Users: which is which, and who is who?

Who knows?
On the phone yesterday with friend and colleague John Cass (SNCR), he happened upon an interesting topic. One for social media professionals of all kinds: designers, builders, funders, pundits. The question came up: doesn’t our expertise, built over years of spending time online, qualify us to see what’s really going on with social media? How it works and doesnt?

Or, on the contrary, does one have to be in the target market, amidst the majority of users, to know best what’s going on?

Who knows best — the person with the most experience in the technology, or the person most like the mainstream user? One is old, one is young. The older person may not know what’s most hip, hot, cool, or in. But the young person may not have yet learned things, call them technology’s symptoms or side effects, that the older person has.

I was reminded of a debate that plays out among anthropologists and other cultural academics (those who study human “sciences”). Take a culture, a new, foreign culture. It’s texts, rituals, pastimes. We want to study it, to understand what’s going on, and what these practices mean. But we have a problem: as outsiders we cannot know that our interpretations of the practices are accurate. We are not on the inside; and therefore we don’t know the validity of our observations and interpretations.

It’s called the “hermeneutic circle.” Inside the circle, one knows by right of membership and practice what’s going on. Being on the outside, one can only observe as an outsider.

So cultural anthropologists turned to comparative techniques, and by comparing and contrasting practices across cultures, drafted a set of structural principles and descriptions. The method is simple enough: look not at the content of a ceremony, but its structure. Look not at what’s on the mask, but on which member of the tribe wears it. Look not at the dowry, but at the obligations and debts that flow back to the family that has paid it.

Rules of the game, not the game play itself.

This distinction occurs again in communication theory (especially in pragmatics). Language is not speech. Language is the system in which meanings can be preserved and through which they can be reproduced. Speech is the performance of communication, and uses language as its means of expression.

We are, it is said, unique among creatures in our ability to separate the meaning of statement from the performance of a statement.

What am I getting at? Designers ought to recognize where I’m going. As a designer of social interactions, John and I had to ask, who knows better: the teen who uses Facebook or the old guy who knows social media? The user or the observer? The performer or the structuralist?

Which is more meaningful: how social media is being used, right here and now, by these people. Or how it works, across different applications, regardless of who is using it?

Who knows best? The insider or outsider?

I do not have an answer. Both, I suppose. The user may know this application, or use case, best — but know little of why. (So it goes anyways in cultural anthropology: the member of the group knows what’s happening but doesn’t have a reason — it takes being an outsider to think in terms of reasons). The observer can see the structure, function, and process, but may not be able to play the game.

As many folks know, I come and go with social media for the reason that I have to be in it to be a user — but out of it to reflect more freely on it. As it happens, coming and going is also good protection against burnout.

I recently took time out of twitter to catch up with some sites and services that i hadn’t used in a long time. Built a small dbase to capture notes on screens — in the hopes of writing about the grammar of social interactions.

I had to write this piece to get the question out of my head as well as to raise it among professionals and practitioners. We know that our own experience(s) on social media are neither universal nor common. Most of us have been doing this for a while — and are no longer captivated by novelty of technique, result, or effect. Many of us are (variously) strategic in our uses of social media. We may have reputations to keep, peers to respect, tongues to bite.

So how do we know that we know better or best? Knowing the technology isn’t enough –it all comes down to user experiences in the end. “Technology” is a thing, and social media are not “things” but are actions, interactions, communication, and distribution. One might describe qualities of a thing, features and functions of a thing and entirely miss what it can mean, and how it might help make meaning.

My own personal take on this is that one must first admit to multiple users and kinds of users. Multiple uses and use cases. This might seem to be stating the obvious. But I have heard time and again, from those who should know better, that “social media is ____”. That what it is, is based on that person’s experience.

That said, we have to make observations. Simply knowing the user experience is (if it were possible to know many) still not enough. Knowing what it’s like to drive doesn’t make one an auto maker. Process, function, design, architecture — those things that will ultimately facilitate and help produce an experience for (many) users — these are structural forms and rules necessary to build by. Structures still empty of users are still structures. Structures inhabited lead to habits, in time.

At the end of the day, because there is no one right, global, or universal experience or perspective possible, the professional’s I think comes down to flexibility. An ability to shift perspective, to take perspectives, and to contextualize an application or user audience as clients (etc) demand. It then becomes a matter of changing one’s own mind.

I think the designer’s approach is as much his or her own mental awareness of the problem space and opportunities, of familiar and common forms and actual uses and practices, as it is anything else. This ability to be in, or out; to know how it goes, but also what makes it that way.

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