Thursday, 13 November 2008

Authenticty and The Economy of Esteem

Authenticity was much talked about in marketing circles a couple of years ago. Specifically, in trying to reach a coveted and marketing-wary demographic like young adults you have to appear to be “authentic” in your approach. Your whatsit must “authentically” appeal to them as a spontaneous product of their own milieu and not as a calculated, outsider’s attempt at cynically leveraging their culture against them.

The tricky bit, of course, is that everybody knows that everything for sale is positioned and marketed rather cynically and that “authenticity” as a desirable component of marketing sort of undoes itself. Is this kind of paradoxical? If you design something, particularly a marketing campaign, to be authentic haven’t you automatically rendered it inauthentic? Well, sort of yes and sort of no.

A recent book on the subject apparently claims that “authenticity” is a matter of consumer perception. I take this to mean something like authenticity is the consumer’s perception of the intentions of those producing the item. Particularly the perception that the cynical desire to mimic the target culture for gain wasn’t the (or the primary) motivation in the dingus’s design, presentation, etc. Most marketed things simply aren’t and can’t be authentic in the strict or ideal sense of non-reflective products of their intended demographic’s culture. But they can be more or less successful at giving that impression, effectively hiding their cynical origins.

That seems pretty obvious. What interests me is why hiding cynical origins should matter. Why do we care about authenticity and what is it we’re upset about when faced with inauthenticity?

Too Cool for School

When we see somebody going a little too far in a social situation, trying their damnedest to be cool or funny or drop the right references, slang and posture, we say they’re “trying too hard.” Often this makes us uncomfortable, annoyed, sympathetic and sometimes even angry. Personally, I’m most annoyed by “studied eccentricity,” or over-articulated individuality and forced, awkward public displays of “creativity.” For example, the artsy hipster whose outfits are precisely counter-trend in just the right way and purely on principle. To me, these folks are trying too hard and it makes me uncomfortable. Why?

Well, this situation sort of has the structure of norm compliance from the last post (suggested by a recent article by Learry Gagné, although Jon Elster, Dov Cohen, Georffrey Brennan and Philip Pettit have hit on many of these ideas as well). Keeping it simple, compliers ideally fall into three categories: true believers, esteem seekers and cynics. The incentive to comply is largely based on esteem, belonging and the withholding of both. But the whole thing seems to be governed by what Pierre Bourdieu calls the principle of “disinterestedness” (but Jon Elster hits on a similar idea in his Sour Grapes) If it’s apparent that you’re cynically going after esteem, that you’re complying just so you’ll fit in and be thought well of, then you aren’t likely to get as much of it as if you appeared to be a true believer, that is complying out of commitment to the values invested in the norm.

There tend to be relatively few true believers, yet most people don’t comply cynically just to get esteem. But their compliance can be explained by esteem. Paradoxical? Not really. Esteem seekers don’t comply expressly to get it, but if esteem wasn’t available through compliance, they wouldn’t comply. The availability of esteem is what keeps them complying, but not in the cynical sense that it’s what they’re expressly seeking. Rather esteem is the affective incentive that stabilizes their behavior around a norm. This sets up what Philip Petitt, Geoffrey Brennan and others call the economy of esteem.

Pierre Bourdieu noted that what he called the economy of symbolic goods, effectively the economy of esteem, assumed a “taboo on making things explicit." In a nutshell, the whole economy of esteem crumbles if it’s exposed. That is, true believers as well as esteem seekers and cynics have an incentive to never bring up the pseudo-instrumental nature of the economy of esteem. Realizing, displaying or communicating that it’s an economy, a system for the distribution of some commodity, strikes at its own foundation, i.e. disinterestedness. Esteem is given in proportion to the apparent disinterestedness of compliance. If instrumental interests in compliance are made explicit, Bourdieu’s taboo, the whole thing crumbles and no esteem may be given or accumulated. And as with all taboos, transgression breeds discomfort and chagrin.

The people who try too hard, like the “studied eccentrics” from above, effectively make the whole thing obvious by clumsily attempting to make a bold move in the esteem game. By playing one strategy too obviously – telegraphing the “individuality” hand – they’ve made the whole thing explicit and indirectly transgressed against Bourdieu’s taboo. In effect their bad play reveals the man behind the curtain and it’s sort of annoying; they reveal their probable cynicism and implicate us as fellow players of a game, the playing of which demands that it be taken for reality. Something that presents itself as entirely values based is revealed as partly instrumental and relatively shallow. This is unsettling.

The Inauthentic

Inauthentic marketing, for example, annoys because its cynicism is too obvious. It tries too hard to gain from playing on the tropes, codes and symbols we all use to gain esteem and a sense of belonging or meaning. Basically, it nastily and clumsily caricatures the mechanisms by which we all construct cultural meaning in social situations. The whole economy is rendered explicit and this threatens and implicates us all in a self-wrought but necessary and largely uncynical deception.

So personal authenticity isn’t even “authentic” in the strict or ideal sense (whatever that might mean). Getting back on theme, what we perceive as “authentic” marketing or products don’t try too hard. That is, they never do anything to make the norms, styles and other plays within the cultural economy of esteem explicit. I take it that’s how cynically produced items can be “authentic”; they’re quietly keyed into the playing of the game, not the gaming of the game.

Friday, 7 November 2008

The Case of "Compulsive Disclosure" - Social Functionality and Norms

In the last post, I discussed the idea of “culture” and the norms that constitute it. You can think of norms in two complementary ways: as collectively converged upon mechanisms coordinating our repeated daily interactions and as affectively charged, behavior-reinforcing repositories of shared meaning and values. In this post I want to discuss how social functionality and social media impact our expectations and preferences in interactions, ultimately leading to convergence on new norms. Because it's pretty well entrenched and understood (if passe), I'll use blogging as my main example.

To older people, it’s alarming that younger people tend to be pretty easy and open with their personal information online. One reason may be that there are many more opportunities for sharing information online that are systematically legitimated, as in registration processes, profile development and online forms in general. But this sort of disclosure doesn’t have the “bare your soul” or “edit, please” quality that I’m interested in. What interests me is the use of social functionality to (effectively) broadcast what seem to be the most intimate and/or banal details of your life. A relatively familiar example is the hyper-frank "diary" blog sub-genre. People write these knowing that friends, acquaintances and strangers will read and respond. And both producers and consumers are not typically "outliers" or closet transgressors using anonymity as a means of catharsis. Rather, the vast majority of people sustaining the norm are “regular” folks baring their souls – often sharing what seem to be the most embarrassing, compromising and/or dull details of their lives – and owning up to it.

In face to face interactions or other real world self-presentations we tend to reserve most personal information about ourselves for our closest friends and family. Often, “opening up” is about displaying trust or forcing the hearer to feel as if they are somehow symbolically indebted or "down" with you. Clearly the norms of disclosure and relevance operating in “real life” aren’t the norms observed online. I don’t think this is only because blog posts are relatively anonymous and sort of like publishing, i.e. one-way. At some level, posts are intended to set the tone and define the situation for an ensuing interpersonal interaction in a public forum, albeit a relatively stilted one with no co-presence and formidable latency.

Anyway, under the old norms, the often wrenching (or incredibly dull) self-disclosure we see online would probably create discomfort and confusion as to how to understand the interaction offline. Under the new norm(s), however, it can generate praise, esteem, sympathy and positive normative response on at least some registers. Norms, by definition, carry their standards of value and evaluation with them. What has caused the stabilization of this norm of “compulsive disclosure?”

Nothing Like a Nice Bourdieu

Before looking at the case of compuslive disclosure, I'd like to suggest a mechanism by which an old norm may be nullified and new one developed without necessarily requiring everybody to be "true belivers" in the norm's values. In other words, a mechanism that lets me suggest how the counter-normative behavior of a small group of "outliers" – folks not operating by the norms of disclosure and relevance of the “real” world – can eventually result in the acceptance and stabilization of a new norm.

Following Learry Gagné, I return to Pierre Bourdieu for the mechanism. I’ve discussed this before. Effectively people seek symbolic gain in interactions, but importantly, the terms of that gain are set by the cultural milieu in which they’re operating. In Bourdieu’s terms you often have to use your cultural capital – your knowledge, skills and abilities in understanding and creating domain-appropriate cultural artifacts and situations – to gain symbolic capital – status, prestige, esteem or general recognition by your focal group.

