The designer’s influence: social media and the user experience

There’s been an interesting conversation underway on IxDA about design and influence. The original post on Johnnyholland also has a few tasty comments. My own take on issue of whether or not designers should be concerned with the ethics of their ability to influence users is, simply, no. But from the perspective of social intraction design, the conversation of design and its influence on users takes an interesting turn. Here’s some of what came up today. My comment is in response to Dave Malouf’s comment. I thought this might be worth blogging. Is this a cheap way to put up a blog post or another example of email surfacing interesting exchanges? Yes.

For context, Dave’s comment, which raises the interesting question of how influence in social media:
“Now, the real question in my mind is to discuss, theorize, etc. HOW to do influence. What about perception and cognition and emotion can we work? What cultural strategies are most effective.
i.e. in social networking design, and social collaboration design there are a ton of means of getting people to be more contributor oriented. This is designing to increase activity.
or in e-commerce models, how do we get more people to hit that final “submit”?
or in health care how do we get people to take better care of themselves, for clinicians to make less mistakes, etc.?” — Dave Malouf

My response
Why are contributors contributing? Perhaps because they have a sense of the common good, and as motivates many wikipedians, they want to maintain accuracy and breadth of open-sourced knowledge. Or perhaps they’re “contributing” to twitter because they’ve got an enormous ego and no sense of self restraint.

Clearly the term “contribute” loses its meaning very quickly when we get into social media, as nearly everything said or submitted is a contribution: social bookmarking, retweeting, blogging, commenting…

How does one “design” the social — that’s what interests me, and in particular, what kinds of social interactions, individual, interpersonal, social, and public, can be codified? What concepts do we need if we’re to go from explaining a single user interaction on social media to the social dynamics of two or more users? Clearly the interactions are users with users, not users with software — but we cant just use real world social interactions as our models. Mediation strips away face, body, and affect; it removes synchrony of time. Etc etc.. There’s plenty more…

So the question of influence is a very good one. It’s probably not an ethical one, because “we” don’t control the user, his/her perceptions, interests, choices, motives, or his/her experience. Personally i think “framing” may be a viable way to approach the issue of designing the social, as it shifts emphasis from “design” to “perspective”, and in social interaction design it’s mostly about shaping these nuanced social meanings and negotiations, not functions (as with so much product design or interface design — and that’s not to denigrate style, etc).

The matter does seem v interesting if the question is explored not in terms of our responsibilities as designers but in terms of the user experience: what kinds of users choose to retweet an influencer? What kinds of social incentives work with non-competitive users? Are there ways to reduce the bias or distortion that leader boards often produce? Would there be a way to grow a service like twitter without it turning into a popularity contest for so many users? What social incentives do experts respond to, and could a system be designed to appeal to experts without attracting promoters?

As the motivation is often the other person, the matter of influencing the user does get interesting… Are there ethics involved if a dating site is designed to keep users hopeful, voyeuristically engaged, addicted to checking for new flirts and message, and highly unlikely to get a real date? Dunno, that’s the business of dating sites, none of which would survive if they did what the claim to do.

We need to bear in mind that most social media, and perhaps a great deal of software in general, operate in failure mode much of the time. Twitter is not conversational. Followers are not friends. Facebook is not social. Many modern social systems are but a disaster waiting to happen. So how do we talk about influence and incentives if in fact much user activity fails to communicate,is ambiguous in its intent,is redundant with contributions elsewhere, goes un-responded to, is out of context…

If so much of social media interaction is actually handling of failure, responding to breakdown, bridging misunderstanding, and otherwise social “error handling,” then perhaps we ought to learn more about what “functional social media” means before worrying that we have too much influence… And i’ll say right now that these errors and failures may in fact be the motor of participation on social media: we’re into breakdowns, ambiguities, ambivalence, conflict, and drama.

–Adrian

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  • larryirons

    Handling exceptions to formal processes through emergent organizational practices is largely what social software is about in the enterprise. As, I believe, Theodore Adorno said once, “Truth arises through misunderstanding.” And, I would add, dialogue makes it possible. I'm not sure it works any differently among social media users in general.

  • http://twitter.com/brynn brynn

    How to design for social influence — great question. (If we actually want to design tools that impart influence, which I'm sure we do in some cases.)

    I've thought about this problem from a slightly different perspective (as a Cognitive Science/HCI student), but have recently proposed a way to look at social networks by 'inhabitedness'. I believe that features, structures, and cultural practices within a site will influence who follows whom, who shares what (and in what ways), etc. At least this may be a start to thinking about this question of “why contributors contribute?”

    I also fully agree that real world models of social influence won't apply online, especially in systems where unidirectional relationships are prevalent (Twitter) or where unidirectional active participation occurs (Facebook).

    Another interesting question is how online social influences carries over to real-world thinking and behaviors. At the same time, these questions are so broad (“how to do influence?”) that they're hard to even think about. It might be good to come up with use types to flesh out some of these issues.

  • http://www.gravity7.com/blog/media/ gravity7

    nobody does aphorisms like adorno. the part he left out was: 'misunderstanding arises through the german language” … ;-)

    i don't think, however, that things work online as they do offline — the crux of my entire project hangs on the social and communication distortions introduced by technical mediation…

  • http://www.gravity7.com/blog/media/ gravity7

    brynn,

    inhabitedness is a great concept, if gangly term ;-) yes, context is all. from my perspective, it's not only user and social practices, but the particular ways in which different kinds of social media shape and inform how we act/interact and communicate. the fact that twitter has changed as it's been adopted by mainstream media, for example, proves that social is not in the design (twitter's UI and features).

    a better place to look for explanations of mainstream media impact on twitter would be system theories of media, the mass media, and observer systems… that there is a system coupling going on as mass media report on twitter, which reports on its own coverage in mass media, which is reported by users, who can now observe celebrities made in the mass media on social media… and so on.

    in terms of user experience, then, the coupling of media may translate into awareness, attention economic motives, social capital, and what psychologists might call “internalizing” the media world and “projecting” the self into it.

    you're right that these are tough issues to think about. i really think it helps to distinguish mediated experiences from “natural” ones. and it helps to think about influence as a relation, not as a thing. nobody “has” influence if there's nobody susceptible to it.

  • larryirons

    I know Adrian, just a little light-heartedness on my part. I do love Minima Moralia though ;-)

  • http://www.gravity7.com/blog/media/ gravity7

    i was reading that when i had my first dream in german — i was on the
    phone with adorno. i still remember the pieces he wrote about jazz,
    classical music, and tv commercials. i think baudrillard in some
    respects picked up where adorno finished, then wrote himself into a
    corner with a cynical kind of dialectical thinking that had not only
    abandoned the subject and his image, but his reflection, also.
    philosophy after the mirror and through the looking glass…

  • http://www.gravity7.com/blog/media/ gravity7

    i was reading that when i had my first dream in german — i was on the
    phone with adorno. i still remember the pieces he wrote about jazz,
    classical music, and tv commercials. i think baudrillard in some
    respects picked up where adorno finished, then wrote himself into a
    corner with a cynical kind of dialectical thinking that had not only
    abandoned the subject and his image, but his reflection, also.
    philosophy after the mirror and through the looking glass…