Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Designing the Situation: social display and social control

If you're one of the two or three people familiar with this blog, you might've noticed my preoccupation with the idea that we're often guided by social display considerations when using social functionality. Now, I'm not saying that we interact with each other only when there's social gain available. Our motivational schedule is incredibly complex and has yet to be adequately deciphered. Rather, the suggestion is that social perception considerations both motivate and constrain our actions to some extent. Basically, the fact that we care what people think when they can see what we do and how we do it impacts our behavior. That's obvious. The interesting question is what this means for design: what do the factors impacting social display – visibility of behavior; presumed "quality" of audience; knowledge of principles of evaluation; and knowledge of appropriate behaviors – mean for social functionality design?

Goffman and social display

Erving Goffman's classic takes on "defining the situation" and "face" more or less provide the popular understanding of social display. When interacting with others, we often negotiate the framing of the situation and the appropriate roles within that frame, hoping to settle on one that's somehow beneficial or preferred. We also strive to maintain beneficial and consistent roles across interactions, presenting a singular, valuable "face". So, from this simplified "Goffmanian" angle, we can say social display is about negotiating and maintaining preferred or valuable definitions and roles in interaction situations.

But a recognized limitation of Goffman's take is that it downplays the "macro" factors impacting interaction, i.e. imposed institutions, norms, etc. That is, it explicitly focuses on individual choice, leaving the factors constraining the choice of definition and role largely implicit or absent. But clearly we don't negotiate from scratch. We negotiate available or appropriate definitions, our choice set limited by imposed institutions, social conventions, and even the larger-scale normative frames embedding this specific negotiation.

Thus, insofar as display is about defining and maintaining a somehow beneficial social image but the means of doing so are bounded by the social/institutional/normative context, "design" of this context of interaction is important. When discussing social functionality, it's essential.

Social Control

Our deep desire for social display – i.e. "defining the situation" and maintaining "face" in Goffman's popular terminology – provides plenty of opportunities for designers. As it relates to social functionality design, display has two parts: expression and feedback. "Expression" names the tools, conventions and mechanisms by which the user acts, while "feedback" identifies the tools others use to express evaluation of the action, impose sanctions, etc. Here we're interested in how feedback constrains or impacts expression, how the expression behavior in social display is impacted by the afforded feedback behavior.

Institutional design is the branch of political science that studies how different sets of constraints and incentives structure and guide behavior in social interactions. These incentives and constraints often result in what we can call social control, the behavioral control arising from social obligations, expectations, norms, and positive/negative social sanctions. Whether we realize it or not, there's an element of "institutional design" in social functionality design: when we design for social interaction, we implicitly or explicitly impose obligations, incentives, sanctions, and many other means of social control. For example, we impose roles (e.g. sender/receiver); prime or engage norms (e.g. reciprocation via "likes"); and often provide sanctioning mechanisms (e.g. voting up / down, liking, commenting, etc.).

You can't design for social display without at least implicitly designing in social control. They're wickedly interdependent; use of expression mechanisms is fundamentally shaped by the behavior afforded by feedback mechanisms. Understanding that they're related and how they interact is key to designing good social functionality. "Operationalizing" these ideas for design, however, requires a good bit of fudging. Adapting (no doubt to their dismay) Geoffrey Brennan and Philip Pettit's work on the "economy of esteem", we can say that there are four major factors impacting social control through display.

Probability of visibility or publicity
The fact that somebody could see what you do, say, post, etc. significantly impacts your behavior. Whether you want to admit it or not, the potential for public scrutiny often changes your behavior, and, up to a limit, the more scrutiny the greater the change in behavior.

"Quality" of observers
Who happens to be the likely observer also impacts behavior. What you're willing to share with your friends on Facebook is often different from what you're willing to share with your colleagues on LinkedIn. Our behavior tends to shift across intended audiences, often depending on more or less informal social categorization schemes, e.g. friends, colleagues, fellow numismatists, etc.

Knowledge of "values" or principles of evaluation
We tend to tailor our behavior to fit presumed standards against which we'll be judged. The criteria of appropriate or estimable behavior varies between your professional blog and your pro-ana support group. Knowledge of the values "held" by the different groups gives you a more or less standard measures of your behavior.

