SxD: Primary and Secondary Frames

I wrote several times last year about frames and re-framing the approaches to social media design. The concept of frames is borrowed from Erving Goffman’s analysis of face-to-face social interactions. In brief, frames are how we know What’s going on, and consequently, How to proceed. In Goffman’s analysis, frames permit a vast number of opportunities to change and shift What’s going on by means of what he calls keyings, reframings, cues and more. It’s by means of the concept of frames that a comedian can tell a joke about a World War II ace telling a joke about a dogfight involving not a Messershchmitt but a Fokker. Framing explains the fact that I was able to retell that telling as described in a book about telling to you here and now, and you get it.

In thinking about frames, I was compelled first in the fact that frames offer a preferred alternative to conventional interaction design schemas. Frames are a way around the issue of lost context in social media. And can accommodate the greater number of meaning problems involved in both direct communication and symbolically-mediated interaction (use of interface and functional elements to structure interaction).

Frames also allow us to split the interaction schema in two, from one-sided user-software interaction into user-user interaction. A single frame corresponding to the social interaction at hand can now be analyzed from each user’s perspectives of experience. This double-sided interaction model is essential if we are to recognize that the experience is not only different for each user, but is interpreted also. Users interpret the actions of others, and interpret the medium’s role in representing and “designing” the actions of others. Our competencies with use of social media involve not only technical but also “social” competencies.

But last year my thinking around frames was monotheistic. Frames were frames. Now, I’ve long thought that systems theory can contribute to our understanding of social media, for the simple reason that media are systems of production, around which social practices emerge as social systems reproducing themselves incessantly on the basis of individual contributions. Systems theory provides a thinking of dynamics and processes, both of which in my mind trump structure and architecture as approaches to emergent social order over time. Systems, like structures, can be understood for their constraining and enabling features. But systems emphasize feedback loops and can better explain social media outcomes that include bias, ambiguity, noise, scale, and more.

Core to systems theory is the concept of order. Core to the systems theory of media is observation. Media are second order observation systems — they operate by observing “reality’s events.” The reality of media is a second order “reality.” So, then, social media behave similarly, sometimes as a third order observation of second order media, sometimes serving as a second order system for third order observation by mass media. The two systems of media observe one another — this by necessity of the fact that they now use the same technical means of production (the web).

I think there may be a rich conceptual and theoretical, if not also methodological, benefit to combining frames of analysis with second order systems theory (there are different kinds, I use Luhmann). I divide frames into primary frame and secondary frame.

Primary frames correspond to user experience and are how we might accommodate most conventional UI and IxD user-centric concerns and descriptions. They are what the user is doing most proximately and immediately. Motives for user behavior here include the conventional observations of use and intent, as well as need and interest. UI design patterns, application settings, form design, sequencing, and much of the rest of UI designer’s palette is in effect here. Valid usability concerns apply here also, and offer rich and necessary feedback around an application’s efficacy from functional and use-based perspectives.

Secondary frames correspond to multi-user social interaction design interests, and may be justified as a design consideration from the argument of second order systems theory. Social systems mediate interaction and in their design re-present individual and aggregate activity by design: this is second order observation and produces what we think of as the social. Sociality emerges as a combination of mutually reinforcing social dynamics involving use practices, talk practices, social practices, and cultural practices. None of these can be explained or referred directly back to primary frame actions, for all depend on second order intervention of the social tool.

  • Use practices are informed by the tool’s thematic organization of a social field: my use of a tool is socially informed.
  • Talk practices are informed by the tool’s structured (facebook) or open (twitter) organization and representation of talk: including capturing audience, chronological and asynchronous discontinuous temporal ordering of talk, visibility and availability settings, and more.
  • Social practices are informed by use of symbolic languages and media forms (including video, games, etc) by means of which new practices enable rich and innovative second order interactions.
  • Cultural practices emerge as contextually specific games, past times, habits, and more: the same social practice may be used in many cultural forms (Linkedin status updates are not twitter updates — we know this culturally, though the social practice, which is to update an audience, is the same).

Now none of this may be conscious to the user, of course, but my interest is in formalizing a framework for social interaction design that is as good at accounting for social effects and outcomes as it is at describing the needs of interface and application design. Social interaction design needs to furnish social media professionals with observations and explanations, if not also proscriptive guidance, for social outcomes on the basis not of the individual designer’s skill but on a generalizable methodology. This would be easy if the medium in question were objective only, but it’s not. Subjective use, inter-subjective interaction, and second order effects insist not only on the importance of agency (user-centriciity) but also social complexity. This is not film theory, but urban planning.

I hope to expound on this during the course of the coming year. The field is new and its insights un-researched. I would be thrilled to work with those of you more familiar with research methodologies to lead investigations into social media practices. An at the same time, I look forward to working with those of you who are visually inclined to diagram and represent some of these dynamics in generalizable forms. I will continue to develop framework details in the interest of furnishing some observations around which practices, and what outcomes, are not only the best, but promise innovation.

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  • Mark Clayson

    great post! thanks for sharing this brilliant stuff.