at to decide about following them are the frequency and type of tweets they produce and their follow ratio.

  • gravity7


    Auto following is a media response — interesting. It's still set up
    by the user, so reflects a choice, if not to reciprocate individuals,
    then to reciprocate generally. You're probably among the majority in
    how you follow or follow back. But I do think that for *some* users,
    following is a communicative act, a gesture, and for some, possibly
    the first move in a “conversation.” Some users will unfollow if their
    follow isn't reciprocated — sometimes within a pretty short period of

    So I can't disregard the possibility that following is a symbolic act,
    and one that means something, and which is better understood as an act
    of communication than as the pressing of a button!

  • Larry Irons


    I understand how you could construe the choice not to follow, or to follow, as a symbolic and communicative act. However, my take on that distinction is that the use of symbolism involved in that choice fits an information network rather than a social network. In twitter, the basic social choice is whether to put yourself on “a public timeline” (as twitter describes it in Settings), not whether to auto-follow. The difference parallels the symbol/sign distinction in semiology. Putting yourself on the public timeline is a meaningful social act, a sign of openness to communicating with strangers, not just a symbolic act. Of course, the choice to then allow auto-following makes one more or less open to interaction with those same parties (who knows if they are real people?) and the symbols they use. The thinking is a bit sloppy but hopefully you see the train of thought, no pun intended.



  • Joshua Porter

    I'm not sure I follow your rebuttal of my claim that some behavior (social or otherwise) is hardwired. Have you met someone who has never collected anything? Who has never been vain? Who has never wanted status? Who has never wanted attention?

    You could claim they are merely social constructs, that someone without society would not have them…but then how would we go and test that? :)