Knowledge of appropriate behaviors
But understanding the principles against which our behavior is judged won't help much if you're new or otherwise clueless. In that case, you just need to know the appropriate behaviors, the actual behavioral norms in line with which you should act. Presumably, these will be reinforced by and consistent with the values. Most value systems, however, are "behaviorally degenerate", that is any number of actual behavioral patterns could "instantiate" the principles. So, knowing the actual behavioral ground rules is important to garnering the esteem (or avoiding the disesteem) promised by the principles, at least until the values undergirding the behavioral norms are somehow understood.

Clearly, designers have an impact on these factors. Design affects the potential visibility of every action, both through feature-level decisions (are user contributions by default publicly viewable or restricted to confirmed contacts?) and through strategic product decisions (is it about broadcast or narrowcast?). Similarly, design impacts audience "quality" insofar as the product may afford topic-based group formation; be focused on a narrow pursuit or interest; or provide light means of contact categorization. Similarly, the product can be "framed" more or less suggestively, automatically bringing to bear salient norms, roles, and corresponding values. Finally, we can design to make appropriate and inappropriate behavior more or less obvious, salient, valuable, and visible via various moderation and promotion mechanisms.

Social control = structural and normative control

So we have four big factors impacting design for social control. But they don't all seem to be the same sort of thing. That is, it seems like we have two different types of factors in our list. The first two – visibility of behavior and "quality" of observers – are pretty straightforwardly about the structure of the interaction space. They're primarily about how widely behavior is seen and by whom. The other two – principles of evaluation and behavioral norms – are fuzzier, properly "normative" factors. They're about what ought to get done or what's appropriate. Thus, I'll call the first two structural control factors and the last two normative control factors.

The relation between them is up for debate, but I prefer to see it as below.

Visibility and quality aren't opposites or poles on a continuum. You can have high membership and absolute visibility of behavior – meaning enormous publicity, which assumes all actions can be seen – yet still allow some sort of audience-quality control – users can expressly target a subgroup as intended audience. So I'll take visibility and quality to define a structural control design space within which you can plot the product. The focus may be on exclusivity – small audience / limited visibility but very high audience quality – or wide-open, general socialization – large audience / high visibility and little audience-quality control – or any combination of the two (although a low-quality, low-visibility product seems really hard to imagine).

But where your product falls in the structural control space suggests different available approaches to normative control. That is, the sort of structural control you want to design for suggests the sort of normative control focus you should pursue. High visibility / large audience but low audience-quality focus (northwest of the center diagonal in the image) suggests you should skew your normative control focus toward the behavioral: e.g. incentives, sanctions, and various invasive moderation techniques. At the other extreme, low visibility / small audience but high audience-quality focus (southeast of the center diagonal) suggests your normative control design should focus on shared principles or already existing "value systems": e.g. domain exclusivity, framing effects, and structural "assortativity" (for example, allowing users to select subgroups as intended audiences). Between these poles lies a tunable design space, the focus in the middle being equal between behavioral and principle-based control.

So… what now?

Too often in my business (UX design) we focus on whatever happens to work without trying to make sense of why it works or how it all might fit together. This model tries to address the important but often neglected fact that behavior is strongly motivated by social display and that the context of interaction impacts the means and quality of social display. If harnessed, the drive for social display can be great for your product, but it can also tear a social space apart if it isn't understood, channeled, ordered, or allowed to mature organically in a space providing the means for bottom-up norm negotiation. This model tries to articulate a way of thinking about design for social display: from where your product plots in the structural control design space, you can figure out the best means of normative control, mapped to more or less well understood patterns and mechanisms. In future posts I may return to this model, provide some case studies and provide more concrete suggestions.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Quora, Norms, and Motivation

"I have managed to find a few interesting discussions on Quora lately, but WOW some people sure know how to spew business bullshit and buzzwords. The ego stroking, ‘look how smart I can write’ is one of the things that ends up turning me off to the network."
Jonathan More's 1/10/11 comment on the post "The Answer to this Quora? No." by Saneel Radia.
For a while now, from afar, I've been watching Quora, the much-discussed, newish Q&A platform. In addition to a mountain of press and glowing endorsements from some fancy people, it has also garnered some strikingly negative reviews. That's to be expected. The hype and bile cycle cranks up every time the next "next big thing" rounds the corner. Many gripes are of the "Google does it better" or "What am I supposed to do with this?" stripe. But seemingly petty reactions like the comment above point to a trickier issue, one about product framing, user motivations, and norms. In a nutshell, Quora is shackled to a norm-embedding "frame", i.e. it's a "Q&A platform". But it's also a social product, so it must provide an implicit dual value proposition – one creator facing and one consumer facing – to generate content consumers may want. Yet, because of the norms embedded in the Q&A frame proscribing self-promotion or overt display, the only legitimate, communicable value proposition is the consumer facing one. Confusing? Let me elaborate. Throughout, I'll use reader comments associated with Saneel Radia's critical post as discussion fodder.