Mechanisms like this create what Philip Petitt and Geoffrey Brennan call the economy of esteem. People engage in behaviors they wouldn't engage in were they not capable of gaining esteem from them. But they don't necessarily comply cynically. Esteem maintains the norm in the sense that people who aren't naturally "outliers" would cease the behavior were the norm no longer there to gain esteem from. But, they've internalized the norm to such an extent that their compliance is pretty much emotional or non-maximizing.

Does the Nature of Social Functionality Impact Norms?

Of course it does. Three properties of social media seem particularly relevant to the rapid stabilization of norms online.

1. The poster’s relatively low-costs (in time, money, attention, etc.) of forming a presence (blogging, posting a video, etc.)

2. The consumer’s low cost of switching and/or forwarding.

3. The ease and efficiency with which feedback accumulates from the consumer to the poster.

The first suggests that you’ll get relatively high volume of content, providing social and cultural “outliers” in particular an equalized platform. The relatively small number of people who really do have a need to bare their souls in a public forum – counter to the norms supported by the larger culture – now have a potentially much larger public forum.

The second suggests that people can zip between posters easily both because of the arbitrarily linked nature of the web and because of the conventions of social media content genres (short, easily digestible pieces, e.g. blog posts).

These two together give the "outliers" a forum and a mechanism for gaining an audience. Basically, the qualities of the medium allow potentially counter-normative behavior – behavior at the "edge" of normal – to be viewed from the center. The third helps solidify the self-disclosure sub-genre by providing a stabilizing and often legitimating feedback channel.

To unpack this a little, "outlier" producers – the people who naturally transgress against the "real world" norms – use the platform as a cathartic mechanism for logging their innermost feelings. The relative impoverishment of the context reduces the salience of applicable norms so the discomfort of witnessing the transgression isn't as acute as it would be in person. But norm transgression, in this case the enactment of intimate privacy in a public space, can be fascinating in itself and this appeals to a significant “outlier” subset within the audience.

So we have a platform that's just distinct enough from the real world to allow public transgression of dominant interaction norms without the crushing sanctions that would occur in the "real world." The platform also provides extensive means of getting this narrow-appeal content before appreciative eyes. Finally, the feedback channel largely provides validating evaluations of the transgressive performance (partly because of the self-selecting nature of the audience). Constant public transgression coupled with forwarding and positive, visible feedback via the third property effectively weakens the old norms while laying the normative framework for new ones. Enough exposure to a new way of framing an interaction or self-presentation coupled with public displays of acceptance and evaluation can create the sort of structures of expectation, preference and values that define new norms.

But what’s interesting beyond this formation of the norm among the “true believers” or "outliers," the folks who would break the old norm anyway, is the fact that the norm can stabilize among the mainstream. There is a lot more comfort with, expectation of, and preference for personal disclosure in some online contexts than there is in most offline contexts. Basically, I claim that the voiding of the offline norms was facilitated by the properties of the medium. They effectively amplified the dispositions of the “true believers” creating an environment in which new normative expectations – expectations of others expectations that conditionalize our preferences in situations – could stabilize and spread beyond the “true believers.”

The norm is adopted by the larger community because of user's expectations of other's expectations, i.e. the possibility of the earning or withholding of esteem. Considerations of esteem don’t enter into it for the “outliers” or true believers. They’re just that way; their behavior is a manifestation of their values. However, it does enter into it for the majority of people who perpetuate the norm, both as producers and consumers. They wouldn’t necessarily behave this way without the existence of the norm to generate esteem. The discomfort at transgression of the old norm is lost and a new set of normative standards – a set of felt preferences and eventually internalized ways of simply being in the world – replaces it. The normative standards provide mechanisms by which self-esteem and esteem can be gained, either consciously or rationally – for “posers” or cynics – and unconsciously or emotionally – for people who may not be outliers dispositionally, but adopt the norm “in good faith.” As long as no one knows everybody else’s true status – true believer, esteem seeker or poser – and the groups are effectively indistinguishable in behavior, then if esteem is flowing the norm will stabilize and perpetuate.

Clearly, the properties of social media have deep effects on the norms and (thus) culture online. Realizing this fact has important ramifications for how we design and deploy social functionality. We can see that we must design for the development of pro-social norms. We can also see how media and cultural dynamics interact in the abstract. But clearly even non-antisocial norms like compulsive disclosure can appear negative from the outside (though I personally don't think that they are). And because the norms that develop are the path dependent and immensely complex results of strategic negotiations and interactions among enormous numbers of actors, there’s no way you’ll be able to predict what norms will actually emerge. However, with this understanding you will be able to make non-judgmental sense of – and thus develop coherent, non-reactionary policy to address – the ones that do emerge.

Monday, 3 November 2008

The Social, The Cultural and The Difference

In my line of work we use the word "social" a lot... social media, social networks, mobile social software, etc. And in analysis of these things, we generally use the word ambiguously to mean either the social or the cultural. What, even in caricature, is the difference? Here’s an intuitive first stab at the distinction.

The Social is about the connections and interactions between people, whereas The Cultural is about connections and interactions between people mediated by shared concepts, history, symbol systems, etc.

That is, most social interactions are mediated and structured by cultural mechanisms like norms and institutions.

Social functionality and social media obviously have some effects that are purely social in the sense above, i.e. that impact the number and quality of our interpersonal connections and the efficiency with which new connections may be made. But social media just as obviously operate on and respond to culture, i.e. the conventional meanings, preferences and distinctions that structure the interactions within our social network.

In this post, I’ll sketch a view of social norms and thus culture. Basically, I want to be able to use this formulation in future posts as a means of understanding how social media impact our preferences and expectations going into interactions. In other words, I ultimately want to look at how the specific properties of social media change culture, but first I'd like to clarify what culture is.

The Games People Play

Social norms are the informal rules of society that are maintained in several ways: by sanctions from others; by our expectations of others’ expectations; by our general desire to do as relevant others do or by some combination of all of the above. You can look at social norms in at least two ways.

1. Norms embed, encode and instantiate values.

2. Norms coordinate interactions.

To me, these are complementary ways of thinking about norms. The first is more of a lived, affective understanding. It’s about our motivating emotional states, presumed expectations and means of personal and interpersonal leverage. The second is a more cognitive understanding. It’s about the conventional structures of interaction and the delimited sets of feasible strategies that turn potentially destructive “state of nature” mixed-motive games into coordination games. The two ways of thinking of norms feed into each other: the affective reinforces and “operationalizes” the cognitive and the cognitive effect of coordination “justifies” the affective.

Culture is a system of norms that coordinates repeated interactions. Stanford political scientist David Laitin provides a tidy definition of culture in his book Nations, States, and Violence.

culture [is] an equilibrium in a well defined set of circumstances in which members of a group sharing in common descent, symbolic practices and/or high levels of interaction – and thereby becoming a cultural group – are able to condition their behavior on common knowledge beliefs about the behavior of all members of the group.

Basically, he’s using game theory jargon to say that culture is a set of complementary “plans” – or strategies – for interacting with other locals. The plans allow us to coordinate our actions efficiently and effectively. If we stick to our learned and conditioned plan we can greatly reduce the daunting task of keeping track of everybody’s probable motivations, expectations and preferences (i.e. what game they’re playing) in every interaction. Essentially, our plans tell us how we’re expected to proceed and what we should expect from others in most interactions. Once that’s out of the way, we can get down to the business of actually getting what we need out of the defined interaction. Others are using similar interaction-defining plans and expect the same from us. If we deviate, they may have incentive to try to get us back on plan. Thus feedback keeps the set of plans in a relatively stable equilibrium; deviation from conventionally understood plans often results in forces – from others and from within – that may pull us back on plan. So, in effect culture systematizes and stabilizes most of the repeated interactions we get into and defines the ones that might be unclear otherwise.

Why are cultures different in different places? Because there are a huge number of sets of plans that form equilibria for the repeated interactions we get into daily. Which equilibrium your group actually converges on is a path dependent accident of history. And of course, the “chosen” equilibrium could always fall apart and a new equilibrium could be converged upon.

