Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Designing the Situation: social display and social control

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

Goffman and social display

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

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

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

Social Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social control = structural and normative control

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

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

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

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

So… what now?

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

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