Frames as Norm-embedding Structures
"I keep trying to find some utility but it seems like a place where people either just post questions that are utterly ridiculous or they post questions to demonstrate their “expertise” (i.e. they answer them)… It doesn’t seem to be supporting collaboration or interaction…"
Sara' 1/11/11 comment on Saneel's post
"You hit the nail on the head, Sara. Quora is for the creator, not the consumer."
Saneel's response to Sara's comment
Quora self-describes as "A continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it." Basically, it's billed as an evolving, ever improving Q&A platform in which the best and brightest – initially, but now including the worst and dullest, like me – can ask questions, follow questions, answer questions, and then endorse or promote the answers. Of course, there are also a bunch o' "community" features integrated (and integral) throughout, but that's it in a nutshell.

Sounds simple and it's actually pretty nicely designed, quickly getting you up to speed as regards "official" interactions, functions, and entities. Of course, part of what makes the site's structures, functions and interactions so easy to grasp is the familiarity of the product's framing concept, Questions and Answers. You say "it's a Q&A site, created edited and organized by users" and, as the primary frame is a very conventional interaction structure, we know more or less what to expect.

Framing, in this dumbed down sense of the big, abstract interaction type that structures the product, is an incredibly useful tool that can do a lot of work for you. If properly deployed frames can guide expectations and define roles entering into interactions; constrain or lead actions through processes and flows; and often determine the bounds of appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Relying on familiar, conventional, relatively unambiguous frames offloads a lot of the high level, strategic discovery and design work to the frame itself.

But relying on a frame can lead to problems if you don't understand how they do what they do. Often, frames embed norms, the informal, behavior-guiding rules and simple conventions that we rely on to coordinate and smooth our daily activities and interactions. Norms – mostly social norms but sometimes conventions as well – can be not only descriptive, indicate what most people happen to do, but also prescriptive, indicate what people should do. We humans slip easily, almost inevitably, from the descriptive to the prescriptive – from the fact-based to the evaluative – often feeling that how something happens to be done is how it should be done. Furthermore, norms aren't prescriptive at just the behavioral level, indicating what you should do. They're also often prescriptive at the procedural or motivational level. It's not just what you do that's prescribed and judged, it's also how or why you do it.

Display and the Problem of Motivation

Motivation is a hot topic in our circles, particularly now that everyone is high on that most pernicious and faddish of sub-fields "persuasive design". How do you get folks, for example, to invest time and effort asking and answering questions on your site? How do you softly enforce quality/behavior standards yet open the gates to the largest number of users? How do you trick somebody into signing up for your damn newsletter? Etc….

There are two much discussed types of motivation.

Internal Motivation
Motivation arising out of inherent or intrinsic desires, values, drives, etc.

External Motivation
Motivation arising out of extrinsic considerations or inducements.

Research on these issues is pretty muddled, but seems to indicate that the internal sort is best for, say, learning and maintaining desired behaviors and habits, while the external becomes self-defeating and can crowd out internal motivation in the long run. Other research, however, seems to suggest that, in the real world, the truth is actually a lot more complicated and a motivational cocktail of both types is actually the most effective.

Whatever the case regarding actual motivational efficacy, moralizing the distinction is almost inescapable. We're all pretty biased in our evaluations of perceived motivation, just assuming internal motivation to be somehow better or nobler than external motivation. Consider the case of social interaction. Folks apparently acting from internal dispositions are lauded as "genuine" or "authentic", while those clearly interested in appearances and the esteem of others are branded "fake" or "inauthentic". Maybe this is a normative corollary of social psychology's well documented Fundamental Attribution Bias, the finding that our perceptions of the causes of peoples behavior are significantly biased toward assuming internal as opposed to external (structural or situational) causes.