So culture is just a locally stable, conditioned and self-reinforcing set of plans for coordinating the situations that continually arise in interactions with others. Specifically, they coordinate interactions by limiting the available plans for action given everybody else’s probable plans.

Seems pretty anemic, doesn’t it? Indeed, our daily experience is of the affective, values-embedding aspect of norms. It’s affective insofar as there’s a definite emotional and felt component to this conception of norms. We feel the draw of values and morals to comply or sanction non-compliance. We feel a certain dread (or delight) in transgressing them. Or when our fully internalized and purely habitual norm compliance is challenged we feel discomfort or confusion as to how to proceed.

It helps to think of these two aspects – the cognitive and the affective – as operating at different levels. If the equilibrium story describes culture from a broader perspective – of long term, pan-player negotiation that ultimately settles upon conventional ways of framing situations and thus structuring interactions with each other – then the affective aspect seems to be more about the short-run, lived experience of these coordinated interactions. That is, the equilibrium understanding is about the way we stabilize interactions through longer term development of coordinating conventions, while the affective understanding suggests something of the way we perpetuate, commit to, signal compliance with and internalize the equilibrium’s strategies in our daily lives.

My interest here is in motivation to comply and how that can stabilize and perpetuate norms. People like to belong. But more than that, they like to avoid sanction or be esteemed or attain high status or maintain a (good or bad) reputation. These are social needs that manifest themselves through the conventional “channels” and mechanisms of norms.

Some social norms, like fairness, have a clear benefit in coordination. Others, like wearing burkas, seem a little murky and arbitrary to cultural outsiders. We really can’t see any benefit in the custom and actually often perceive moral and political dangers to women. Still, the custom is valued by many and tolerated and perpetuated by many more for reasons of social pressure, perceptions of sanction and societal expectation. Still, those who don’t really feel that it’s god’s will that they wear a burka must act as if they are doing so out of devotion. It’s not enough that they do it, but rather they must do it as if they are true believers. If they didn’t they could face exclusion, disesteem or possible social and physical sanctions.

Following the work of Jon Elster and Learry Gagné, I claim the emotional aspect of norms – even though norms “really are” just arbitrary, conventional and clearly sub-optimal instances of behavioral coordination or sub-game equilibria of a higher level game equilibrium like religion – explains the perpetuation and spread of even the most detrimental customs and practices in a way that purely instrumental or utility maximizing accounts can’t. Emotions and values make these things sticky and resilient in the face of obvious sub-optimality and irrationality. Many of the people maintaining norms don’t even have to believe in the encoded values and may even suffer because of them. They simply have to believe that others believe and thus will sanction, not value or ostracize them if they don’t comply. Most importantly, they must desire the esteem, belonging and the self-respect that comes from acceptance by others. And, of course, they may fear both external sanctions and the emotional sanctions one gets from transgressing internalized norms. If there are vocal and salient norm believers, a significant number of compliers and a lot of folks interested in belonging and accumulating esteem, even lame, unpopular norms can be indefinitely perpetuated (if the incentive to change is outweighed by the incentive – rational and emotional – to maintain).

Properties of social media – in particular the ease with which feedback accumulates and speed with which items can be propagated – can impact dynamics of culture. I’ll explore this idea in the next post by looking at the new norm of “compulsive disclosure” online.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Defining the Situation: Goffman, Social Functionality and Minicultures

When an individual enters into the presence of others, they commonly seek to acquire information about him or to bring into play information about him already possessed... Information about the individual helps to define the situation, enabling others to know in advance what he will expect of them and what they may expect of him. Informed in these ways, the others will know how best to act in order to call forth a desired response from him

That quote is from Erving Goffman’s classic, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. The book's basic claim is that human interactions are mediated by stagey appearances through which we imply – and from which others infer – our expectations, preferences, status, etc. We assume roles, staging presentations of ourselves, to ensure smooth, appropriately stable and beneficial interactions. The roles coordinate, structure and define our interactions as we negotiate a mutually agreeable definition of the situation.

Goffman was talking about face-to-face interactions, but I clearly agree with his main point as it pertains to digitally mediated interaction as well. When engaging with social functionality, we tend to throw out signals, intentionally and unintentionally, that indicate our expectations, preferences, etc. (i.e. "define the situation" in Goffman's terms) and coordinate our interactions with others. Display – a dimension of social functionality discussed in previous posts – is often about projecting a desirable position or estimable image, putting us in a position to get the most from our interactions. We then have to live up to or act consistently with that situation-defining image on pain of embarrassment, ridicule and situational discomfort.

However, situation definition in social interactions generally isn’t only determined by the people interacting. That is, there’s usually an externally imposed limit on the available “definitions.” Defining an interaction situation is sort of like declaring to each other what game we’re playing. I suggest, “Let’s play football” and you agree. We now roughly know what we can and can’t do. Our available strategies are bounded by the rules, but not wholly determined. We can still surprise each other and gain advantage within the game’s constitutive rules. Analogously, many interactions are about settling on the game to be played. But I claim the majority of interactions are about jockeying for advantage within an already determined meta-game. So, to sharpen the insight from Goffman's quote, I suggest that many of the broader aspects of most situations are already defined for us and the remaining definitional negotiations tend to be about fine-tuning or determining advantage. That is, we assume roles that are already defined and relatively definitive, we don't usually create the roles.

This is similar to what the philosopher of social science Don Ross suggests as the solution to the problem of game determination. In many social situations, culture handles this coordination: we more or less understand the expectations, obligations, etc. of the folks assuming the various roles in particular contexts because we’ve been conditioned to understand them. Understanding this stuff via conditioned expectations gets us past the cognitively intractable task of having to always figure out what game we’re playing first (i.e. what the best plan is given what others’ probable moves will be). In short, culture coordinates us on the arbitrary but stable games to be played while avoiding the destructive “state of nature” games in which we approach every interaction as if it were a mixed-motive game like the Prisoners Dilemma.

Designing as Defining

Social functionality, or the largely digital mechanisms that impact, amplify or alter our socialization online and off, are really weird if we think about them in terms of the ideas above. They’re generally anemic compared to face-to-face interaction spaces, providing only rudimentary means of interpersonal situation negotiation. Also, the cultural cues for defining situations – conventionally encoded in everything from architecture to tone of voice to uniforms and styles or dress, etc. – tend to be either missing or unconventionally signified. Social functionality tends to provide very limited and very strange means of “defining the situation” in the Goffman sense.

And even though recent public goods experiments show that people want to cooperate, it’s with a self-serving bias and conditional on others doing it in a way that can be observed. Reciprocation, cooperation and general decency tend to decrease on average over the long haul if not “structurally maintained”, i.e. if norms aren’t made salient. In situations involving social functionality, where there are few recognizable cultural institutions and coordination among individuals is tough, things can get messy quickly, devolving into potentially destructive mixed-motive situations where everyone acts like a selfish jerk.

Unlike the real world, though, systems incorporating social functionality have a third party in on the situation definition: the designer. Designers have a significant impact on the definition and – most importantly – maintenance of the situation. Design can help to stimulate the development of norms and the cobbling together of a simple “culture” within spaces employing social functionality. In particular, if the social functionality system isn’t a) structured for norm development or b) partially mapped onto an independently existing, institution embedding cultural group, it will often tear itself apart.

For example, in terms of structuring for norm development, Wikipedia’s use of Display inflected functionality coupled with iterative editing and negotiation mechanisms allows norms (in the sense of mutually held expectations of others’ expectations) to stabilize very quickly. This in turn keeps the majority of contentious entries from erupting into wholesale warfare. That is, the interactions are defined in terms of – bounded by – group developed norms of conduct and quality, the development of which was fostered by certain design decisions (essentially involving Display functionality, interestingly enough).

Wide open social spaces like MySpace and Facebook, on the other hand tend not to have this focused structure. Yet they also rely on a combination of positive and negative feedback mechanisms to help coordinate on norms. In particular, content can be tagged offensive or great; users can gain reputations and status; or they can get flagged and barred.

