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.