Anyway, we designers realize (or at least we should if we want to be successful) that a significant real world motivator and quality-driver is Display. We can acquire and accrue social goods – esteem, reputation, and status – from estimable acts (judged by some norm-determined standard) performed in a public context. Display considerations fundamentally impact the quantity and quality of our contributions to social products. And Display is far less about internal than external motivational factors, like how the content, quantity, and quality of your input changes depending on who's likely consuming it and the possible esteem or reputational benefit their consumption might provide. If you were purely internally motivated, it wouldn't matter who was watching, how you'd like them to react/judge you, or what standard they were applying. Your input would always be the same.

Because of our normative bias for the internal, on those rare occasions we do talk about Display it's in passing and with embarrassment. In my opinion, we should drop our proudly naive, exclusive public preference for internal, "authentic" motivations (which is probably an artifact of biases, heuristics, and norms rather than a reflection of true motivational schedules) and embrace the external as a vital tool in our designer's toolbox. But, I certainly don't think that Display is the only motivator here. Rather, as I've written before, there are at least three big, abstract reasons people use social functionality: Connection, Knowledge, and Display.

Explicit Position vs. Afforded Position vs. Enforced Position
"…as much as i dislike it, i can’t fault the strategy: let SV folks self-adulate through display of knowledge, whether real or fake…"
adam on 1/11/11
"The thing that turns me off about Quora is that there seems to be no personality allowed. I answered with a few tongue-in-cheek responses, and found a few of that ilk that I liked, and they were all voted down."
Tinu on 1/11/11
You can think of our three big reasons for engaging with social functionality – Connection, Knowledge, and Display – as the poles of a three-dimensional continuum. Then, if you're really geeky, you can plot (very unscientifically) where items of social functionality fall on the continuum – both functional elements and whole products. Considering the norms embedded in Quora's Q&A frame along with their more or less explicit positioning and teaser line, I'd plot them as below.

Basically, this is the mix of motivators and reasons for engaging with the platform that Quora "explicitly" or officially appeals to. The big circle around the plot indicates that the official message and frame-embedded norms determine more of a range than a coordinate; there's leeway, particularly since product-specific norms are just now arising. They're very skewed toward the Knowledge pole, but with a significant Connection (in this case the explicitly "community" elements) leaning. Their official position is very light on the Display component, although it's implicit in the social aspect. Still, a little bit of Display is allowable so long as the clear point of the activity is Knowledge.

But as some of the quoted comments suggest, perusing Quora you definitely get the sense that a lot of activity is driven either solely or largely by Display. Many people are using Quora as a means of advertising their expertise, interests, sense of humor, and abilities. That's no surprise. The platform clearly "affords" that, and a lot of activity probably depends on it. But, this afforded use case is proscribed by the "official" position and norms. It's clearly the case that a lot of people wouldn't answer at all, except that they can flash their smarts. However, when we think of a Q&A platform, we feel that it should be about Knowledge first and foremost. Display should fall naturally out of quality performance or at least not appear to drive the performance. In this strongly Knowledge-first context, performances perceived to be selfishly Display-focused can make us really uncomfortable or mad (a typical reaction to broken prescriptive norms), even if the content is high quality.

To counter this natural and predictable issue, Quora provides voting up and voting down functionality as well as monitors to actually remove "self-serving" content. This is a good way to guide content quality and pro-sociality, particularly if you're designing within a strong frame. But, it looks like the discomfort of the transgressed no-Display norm associated with the frame is generating a powerful backlash against those perceived to be too Display motivated. Several comments mentioned the strictness and harshness with which some humorous or snarky answers were squashed. The enforcement norms that seem to be emerging appear to be even more anti-Display than the official Quora positioning warrants. Plotting the "afforded" position and the "enforced" position on our continuum gives us something like this.

Clearly, there's a problem here. The product affords activities that the framing and position explicitly proscribe. This happens with every social product, but in this case, the frame is so normatively well defined and understood that transgressions against its accepted norms are glaring and galling. Also, the platform is relatively new and, though there are robust means of sanctioning (vote up and down) and clear identification of high performance, the content is just now reaching the volume where product-specific norms of appropriate presentation form and solidify. The users have yet to coordinate on acceptable means and practices of Display within the normative bounds of the platform. Until these norms become widespread and a "generation" of users have accumulated the norms as product-specific "Cultural Capital" there will still be a largish proportion of brazen self-promoters ticking everyone else off. But, as the norms solidify and spread, they will most likely learn them and cooperate.