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.

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