But stupid, antisocial behavior still arises because of the massive volume of users, the low join-and-drop overhead and the ease of anonymity. So, in terms of the second situation-defining design trick, I think we’ll find that the amount of disinhibition is inversely related to the closeness of the system’s mapping onto “real-world” networks. That is, if the system somehow extends or amplifies offline socialization, situation definitions from the real world can come to structure the interactions in the digital system. Situation definitions must be maintained if your real world friends are mixed in with your more tenuous “online only” friends. Similarly, but to a much lesser extent, systems that allow users to institute voluntary, displayable assortation – or self-grouping that can define some sort of in-group ethos – will also see significant norm development and stabilization.

Lurkers Aren’t Necessarily Free-riders

These are pretty obvious observations and have been put forward elsewhere, although without the theoretical structure of situation definition in terms of system-specific mini “cultures.” What’s interesting is that this allows us to look at things like “lurking” in a totally new light. Situation definition isn’t all about curbing jerky behavior. It’s also about determining appropriateness of interactions in subtler ways.

A while ago, people who cared about this stuff considered lurking – that is, partaking of the content on social sites without contributing any yourself – to be a from of free-riding on a public good. Lurkers were reaping the benefit without contributing to upkeep. Recently, however, some writers have begun to think of lurking in terms of cultural capital. On this view, many people lurk because they’re accumulating cultural capital, i.e. the skills, codes, knowledge, etc. that a user has for interpreting cultural artifacts. A significant proportion of lurking is about the user trying to figure out the community norms.

In our terms, lurkers are uncertain of situation definitions and the areas available for further negotiation. That is, they’re uncertain of the expectations of others and the proper way of expressing their own expectations and preferences so that will be understandable by others within the system and thus potentially beneficial to themselves. They don’t know how to act to coordinate on situation definitions that will be mutually understandable, useful and beneficial... or at least won’t result in discomfort.

So, designing for the emergence, stabilization and display of norms within systems utilizing social functionality can both curb disinhibition and more quickly convert lurkers into actors. Now, getting designers to realize that this is part of their job in a more than just “do what’s worked in the past” way – getting them to realize that social functionality design is embedded in and impacts cultural as well as social systems – is the really hard part.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

The Display Aspect of Social Functionality

In an earlier post, I suggested that what I broadly call social functionality (i.e. the sociality-enhancing, socially focused, largely UGC functionality, sites and applications currently so popular) operate within a space defined by the following three dimensions.

Knowledge: We use this stuff to learn. Specifically, we use it to learn from each other. For example, user reviews or Wikipedia.

Connection: We use this stuff to communicate, bond, meet, define affiliations and dislikes or just hang out where the people are. For example, friending on social sites or Twitter.

Display: We use this stuff to communicate and manage presentations of ourselves, truthfully or not, to others. For example, user profiles or Flickr.

No piece of social functionality is all one and none of the others, but they tend to be weighted differently in each case. To me, Display is the most interesting one, yet it’s the least explored of all of them. Web theorists and proselytizers tend to focus on Connection and Knowledge, assuming them to be the main drivers of online sociability. Display is often thought of as an embarrassing, “inauthentic,” or cynical counterpoint to these otherwise ennobling drives. In this post, I look at the Display dimension and suggest that it's crucially important for motivating contribution and can actually stabilize and help self-regulate systems of social functionality.

Even though Display frequently only makes sense in terms of Connection and Knowledge, the latter two get a lot of their user-motivating power from Display. That is, functionality in the Connection and Knowledge dimensions often provide a means of – and excuse for – Display. But Display often motivates contributions (and impacts the type of contributions) made via Knowledge and Connection functionality. For example, mixing elements of Display into Connection focused functionality (e.g. publicly visible comments on Flickr) arguably motivates more – and more interesting – use than simple Connection (comments viewable to the image poster).

Break It Down

Users are generally looking for one or more of the following things when they approach social functionality through Display.

Status: This is rank or position, often bound up with some expectations and obligations. These tend to be systemic or group based, like editor status in Wikipedia. It's a mark of distinction that sets certain users off from the rest. Some social sites actually allow the earning of status and thus it becomes aspirational for a devoted few. Others just require that you stick around and contribute for a long time, sort of like the “old hats” in the usenets of yesteryear.

Reputation: A user evaluation (positive or negative) based on past interactions that sticks with the user through future interactions. eBay’s reputation mechanism is the most famous and easiest example. These are usually associated with mixed-motive situations in which some folks may have an incentive to screw over other users. Generalizing, we can say that if your past interactions or contributions affect your future interactions, then you have a reputation.

Esteem: We seek positive evaluation of our contributions based on more or less well defined normative standards. This one is the most vague but also the most prevalent social function in the Display dimension. Whenever we write a review or post a picture we want to give off the best impression we can, even if we're posting to a group of friends who know us really well. We still tailor our presentation of self to whatever normative standards we think we can get away with. We pitch our performance to the normative standards of the group we are trying to garner esteem from. The desire for esteem, the desire to look good, is part of most user's motivation when using (UGC) social functionality.

Though often used more or less interchangeably, these three are in fact distinct but closely related ideas. You can have a high status – be a Wikipedia editor, for example – yet still not be particularly esteemed. The same goes for reputation. You can have a good reputation, meaning you haven’t screwed over anyone, yet not be a star. Similarly, a hack with a bad rep can create a good post, garnering some esteem, but this doesn’t mean she thereby has a good reputation. Also, a reputation can be good or bad while esteem is always positive.

So, they’re distinct ideas, but they’re also intimately related. For example, a mechanism that cuts across all three is Amazon’s “Top 100 Reviewer” tag. Review voting is primarily an esteem focused gadget intended to incentivize quality. These aggregate via a modified reputation system which then results in a status change.

Like the larger space of social dimensions, the three Display dimensions – Status, Reputation and Esteem– form a continuum. It’s rare that a piece of social functionality falls under just one. It’s also rare that a piece of functionality is expressly intended to operate within a single dimension, e.g. be expressly designed to allow the user to garner esteem by posting content. Rather, the dimensions articulate the different social functions actually played by the largely neutral mechanisms deployed in different contexts. Obviously, some social functionality mechanisms are expressly intended to focus on a single element, like reputation mechanisms. Most, however, are comprised of relatively neutral functionality that’s contextually deployed in such a way that it assumes the social function. For example the commenting functionality associated with pictures in Flickr often assumes a significant Esteem accumulating function. This doesn’t mean that the generic class of commenting functionality was designed to fulfill the Esteem needs of the owner of the target content any more than it was designed to facilitate the Connection needs of the commenter. It’s just used that way in this case.

So What

Surprisingly, these “individualistic” Display functions can have significant effects on the larger “ecology” of dimensions. That is, the elements of Display, which are simply mechanisms individuals use for self-presentation and self-image management online, can have surprising higher-level effects.

Motivating: Regardless of what traditional decision theorists say, status and esteem are powerful incentives[pdf] that can generate their own systems of distribution and accumulation. The desire for esteem in particular can be particularly motivating. A significant portion of the “altruistic” behavior in user created knowledge sites like Wikipedia is attributable to the motivating power of esteem. It can get people contributing even if the group from which esteem is sought is tiny, provided contribution costs are relatively low.

Stabilizing: Esteem mechanisms like voting on reviews and reputation mechanisms like some badge systems actually help to establish norms, thus stabilizing the systems they’re part of. In effect, these mechanisms create a means of negotiating, ratifying and displaying norms by continually motivating input, allowing voting on contributions and filtering out the less popular within whatever groups arise. The result can be something like a self-fulfilling system of expectations (an equilibrium, maybe?). New users see what garners esteem or creates a good reputation, allowing them to accumulate cultural capital, which then, of course, determines the norms their contributions follow.

Regulating: Display functions often introduce the “spectre of the future” via reputation mechanisms. Basically this means that in mixed-motive situations, you’re likely to cooperate and play nice if you think that this interaction will have repercussions on future interactions. Also, producing visible normative prototypes via the mechanisms discussed in the last item actually leads to more and more people honoring local (in the sense of relevant to their group) norms. Norms that arise from groups through action and feedback tend to be largely self-regulating.

