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.

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