- November
Posted By : Adrian Chan
Lunch for good, food for thought

A post by friend Chiah Hwu today has reminded me of a topic that was on my mind recently. That being both the subtext and explicit goal of a series of well-catered, guested, and hosted lunches organized by the name of LunchforGood. Assembled by Chris Heuer and Myles Weissleder and made possible by Lunch.com‘s J.R. Johnson, the lunch series kept attendees well-fed in exchange for food for thought. The connecting thread, as drawn out by Chiah: better use of social technologies in support of conversation. And not just any conversation: good conversation, conversation for good.

This set me off in several directions and on more than one occasion I concluded that there will never be a social technology capable of steering conversation among participants to desired outcomes. That the basis for understanding and agreement between people has little if anything to do with the media and tools by which those people communicate with each other. In short, that the problem is simply orthogonal to the proposed solution.

I agree with Chiah that technologies do not solve social problems. They solve technical problems. And to frame a social problem in technical terms is likely a misguided approach leading to misdirected outcomes.

So on the tendency of social media to propagate good and goodness, I side with the skeptics. There is nothing intrinsically good or bad in social tools. And just as they are value neutral in themselves, it would be hard to make the claim that as tools they can bridge social gaps and misunderstandings. (Note that I mean “as tools” — their uses can of course have impacts on culture, society, education, politics, economics, etc.)

But their use, well that’s different.

Two points then come up around use of the social tool as tool for good. First, might there be uses of social tools that favor, if not directly produce, social good? And second, on what basis does good form: common identity or resolvable difference?

On the first point: Is is possible that social tools might be designed to facilitate constructive social processes (interaction, communication, commitments, trust, etc) as their social outcomes? (Differences in opinion around What counts as Good notwithstanding.)

And on the second point: Is it possible that common ground (what we have often called affinity) is a less interesting social attribute than differences of kind and degree?

If, in other words, commonality often takes the form of “I agree,” and difference takes the form of “I disagree,” which might engender the more rich and interesting conversation?

IF participants agree that Global Warming is bad, on what basis are they agreeing? Does this make them alike? Being alike, would they like each other? Is that the idea of commonality and affinity? For if it is, we can surely do better than to tag them all up, assign them a group name, and sell t-shirts emblazoned with “me too” and “follow me!”

Commonality based on shared identity comes at the price of individual differences. The issue, it seems to me, is less that we are different and more that we do not appreciate and understand the nature of our differences.

I, for one, think that a tool designed to tease out close differences would likely lead to far more interesting interactions than one designed to cement shared identities.

The problem raised over the course of the LunchforGood gatherings was, at some level, How do we improve social media so that we can all find what we have in common and get along better? But commonalities, whether as shared traits, passions, hobbies, beliefs, activities, record collections — these do not provide a basis on which to extend the commonality. Commonalities in common are no guarantee of shared identity, shared affection, or harmony.

Shared attributes and qualities do not create a simple and smooth social unity and peace. Conflict and difference are not properties of identities and attributes — they are a dynamic. They happen in context, during an event perhaps or due to a change in situation. And when differences erupt, it is not commonalities that resolve them but a shared commitment to constructive outcomes.

Conflict and peace are a matter of interaction and communication: they’re a process. Shared interests are found through communication. Cooperation develops them. Conflict, when it erupts, is handled by means of interactions (brinkmanship is a classic type of interaction). Interactions are the way in which participants agree on a common course of action, by which they arrive at agreement on what to do if not why.

Interaction takes time, it involves turns, it is a process and is iterated. Now those all seem well within the purview of social media and social tools.

But getting there will take some creative thinking and design. And will take interaction models that can validate and capture far more than the overlapping interests of strangers on the line. (Commitment, for example, easily escapes the online environment. As can and do sincerity and honesty.) Interaction models perhaps involving shared resources, sequenced interactions, dependencies and knowledge/information partially revealed/concealed according to levels and commitments of trust earned and verified.

A final thought. Whether this is even a design problem for which there is a design solution is of course debatable. But the real world may offer some examples and references. Interaction dynamics have been found in conflict as well as peace and cooperation… For example, rituals, ceremonies, and less formal pastimes exist, which in their form and structure as social practices bind participants through objects, rules, moves, obligations (etc) to a shared course of action.

There may be many hidden dynamics and practices out there. We have perhaps only scratched at the surface of what social tools can be good at. And in many ways we cannot know what is possible, for that depends on practices and designs yet to be invented.


  • not lots of time, but I wanted to respond in part

    first, while I generally agree that tools are neutral in regards to moral value or equivalents, I disagree with your feeling that social technology can not solve for the problem of enabling people to find more common ground. Specifically, this became clear to me in the reporting from Diann Bisgeier you can see in this video from the last lunch for good http://vimeo.com/7827783 By specifically surfacing some information and not displaying others. For instance, would everyone be so concerned about how many followers you have on twitter were it not the first thing they display in your profile? Not only can the design and application of social tools change our social interactions, it can change how we think about the context of our social interaction and changes what we value from those interactions. Similar sorts of insights can be drawn from people's behaviour with Spymaster and Foursquare.

    While there is a great deal of richness in your post that I cherish, this feels like we may be having a way too deep intellectual discussion of a topic that has more to do with emotional resonance then with logic. When I think of common ground, it is often more of a feeling then it is an absolute determined by one fact or another. It is a sense that we can be generally looking out onto the world with enough of a similar perspective that I dont perceive you as 'the other' or adopt an 'us vs. them' mindset. There is not some matter of a this is either a 1 or a 0 that will change our polarities and help us get along or not.

    In fact, the best common ground out there is one where we can simply agree we need to treat people with whom we may disagree with respect and civility.

    That said, your skeptical optimism is well placed, and is also a place where we can find common ground with one another. I have heard a lot of people talking a good game, but not enough willing to try it out in the real world. We need more boldness from entrepreneurs like JR Johnson of Lunch.com who are willing to put it all on the line and try something new and different. Thankfully, it seems there are indeed many people willing to step up and try something new, and in the end it is this discussion and the conflicts within it, from which greatness will be born.

  • Chris,

    Thanks for your comment. I completely agree with you that social tools shape our interactions — that's what social interaction design is all about. And that's the point — the mix of features and interactions, their presentation in UI, and how the balance and weighting and emphasis of features and functionality will affect social practices — all contribute to shaping the direction in which community, participation, communication etc develop. I think we can do better than what we currently see in “best practices.” And unfortunately, I think many commonly used features devolve into lowest common denominator interactions and practices. So that's where I think system design is interesting.

    On the more philosophical side, I'm not convinced that common ground guarantees consensus. I think processes can also contribute to this. Whether common ground is the starting point, or the outcome, for example, is itself an open question. Negotiators and mediators go through this all the time, using an untold number of ways to reach positive outcomes.

    The lunch.com sessions were great — and point to the importance of the design of online environments in which interactions and communication might be steered towards new and enlightening kinds of experiences.


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