All of this suggests (to me at least) that the Display aspects of social functionality are pretty important and not simply the embarrassing or cynical flip-side of the nobler Connection and Knowledge dimensions.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Why Some People Are So Pissed About the Facebook Redesign

For the last couple of months there has been some fuss and furor over the Facebook redesign. Some love it, most don’t care, but a vocal, petition-waving few really, really don’t like it. Frankly, I think it’s a pretty good redesign. Most importantly for me, it cuts through the haze of humorous/cutsey/unused applications, placing them under a noncommittally named “Boxes” tab. Good move, I think. The majority of Facebook Apps remind me of the bulky, holstered PDAs that dangled predictably at every MBA’s hip a couple of years ago: a clumsy accessory masquerading as an interesting device. Of course, that’s what Facebook Apps really are, but I guess it’s just not for me.

Anyway, what interests me is the vehemence of the reaction and what it says about the idea of usability and the nature of design lock-in. In particular, the furor highlights the inadequacy or partial irrelevance of “objective” standards of classical usability. Obviously a considerable number of people feel that increased effectiveness, efficiency, learnability, etc. – whatever items comprise your favored usability checklist – isn’t an adequate rationale for changing a design mid-use. Nor do the measurable usability improvements seem to add up to satisfaction. Usability as preached by the industry is clearly distinct from the preferences that arise within the dynamics of actual use.

That last sentence is a mouthful, but it’s really just an observation that “usability” in the real world (i.e. the perception of comfort, effectiveness and satisfaction with some system) is as much about familiarity with arbitrary, usually suboptimal conventions as it is with traditional human factors issues. Given a choice in a non-laboratory, not “controlled for” situation, people generally choose what they know and understand over what’s new but ostensibly optimal. No matter how much the new one latches on to the tested realities of the human perceptual/cognitive machinery, people prefer what they already know.

So, one must ask, what was the assumed gain behind redesigning an interface with a familiarity base of 100 million? Hard to say, but usability in the wild is obviously as much about familiarity as optimality. Just because something has been and continues to be done in a particular way – just because coordination of goals and means has been achieved and internalized in some fashion – people become invested in that way of doing it regardless of whether or not it’s the best way. They have an unreasoned emotional response to change even though the change they’re reacting against is ultimately beneficial. From their perspective, any change represents a move from comfortably non-reflective “know how” to a comparatively frustrating re-investment in “learn how”. It’s bitterness over the perceived loss (insofar as they couldn’t vote on the switch) of time and attention spent internalizing the old system. And as research and common sense show, we hate losses.

Looking at it this way, we see why most of the detractors’ gripes are couched in terms of usability, without forcing us into a battle of intuitions about what constitutes “usable”. The usability issue is most likely just a salient rationalization. By most “objectively” recognized usability standards the new design is superior. People are really griping about the fact that they’ll have to reinvest or re-learn something and that the standards that determined the value of the change weren’t the standards by which they evaluate the site’s functionality. In other words, something not clearly broken was fixed without explicit agreement of the stakeholders, in effect forcing a new investment without due consideration of past investment.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Ups and Downs of Trendsetting

In a previous post I suggested that the epidemic model most often associated with viral marketing seems to assume the susceptibility of the population – or “spreadability” of the contagion – without much analysis of what this might come to. In this post, I’ll look at some mechanisms that make cultural artifacts both valuable and the kind of thing someone might want to spread. The story I relate isn't specifically about viral marketing, but it does highlight the mechanisms any viral marketing campaign must address. Finally, I’ll draw some speculative conclusions about viral marketing’s lopsided – but understandable – focus on so-called influentials.

Obligatory Anecdote

A long time ago, a relatively regular acquaintance of mine showed up at a punk rock venue dressed to the nines in a sharp, trim sharkskin suit and brand new creepers. This getup was in clear contrast with the self-conscious filthiness of the post-punk slouches (like myself... and him previously) the show attracted. Noting my admiration for his duds, he pinched apart the breast of his jacket, danced a little jig and sang “I’m the only mod in town! I’m the only mod in town!”

Cultural artifacts, like fashions and fads, often display a peculiar value reversal. If the trend seems to be on a successful trajectory – seems like it’s going to be big, but isn’t yet – we have incentive to adopt. But once it reaches a certain level of dispersion in the relevant population, the incentive reverses for many people. If they get on early and whatever it is takes off, they get credit or some sort of cultural profit. If they remain after everyone else jumps off or they get on too late, however, it’s embarrassing. There’s coordination value at the beginning – they have incentive to do as relevant others do – but as uptake increases, dis-value sets in and their preferences switch. The trend goes from being profitable to dis-valued and at this point, profit lies in switching.

My acquaintance in this story was garnering symbolic profit by switching, distancing himself from a fashion he’d embraced at one time. He was a guy who knew what was cool and acceptable within his group and the move was intended to generate symbolic profit, or respect and recognition, by making a calculated move at the appropriate time in the uptake curve. He was a guy who noticed and partook of trends early and abandoned strategically. We’ll call those with low initial value and value-to-disvalue switching thresholds trendsetters, and those with moderate initial value and switching thresholds fashionables. Here’s an illustration of the basic idea.

This value-to-disvalue switch looks like what’s called a crowding game, the most famous of which is the El Farol Game. In this one, however, there are two thresholds: the point at which initially partaking seems valuable and the point at which it reverses. The preference matrices at the top of the graphic illustrate how your preferences of Best (B), Second (S), Third (T) and Worst (W) options for partaking (p) given what others do change as the population partaking (P(t)) increases. That is, as the population partaking of a particular cultural artifact increases with time, partaking of the artifact switches from symbolically profitable to unprofitable. Put another way, at some point (tx), it’s profitable to switch to something else. If you’re a trendsetter, someone hungry for symbolic profit, your switching threshold is pretty low.

What about the first threshold, the join threshold. The trendsetters are the important characters here. They're the ones that get the uptake into everyone elses' interest zones. My claim is that they won't see a cultural item as profitable unless it's understandable against the backdrop of their reference group. It has to damn conformity locally (or just be surprising) while honoring conformity globally (be within their reference group's range of valid moves). Even if the trendsetter is a so-called “Innovator” – i.e. the first threshold, the uptake population she feels indicates a viable trend, is really small, maybe even just one – the move won’t actually be profitable unless it makes some sort of sense to the group from which profit is sought.

Do You Know Your Capitals?

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu is famous for developing the notion of cultural capital and popularizing the notion of social capital. Less celebrated is his idea of symbolic capital. Bourdieu analogizes socio-cultural fields to markets, with social, cultural and institutional differences between agents and classes generating potentials for profit and loss. The various “capitals” he posits (by loose analogy to economic capital) are resources that agents use to generate symbolic or material profit in interactions with others.

Cultural capital is the accumulated codes, conventional tastes, institutionally bestowed skills and general cultural abilities we each have that help us to succeed in a given domain. It’s our skill at deciphering, appreciating and generating cultural artifacts relative to some socio-cultural arena. Connoisseurs of film, for example, have a high degree of cultural capital in regards to film: they understand and consume films at a deeper, more broadly informed level than the rest of us do. They can also discuss film at a higher, potentially exclusionary and socially profitable (we feel stupid and they look smart), level. Social capital is the material and symbolic profits realized in your social circle. It’s what your group – club, neighborhood, gang, etc. – can do for you, as a resource, as a source of rights and obligations and as an instrument of self-presentation. Symbolic capital is the social recognition – prestige, status or esteem – an agent has relative to some group. It usually manifests itself in terms of deference and increased weight of input. Display of cultural capital – of your mastery of the cultural codes and themes of some domain – can generate symbolic capital. For example, being labeled a connoisseur isn’t simply descriptive, it’s also normative: it’s a term of appreciation for your consumption skills and abilities in some domain. Connoisseurs wield significant symbolic capital in virtue of their recognized cultural capital.

Now, I have some issues with Bourdieu, in particular that his “capitals” were articulated in a sort of fruity Continental tone in terms of old world class strata. But regardless of the embarrassingly Comp Lit-ish wrapper, the ideas of social, cultural and symbolic capital as sketched depict a pretty interesting picture. Socio-cultural interaction is a market within which we strive for some sort of symbolic profit and recognition by leveraging, displaying and deploying cultural skills, usually from within a more or less well-defined group.

