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
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.