Social context, Facebook Likes, activity and action streams

This post began as a comment on the following post by Adina Levin, but quickly became too long, so I am posting it here instead. Read Adina’s post on social context first (excerpted here).

Where is social context?
In yesterday’s post on the problem with Facebook Like, I wrote that Facebook is trying to be the sole provider of social context. This got me thinking about the various places that social context may be represented in a networked system:

  1. in the object or message (which ActivityStreams helps enable)
  2. in the context where it is created
  3. in the contexts where it is seen and used
  4. in each node of the social graph
  5. in sets of social graph elements
  6. in decentralized elements of the social graph (e.g. aggregated/syndicated profile elements)
  7. shared understanding in participants minds
  8. unshared understandings in participants minds

Facebook’s model is seeking consolidation in two places. By replacing a metadata-rich, standardized, ActivityStream based representation of the message with a proprietary API call, Facebook is foreclosing opportunities for the adding of context in creation and in viewing and utilization (items 1-3 in the list).

By acting as the sole provider of social graph and profile services, Facebook is seeking to own those aspects of context (item 4, 5, and 6 in the list). Is Facebook doing anything to enable the exchange of subsets? (item 5 in the list)


What is context? Is it a matter of where or what or something else?
Interesting post — it raises for me the question: What is context? or perhaps, what is the value of context. I am guessing that context means original context, but that begs the question: What’s the value of preserving original context? And in the question of context is the presupposition that shared context is valuable (shared context or shared understanding) — but that is a normative claim and the post also argues for diversity and difference.

Several kinds of original context then spring to mind: context tied to to original intent; context tied to original audience addressed; context tied to object references; context tied to linguistic references; context tied to original activity or practice; and context tied to social or public in which the content is produced.

Any one of these may arguably supply context, if context is meant to include:

  • what does the author/contributor mean (to be doing, saying?)
  • what does the content mean to communicate (internal references, external references)
  • what is the content’s social status (what social or audience does it tacitly address, and what contribution does it make to what practice within that context)
  • what routine practice does the content refer to or belong to, that might help in understanding its meaning
  • how might one respond (convention, activity, situation, and other kinds of interpretive context external to the content)
  • who is involved (audience context so important today because intended audiences are always involved or presupposed)
  • there are certainly others

On the loss of context
As I’m not a huge fan of the value of content of original production, being rather more interested in creation, production, interpretation (re-contextualization), I don’t mind loss of context as I believe:

  • that there’s no particular normative privilege involved in original intent — the contribution was made online and w some understanding of what this results in!
  • there’s no normative claim in consensus or agreement, or in other words, the original context doesn’t preserve truth or rightness of interpretation; the contribution is made online and thus w an expectation of multiple uses and interpretations
  • neither the intentions of the contributor nor the interpretations of the reader supply “truth” — the online world is a communication space in which contest and commentary are assumed — and therefore context as a supplier of original meanings vs context as a referential system that informs interpretive schema are each valid forms of context

Which leads me to believe that context needs further critical reflection. What about context is so important?

An alternative to context: frames, and communication and action
Systems theory provides one way around this — communication. A difference is a difference that makes a difference. The question, then, for social interaction design, would be: what action is possible, what communication can be made more probable?

I would then (no surprise here) nominate different types of action, activity, and social practices as contextual frames of reference, from local and onscreen user interface selections and actions on up to routinized social practices meaningful only over time and within the shared practice of a number of actors. Both action and communication can be pretty clearly articulated, and neither requires a regression to original context, be that of intent, reference, linguistic claims, or what have you.

I know that this contradicts some of the common assumptions made in system design about context. But I don’t think we developed these paradigms with social action in mind — I think they were conceived to facilitate effective and efficient user interaction with systems of information (applications). Thus the very notion that original context ought to be preserved is a problematic one — it assumes that meanings ought not go astray of originally intended activity.

We assume, often, that this original context belongs to the object — that, too, is problematic, for much of what is going on is not object centric but is embedded in ongoing communication and social practices (actions).

An example: games and rules
Game rules, for example, better supply context to action and interpretation than do objects — and as Wittgenstein showed long ago, such rules are tacit. Frames can refer to other frames — a move may be understood within its application context or by means of its reference to another frame of activity — in this case, the game.

In social gaming, the game itself may be understood by participants as a social pastime in which several members are contesting supremacy, and this in turn may be a social interaction whose consequences are known only to a small group of individuals in which long-standing social contest for status is re-enacted repeatedly by gaming (game within the game).

Thus the entire question of context may be reframed in terms of action and communication, each of which can involve application-specific meanings on up to social and cultural references. Context might then be better understood within the practices that reframe and recontextualize online contributions, thus permitting ongoing action and communication. Social theory doesn’t have a special place for original context, for action supplies its own context.