Putting it Together

What I’m suggesting is that the Trendsetter Preference Reversal Phenomenon™ is often the effect of deploying cultural capital (knowing the bounds of acceptability and normative play within some reference group) for the accumulation of symbolic capital. My acquaintance’s move from filthy post-punk to dapper mod was made against the backdrop of a specific, historical subculture that had connections with the idea of mod culture (part of the popular conception of punk rock history). It was a historically informed move that made sense as a manifestation of cultural capital specific to its subcultural context. To generalize, in the case of trendsetters it’s the local variance within global conformity that generates symbolic capital. A local conformity was damned, but a larger subcultural conformity was honored and thus, symbolic capital was generated. Though the actual form of the move was surprising and thus able to generate profit, it made sense and could be evaluated against its larger subcultural backdrop.

Even though the story of my acquaintance's style shift isn't about viral marketing as such, it highlights the general mechanisms by which something may be judged potentially profitable within culture. Though rarely put in these terms, ultimately, that's what viral campaigns are about: trying to get me to see some cultural artifact as potentially profitable – as something I want to publicly partake of – and in so doing give me incentive to pass it on to you. But the passing it on is (often) about me generating symbolic profit. It's not simply (though of course this is part of it) because I think you'd like it. Rather it's because your enjoyment of it could potentially make me look better.

The trendsetter preference reversal phenomenon means your item will spread – if it's distinct yet understandable within the target group's culture – from those hungry for symbolic capital early in the uptake cycle. As it disperses, it's value will eventually reverse for these folks, but hopefully not before it has reached the point where the "fashionables" have noticed it.

So What? More Unrepentant Speculation

If we can harness this idea of symbolic capital, of creating things that the sender thinks could be symbolically profitable, then we might have a better sense of how to get these things to work a little more reliably. Though speculative (why change now?), I think the following conclusions are pretty plausible if we buy the general idea of the post.

1. Cultural artifacts are more spreadable if they honor larger cultural norms and patterns. They have to be initially evaluable by the intended cultural group. Even so-called innovations have to be initially couched in terms that can be understood and evaluated positively by the intended target. For viral marketing this means pay a lot of attention to the target culture. Understand it backwards and forwards, particularly the elements that allow for variation and creativity within normative bounds. I’ll write more about this later.

2. Understand that there has to be space for profit for a cultural artifact to spread. A trendsetter will never jump aboard a trend (or forward a microsite) if he or she doesn’t perceive the potential for symbolic profit. Remember that this potential is couched in terms of point 1. above: surprising yet understandable. It's not about aping the "host" group for there lies the kiss of death: "inauthenticity." It needs to come not from consideration of the group culture, but from within the culture. It's about understanding the space for symbolic profit, for appropriate creativity and difference, inherent in the target culture. And things like consumption capital, arguably a form of cultural capital, create a relatively slim range of potential profitability. More on these points in future posts.

3. Obviously, any given trend, fashion or viral campaign is ultimately unsustainable. We’ve always known this about trends, fashions, fads and viral marketing campaigns, but it bears repeating. The mechanism that drives these things through culture(s), in particular trendsetter preference reversal, tends to eat itself.

4. Wanna-bees, those (trendsetters) who want symbolic capital but haven’t yet accumulated much of it, are better targets of viral campaigns than so-called Influentials. Influentials, those with large accumulations of symbolic capital, are going to be harder to "incentivize" than those who don’t have – but want – symbolic capital. In other words, target the wanna-bees, not the “already-ares.” Influentials are more costly to convert: they’ve less incentive to jump on any particular trend (or forward any particular microsite) because they've already accumulated a large store of symbolic capital and thus each potentially hot trend provides diminishing returns. That is, they're more likely to be conservative and choosy because they require more incentive to forward any given item. And if Duncan Watts is right in claiming that what’s really determinative of epidemics is a connected sub-network of folks with low switching costs then we should target those who are seeking, not those who already have, appreciable symbolic capital. Wanna-bees have lower switching costs (they're looking for the next hot item), probably know many like-minded folks (because of pervasive social effects like homophily) and are eager to gain symbolic capital (and are thus more likely to partake of and spread any viable trend).

So, keep targeting "Influentials", but realize that they’re a harder sell, probably not as effective as the wanna-bees and, if displeased, can actually hurt your campaign. If an Influential decides that you’re “inauthentic” or too eager (issues I’ll discuss in later posts), then you’re dead. That sort of thing will kill the potential for symbolic profit on the part of any hungry wanna-bees, hurting your chances that anyone will spread your whatsit.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Viral Models are Incomplete

For several years now “viral marketing” has been a part of most marketing campaigns, online and off. Now that the frenzy has effectively died out it’s clear that it doesn’t work the way many of its proponents would have us believe.

1. It tends to be of far lower impact than it’s assumed promise; success tends to be judged in terms of minimally positive ROI. In fact, the vast majority of viral marketing campaigns return negative ROI and only a tiny (really tiny) percentage ever return anything close to the epidemics popularized by Gladwell’s Tipping Point.

2. It’s virtually impossible to predict which items (movies, songs, fashions, etc.) will succeed in a cultural market (check out recent work by Duncan Watts et al. and Luis Bettencourt). Ironically, this is presumably because of the very forces – informational cascades (localized conformity) and network effects in general – that viral marketing supposedly harnesses.

3. Conversion of hub individuals, so-called “influentials”, isn’t nearly as simple or effective as it seems it should be. More research by Watts suggests that normally connected people have a nearly identical chance of starting epidemics as do the highly connected. The important mechanism seems to be the existence of a significant, connected sub-network of easily infected individuals. Also, it’s not at all clear that the basic influentials hypothesis isn’t conflating causation (do influentials cause cascades) and correlation (or are they highly visible people caught in them like everybody else, just slightly earlier). In social markets, which by definition are rife with externalities, correlation and causation are not clearly distinct. But viral marketing flatly identifies influentials as primary causes.

4. The epidemiological analogy isn’t complete. The idea of susceptibility to a cultural artifact is an unexamined assumption, rather than an explanatory mechanism.

My take on these points is that 2) and 3) explain 1). Controversially, I also hold that 4) at least partially explains 2) and 3).

The contagion model viral marketing claims as justification ideally explains (mechanistically) the spread of a contagion through a population. But a key assumption of the model is left largely unexamined. Susceptibility to a cultural contagion (fashion, song, movie, silly online video, etc.) is a parameter of these models, but the mechanism which actually determines this parameter’s value is effectively a black box. Emphasis is put on the spread dynamics and which structures effect the greatest spread, but very little consideration is given to the nature of the mechanisms that determine each agent’s susceptibility. This is a matter of focus and for contagion dynamics – models of how something spreads through a network – this is an appropriate omission. However, for marketing theory, this omission has significant consequences: it obscures the nature of susceptibility to cultural contagions, focusing us solely on the medium of transmission while assuming that the medium is agnostic as to the content transmitted. Network structure is key to explaining how a contagion spreads, if it’s spreadable. But understanding susceptibility mechanisms will help explain what can be spread if the structure is right. As Duncan Watts has said, the ideas that take off have to be right for the society and this comes down to susceptibility. An analysis of the mechanisms underlying susceptibility will help us develop a much better model for viral marketing specifically and cultural contagion generally.

Understanding these mechanisms will in no way guarantee the success of your viral campaigns, however. You’re still open to myriad chance-introducing externalities (the fragility of some types of cascades and the subsequent dicey nature of path dependent process) inherent in social/cultural markets. At best, it puts you in a position to better set success levels, determine rational outlay and generally make your offering more competitive in the cultural market.

In future posts I'll take a stab at some possible mechanisms, mostly drawn from sociology.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Dimensions of Social Functionality

Social functionality is what I call most of the UGC-focused gadgets and applications both online and off. It’s sort of a catch-all term and I use it very broadly. A user review interface on Amazon is social functionality but so is a piece of mobile social software like Dodgeball (R.I.P.). I even call some entire sites social functionality, for example dating sites or Facebook. There seem to be three fundamental dimensions to the social functionality that has dominated digital "community" thought for the last 4 years or so.