Practical reflections: activity streams, action streams
Finally, and to get practical for a moment, some thoughts on the matter of and Facebook’s monopoly of distributed social web activities are warranted. Activity streams supports a broader range of activities than does the anti-social Like. The Like is a one-size-fits-all solution to Facebook’s need to venture into social search and socially-contextual advertising and marketing.

Likes eliminate differences of kind and of degree: liking is simple affirmation and association with an item at a minimum, passionate and loyal commitment and dedication at a maximum. But the Like itself neither captures nor represents the degree. And Liking fails to capture nature or kind: does a person Like because s/he identifies with the item, brand, cause, person, etc; own or want to possess it; feel social affinity with the scene or culture it is associated with; mean to gesture or signal activity or engagement (in a game, an offline practice, etc); or what have you.

Activity stream meta data would permit a greater number of updates and qualify them by attributes that supploy more context around the update — which in turn would enable richer and more differentiated interpretations and responses. But these updates, too, are unilateral and monological. Social web updates are a monological system of self-referential declarations. Updates are posted into the open and held open because there is no action possible on them that transforms the update into a move of some kind — a social action.

A transactional system would offer coupling of action updates and closure of activities in which the simple yes/no response essential to social action and communication would be represented within stream updates. A dialogical system would not only solve some of these context problems (not just the where but the what of social context) but would facilitate forms of social networking around messages themselves: distributed or federated, dis- and re-aggregated.

Activity and action streams might not solve the audience context problem, but would permit greater linguistic differentiation of statement types and corresponding responses (invites: accept/decline; offer: accept/decline; news: like/share; purchase: buy/do not buy; and so on). Language itself supplies context, in its grammar and in its role within communication practices.

The fact that so much social web content is treated as information, not as communication, is re-inforced by the loss of context. But could be addressed if we were to standardize the handling of linguistic types and enable reciprocation — or response. The fact that present-day streams now dominate social web activity just seems to beg for this solution of transactionality around coupled messages.

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  • aslevin

    fwiw (!) the post being commented on was not talking about preserving original context or intent.

    The post referred to techniques that use metadata about the message to enable recontextualization for the reader/recipient, as well as metadata about the senders and recipients to faciltate the recontextualization!

    A example of recipient-based recontextualization based on a message might geographical, where incoming messages are highlighted differently depending on the (changing) location or interest of the recipient. It does not matter that the sender is in San Francisco, it matters that the recipient is in San Fransisco or considering San Francisco.

    Another example of recipient-based recontextualization based on metadata about people (nodes in the graph) – a tool to aggregate musical references (works and events) from lists of posters that the recipient has pre-selected.

    Metadata can be supplied by people anywhere in the exchange, and used by recipients in manners different from intended by senders. The examples you give regarding action streams are more good ways to code messages, which can then be acted upon differently by different people in the chain.

    The idea about games and rules, I think, complement the these ideas about coding mesages and nodes at different points, by providing more explanatory suggestions about what people might choose to do or might be observed to do.

  • gravity7

    I like this — and it helps to have these examples. We often talk in sxd/ixd/ux about loss of context, or preserving context, and of course matters of context include creating context also, as you describe here.

    We might differentiate between context of action and intent, as it pertains to what authors/contributors/participants mean to do when they engage in social media; and context as supplied by display, including navigation, links, resources of other kinds, and of course the object context that constrains usability and object-related interactions.

    I wouldn't want us to dispense with questions that relate to what the user intended, as those are important to user experience (is the user just checking in at a cafe on foursquare, or is she indicating that she's up for company?). These questions have to do with social action and communication.

    Meta data relevant to context will include content-related information (maps, geo, places, people), as you describe here. Contextual relevance then touches both on connections between bits of information that are coherent; and actionable connections that permit interaction or communication. The former are easier to delineate; the latter necessarily involve interpersonal, social, and public matters (hence the privacy conundrum around streams and geo, for example).

    We can more easily say that a view provided of a user within a geoloc application supplies relevant context on the basis of the associations and connections it surfaces and renders (chat, placenames, people locations on a map).

    But it's more difficult to determine the best mix of social constraints (eg show friends only on the map, or exclude people buzzing from home, as they probably aren't interested in meeting up, hence their position is not a check in and I don't need to know where they are) and interaction constraints (only show me people on the map who indicated they are available to meetup). Those are matters of social use, which certainly belong as much to context as creating context around display of content and interaction with content.

    Context of action and context of content?

    For example, in the context of action specific to geoloc and checkins (could be geoloc and likes), we might consider three types of user preferences around social interaction: passive, declared, and dynamic preferences.
    –preferences for social interaction obtained by passive data mining (say, user activity on the site over time is low, so therefore we assume the user doesnt want meetup requests on foursquare when checking in)
    –preferences for social interaction provided by declared user interests, eg a checkbox for whether or not user wishes to be notified that friends are within the vicinity; a checkbox for whether user is interested in meeting up when checking in)
    –preferences for social interaction set dynamically, for realtime applications: when checking in, user also sets interest in being socially available.

    These are meta data of different types and provide context to the user's interest in social interaction.

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