1. Knowledge - we use social functionality to be or get informed, specifically by each other.

2. Connection - we use social functionality for communion, coordination and simple contact.

3. Display - we use social functionality to communicate, truthfully or untruthfully, ourselves to others.

None of these dimensions are hard and fast. They’re like the primary colors. Between them there’s a continuum of variations and I can’t think of a single piece of social functionality that’s all one with no hint of another. For example, most regular Wikipedia users experience it as a Knowledge site, while to editors and posters it has a significant Display aspect. Here’s a gratuitous graphic that lays some social functionality (both pieces of functionality and entire sites) into the space defined by the dimensions. Placement is just my opinion... I’ll discuss some aspects in future posts.

Friday, 29 August 2008

The Bottom Line is I Hate Jargon: why hated language is inescapable

Everybody says they hate jargon, but everybody uses it. How can jargon be so hated yet so prevalent? It’s clearly more than just a personal shortcoming of your annoying co-workers. It’s more likely that jargon is a symptom of sociability and thus we’re all susceptible to it. Looking closely, there seem to be at least three types of irritating jargon (each with its own jargon-like name!):

Fluffy Neologisms (FuNs): Often a “verbized” noun or a verb phrase shortened to one word, e.g. conversate for have a conversation. Frequently an active sounding, metaphorical stock phrase for something simple, e.g. circle back for get back to you and take it offline for talk after the meeting. FuNs are most often emergent (bottom-up).

Pernicious Euphemisms (PEus): These are classic business speak, e.g. calling criticisms opportunities. The purpose is to mask some harsh reality, neutralize something negative or insinuate desired behavior (e.g. employees must be passionate – i.e. work-obsessed, myopic, ass-kissers – as opposed to just good at their jobs). PEus tend to be institutionally imposed (top-down).

Exclusionary Technicalities (ETs): These are jargon in the traditional sense of “words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand”, e.g. AJAX interface or MVC Architecture. They’re domain specific “technical” terms intended to ease in-group communication. ETs can be either institutionally imposed (by e.g. standards bodies) or emergent (from e.g. open source developers).

We tend not to think of legitimate uses of ETs as jargon in the pejorative sense (unless you are particularly insecure). After all, these words have a technical rationale. What gets us miffed is inappropriate use by the tech guy in an effort to maintain his wizard status. So, for ETs it’s intention that matters. A lame, illegitimate use can turn an ET into a PEu and open the user up to justified criticism. Indeed, many words that end up as PEus probably started out as ETs in management science.

FuNs, though, seem inexcusable to most people. They probably stem from middle-management aping the “management science” consultants they caught the PEus from. And that’s part of my point: jargon is catching. It’s not simply some aggravating sign of your boss’s personality disorder. Rather, it’s a symptom of sociability which we all display; it's an equilibrium in a social market like a fad or a trend. Of course, there is the pretension to hate, but generally before the pretension there was the desire to communicate something in a codified way.

The net net on jargon...

Typically, we’re aggravated by jargon in one of the following three ways.

1. We consider it pretentious when the user is too obviously attempting to wring cultural or social profit from what should be a purely instrumental linguistic exchange.

2. We’re exasperated when some overused phrase, which has been nearly drained of significance by loose use, is unreflectively trotted out. This sort of hackneyed jargon is often used more as a combination filler/badge than as a thoughtful addition to the discourse, serving no purpose in the conversation other than a noise our type tends to make in situations like this one.

3. Worst of all, we’re infuriated when someone mixes 1) and 2), using hackneyed jargon pretentiously.

But if you look at these from the other direction – from the jargon user’s perspective – you can see how the user could derive value from using jargon. After all, people don’t use jargon in order to be negatively viewed by others; presented with socially informed options, they have made a choice, albeit a non-deliberative one. When we have questions about a choice, look to the expected value of the options for some answers.

Let’s start with the most straightforward example: legitimate uses of Exclusionary Technicalities (ETs). You can see how these are valuable: they are agreed upon domain specific names for objects, phenomena, etc. If we want to speak efficiently and non-circuitously when discussing these things with our peers, we should use the jargon. The more people who use the term for the intended thing, the more valuable the term becomes in the field and the more value it holds for a potential adopter. After a certain percentage of your peers start using the jargon it behooves you to climb aboard. We call this a network effect: the more folks using the jargon, the more valuable it becomes. Network effects can lead to cascades (where everyone sees the value of adopting the jargon as greater than not adopting) and suddenly the jargon is everywhere.

People legitimately using ETs tend to value communication; the jargon’s value to them is in speaking the language their peers speak. The “value function” is stable, producing a value that rises rapidly to a plateau and maintains high value for a long time provided there are no relevant shocks (say, new standards rendering the old ones obsolete). We call this a monotonic externality. The value function tends to go in one direction, up, until the plateau. It doesn’t suddenly reverse with changes in use of the term.

Illegitimate uses of ETs, however, are a slightly different story. For example, I hear of a technology that’s getting a lot of buzz in the tech blogs and that I’m sure all of my clients will want soon. I drop the new jargon in meetings, making myself more attractive to the client. Of course, all other strategists are doing the same thing. The ET, which solidified it’s value in the tech world enough to be noticed in our non-tech world, is clearly of value to a lot of smart people. So, we assume its value without doing any sort of true evaluation. Many other people do the same thing. Next thing you know, everybody’s talking about and asking for AJAX interfaces, or MVC Platforms, yet very few know just what these are. These ETs have become jargon in the bad sense. Now we’re in an Informational Cascade: given a certain number of visible and presumptively knowledgeable adopters, people stop evaluating and go straight to adopting. The more the jargon’s exposed by adopters, the faster it’s adopted by others.

However, informational cascades are very unstable. Once someone actually does stop and try to figure out what’s being talked about, the cascade can be very quickly shattered. Ideas that spread like wildfire can die out just as fast. The jargon then becomes an embarrassment... what was the big freakin’ deal about “Web 2.0”? Then a backlash can set in.

PEus and FuNs are the prime examples of this sort of success followed by backlash. Despite their differences, they tend to follow the same general cycle: acceptance and use followed by derision and annoyance.

This “value function” that increases rapidly creating a cascade and then crashes just as rapidly after a certain point seems to be what’s called a non-monotonic externality. That is, the value of adopting becomes negative after a certain level of adoption within your group; after a certain level of saturation it becomes uncool, embarrassing or simply over-inflated like a linguistic bubble in a socio-cultural market. A value curve like this looks just like a fad or fashion curve.

In this case, the value function is pretty interesting. There’s an element of “network externality” in that jargon serves as shorthand in recurring situations and it’s assortative, defining your in-group. For these reasons, it behooves you to adopt if others in your group are. But then there’s also an element of informational cascade in that we value adoption simply because others are doing it. It’s about unreflective conformity and social learning. So it’s coordinating to a large extent. Still the curve suggests that difference is significant. That is, the value function delivers disvalue given a certain saturation. But our experience with offices is that negative feelings don’t set in until much later than most fads. Often, an office has to be lousy with a particular bit of jargon before we start to hate it.

Everyone’s “value function” is different, of course. Some get annoyed very easily (“misfits”) and others never really get annoyed (“team players”). Also, whether we evaluate jargon negatively or not is very contextual. I could listen two techies spewing jargon at each other all day and not care, but if one of them scares a client with a string of acronyms, I could really get annoyed.

Basically, the big moral is that we all tend to use jargon and it’s not a personal shortcoming. Rather it’s the result of very common social market conditions. Social markets are noted for each actor’s actions being partly determined by the actions of others. Dynamics like this lead to equilibria, but because of things like the fragility of informational cascades and non-monotonic externalities, they are fragile equilibria. We start to disvalue jargon that was once valued (even if non-deliberatively) for, among other reasons, the desire to feel distinct. We don’t like to feel conformist, while at the same time we clearly value a certain amount of conformity (viz. network effects and informational cascades). That’s just the nature of a non-monotonic value curve; the fact that something’s being used by our peers is reason enough to start doing it, but after a certain level of saturation we start to disvalue what we once valued (we can think of slang in similar terms, though the value curve is usually much shorter, thus it’s much more fragile or fickle). So, the conformity arises, but is rebelled against after a certain level of saturation.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Some Things You Should Know Before Developing a Social Site

Designing and building a social site, or “online community,” can be painful. When the client doesn’t understand what leads to success in this space, which is almost always the case, it can be excruciating. Marketers breeze in with MySpace and Facebook sized expectations fueled by the misconception that simply throwing up a mess of loosely themed, content-free social functionality (surrounded by a high wall) will somehow drive “connection” hungry users to their door. Not surprisingly, more often than not these projects fail. And, of course, the designer gets the blame. If the designer’s feature set or IA or visual design had been slightly better, the community would surely have thrived.

This post is a bit of tough love for those embarking on social site development. What I’m about to suggest might sound like the rationalizations of a burned designer, but understanding it can really help manage client expectations. The online social space just doesn’t work the way most of us think it does. Beyond a certain point, things that designers have direct control over tend to be minimally determinative of site success. That is, once your site looks credible/"genre-appropriate", has a non-scary modicum of differentiation and honors the default category expectations, the designer’s direct impact on success dwindles rapidly. Why? Because success in this space is largely (but not solely) driven by subtle, nonlinear social network-based phenomena that have very little to do with the qualities of the actual site itself. Good design is clearly necessary for marketing and sensible development, but it's nowhere near sufficient for success.

Three closely related phenomena seem particularly important to social site success. The first two are what’s called “externalities,” which for our purposes boil down to a person’s behavior being partially determined or influenced by other people’s observable behavior. Bearing that in mind, here are the three tricky phenomena.

1. Informational Cascades

Cascades (for short) are what’s called an informational externality and they impact the decision to join a community. The idea is that it’s cheaper in time and attention (and thus still strictly “rational”) to join a community others join than it is to waste energy mulling over the pros and cons, regardless of your own judgment of community value. Learn from others and, if they’ve done okay, you’ll probably do okay, whatever your personal assessment of site worth may be.

So after a community platform gets some traffic, most users shut off judging for themselves and join because certain relevant others have. Differentiation or design based incentives to lure folks in only really matter for the first n users, where n is relatively small and extremely fickle (so-called early adopters?). After that, the join decision is often based on 1) the fact that others are doing so and 2) the assumption that they must have good informational reasons for doing so. Thus 3) new users often disregard private information, meaning that 4) the information of all but the first n becomes effectively irrelevant. Voilà, exponentially diminishing returns on design outlay (and testing!) beyond a relatively low threshold.

2. Network Effects

Like cascades, these are also a type of “externality,” a consumption or production externality. Network effects impact the perceived value (or utility) of the site both before and after the join. In a nutshell, the value of social functionality increases nonlinearly (some say logarithmically, others exponentially... the jury’s still out) with the total number of users.

Actual details from economists and “theorists” in discussions of network effects are mostly fudged idealizations, but the kernel of truth is that people consider social functionality valuable only if some significant proportion of people (usually friends and acquaintances) are using it. So, your online community might have the coolest social functionality, but if you never managed to get a significant number of folks to make that initial commitment of time and attention (say by having decent content or non-social functionality to get traffic in the first place), you’ll never get off the ground. And without people, a community ain’t... and never will be.

3. Path Dependency

This one tends to be the result of the other two processes working together. Often, the situation the world ends up in is the result of a large number of historical moments in which agents choose between a couple of alternatives. When we’re dealing with externalities like the one’s mentioned above, these small choices in the past can have a startlingly powerful impact on the present. A notorious feature of these path dependent processes is that small (really small) changes in the decisions made by individual users in the past can have radical effects on how the present turns out. Winners could have been losers but for some schmo joining one site and not the other. From this decision, cascades can occur, with incipient network effects following shortly behind. Presto, a path dependent process with significant potential for sub-optimal lock-in.

Some Elaborations and Lessons

Big words, scary ideas, but what does it mean? Below are some simple, realistic consequences of the above ideas with some suggestions for actual development. Keep these in mind when embarking on a social site project and let them guide your expectations and success parameters.

1. This one’s been said a lot, but has never really sunk in. Provide some reason for people to use your site even before there’s any socializing. You need content or independently useful, non-social functionality to get to the point where the externalities discussed can take hold (unless your product is just a cool bit of standalone social functionality like a “widget”).

2. Beyond a certain default determined threshold, fanciness of design and coolness of functionality are only really important in terms of innovation and differentiation not conversion. In other words, they won’t guarantee success (in traffic or use) no matter how relevant they are. They can get you noticed, which may start a cascade among those with a low switching threshold (early adopters?), but if the network effect threshold isn’t reached, you’ll remain niche (sorry, Virb). Remember, though, that trafficking in early adopters is particularly dicey given that they've especially low switching thresholds... they'll abandon you just as easily once something newer and cooler comes along. If they abandon before the cascade can reach a scale large enough to overcome the higher non-early adopter switching thresholds you won't reach your tipping point.

[ASIDE: The iPhone isn’t necessarily a counter-example. It does in a new space (mobile computing) what Apple does everywhere (simplify and amaze) and relies on Apple’s existing converts and proselytizers to fuel uptake (create a cascade). It’s success is the result of an already converted base expecting and getting really cool design, not of really cool design converting all comers regardless of prior commitments.]

3. A hallmark of path dependent processes is that they tend to be “irreversible” to a certain extent. For our purposes, this means that once your users have made an investment of time and attention, switching isn’t as easy (costless) as marketers think; switching isn’t zero-cost and this can create a kind of inertia in users. In other words, just because you build it, that doesn’t mean they’ll come. Users must perceive value significantly greater than the switching cost of time and attention. Without that initial threshold of users (network effects) or initial visible rush (potential cascade), there’s little perceptible value and no informational precedent that tells them joining might be a good idea.

4. The value of testing diminishes rapidly as uptake increases; it’s value is effectively nil beyond the first n users, where n is the “tipping point” (the point where a cascade occurs and network effects can start to be felt). Also, it won’t guarantee success, even if the product tests well. All testing really does for you is ensure you have made something that honors current design and functionality conventions, something that’s not scarily new. It will never guarantee success because you still have to provide extra value to overcome switching costs, no matter how low. And testing certainly won’t allow you to create new competitive landscapes through innovation. So, definitely test but with diminishing value and limited ends in mind. (Remember, this is only really applicable to social sites... transactional sites, etc. tend to get more value out of testing)

5. If the success or failure of online communities is a path dependent process, then copying the design of other social sites in hopes of copying their success makes very little sense. Of course you need to honor conventions, understand defaults and identify areas for relevant differentiation in the space, but beyond this you’re not really generating value (and it’s really lame to boot). Qualities matter insofar as truly bad or scarily unconventional sites won’t be in the running. However, the predictors of success typically aren’t site qualities (the various competitors all do pretty much the same, category-appropriate things), so imitating qualities of successful sites is no guarantee, only a good bet. Finally reproducing the winner is silly given non-negligible switching costs. People won't jump unless your offer exceeds the switching cost set by the current site and its value. Don't offer what they already have because there's no incentive to move.

6. It’s not always the case that the best community (by whatever standard) wins. Informational externalities (cascades) coupled with production/consumption externalities (network effects) often lead to a “sub-optimal” option taking the win. Lock-in as it’s called is clearly observable in situations like the maintained dominance of Windows, the market triumph of VHS over Beta, or (everybody’s favorite) the QWERTY keyboard. Of course, your product needs to be competitive, moderately differentiated and (if this is your thing) “innovative” in a non-alienating way. But developing and (especially!) testing at great expense your new category killer won’t really put you in a better position to recoup your investment. At most it means you’re a standout among the crowd of competitors. Without significant marketing and some lucky breaks, all that extra work simply sets you up to look new, feel cool and keep users IF you get them in the first place. It’s a set of sad facts that the best rarely win, first mover disadvantage is very real online, and the just good enough often get the biggest return (I’m talkin’ about you, MySpace).

Well, those are my observations. Hopefully, you can now embark on your development with clearer vision and a better sense of what can and cannot be accomplished through design. Anyway, hope it wasn't too scary...