Framing culture as a choice – using the “X over Y” formula

Recently I finished reading “Whiplash – how to survive our faster future” by Joi Ito, Director of MIT Media Lab and Jeff Howe – who coined the phrase crowd-sourcing. Media Lab has a reputation for innovative, highly experimental projects that push at the boundaries between art, technology, learning and society. “Whiplash” discusses 9 core principles that operate at Media Lab – and why they might be relevant more broadly where innovation is found.

"Whiplash" by Joi Ito and Jeff Howe

“Whiplash” by Jeff Ito and Jeff Howe

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7 fundamentals of design – and how they apply to online spaces

In “It’s complicated – the social lives of networked teens”, Danah Boyd considers the four affordances of online networks (the first of which I’ve discussed here). An affordance is a term that originates from the field of design, and recently I’ve been reading “The Design of Everyday Things” by Donald Norman, where he starts by explaining 7 fundamental design ideas. Here I consider how each can be applied to online spaces.

i) Discoverability

Usually when the word discoverability is used about the Internet it refers to how easy content is to find – either due to SEO or the intrinsic properties of the site hosting the content. Discoverability when referring to design is something different – it’s whether it’s possible to figure out how to use an object by interacting with it.

Online, many of the sites that we interact with use at least some features in common that guide us in how to use them. These might include navigation bars in the top and/or the sidebar of pages, dropdown menus and possibly even hover text with additional explanatory information. However, as we all know from experience, some sites are better than others at indicating how exactly to move between desired pages, or where particular features are located. For example, Facebook has been criticised many times over the years for not making its privacy settings easier to find and apply.

ii) Affordances

The affordance of an object is the possible use for that object once a user interacts with it. The key to the definition is that interaction is needed – an affordance depends on the qualities of the object and the capabilities of the person using it. A website might use a specific type of video player, but if users with certain browsers or smartphones cannot view the videos then the affordance of watching video is not available to them.

In terms of content shared in online spaces, Boyd lists persistence, visibility, searchability and spreadability as the four key affordances. However, if we go by the definition above, others such as the ability to participate in a conversation via a comment thread might also be included.


Drinking coffee, reading a book – but not with coffee poured from the pot on the book cover! Image credit: author’s own.


iii)  Signifiers

How do we discover what affordances are possible? Signifiers act as signs to indicate affordances. Online these could be a call-to-action button within an email, descriptive images in a carousel that invite you to read a particular news story, or a coloured section of a page indicating where you should look. They could also be a particular icon – such as the Facebook “thumbs-up” showing when you too can “like” a piece of content. Or they could be social sharing buttons, encouraging the reader to spread the content more widely.

Another good example is the “slide to unlock” text on the iPhone lock screen. Not only does it tell you what you need to do to operate the device, there is also an arrow indicating which direction you need to swipe in, and the text illuminates repeatedly letter by letter in that direction.

Signifiers don’t necessarily have to be deliberate to give away information about their environment. For example, as Norman points out, a bookmark doesn’t just indicate where in a book to resume reading; it also indicates how far through the book you are. Similarly, online, the number of likes or votes that an item of content has received may indicate how enjoyable the content is likely to be, but can also act as a signifier of how likely the content is to have been shared – and therefore how often it might have been seen.

iv) Mapping

Mapping is used to indicate the relationship between two sets of things – such as switches and the corresponding lights that they control. It’s often used when designing controls and displays.

Natural mapping is particularly useful in online design because it takes advantage of actions that we’re already familiar with – such as swiping through something to delete it and swiping down to refresh a smartphone page and pull more content into the window.

Another example of mapping is social network timelines, which typically show older content at the bottom and more recent activity at the top. One of the complaints about Facebook tweaking newsfeed settings is not just that it changes which content appears in your newsfeed, but that Facebook’s algorithm violates their instinctive mapping. The content no longer follows a strictly chronological sequence – older, more popular content may sit above an update made 5 minutes ago by a different friend.

v) Constraints

Providing constrains on what is possible with an object can help to clarify how to use it and what it’s for. For example, the handles on scissors constrain the user to only be able to fit one digit into the top hole, while she can fit all the remaining fingers into the larger, lower hole.

Tweets are an obvious example of an online constraint – only 140 characters are permitted for each tweet – and this is clearly signified by a counter that displays how many characters are still available to the user. A tweet therefore affords the user the ability to share small pieces or text including links to other media.

vi) Feedback

Feedback is important to help us understand how to interact with objects and what effect our actions have had on the object or system. Too much or too noisy feedback, however, can be distracting and impair the ability to use the item smoothly. Online feedback might be in the form of additional information appearing on a page. Or it could be a pop up window indicating that an action has successfully occurred or that there has been an error that the user needs to know about.

One of the challenges with feedback online is that it can also be used to encourage engagement and that can make for a frequently interrupted experience. For example, a popup window may not only be used to tell you about something that you did, it might also be used to point you towards content that may be of interest, such as a promotion, a survey, or even an online chat bot to help you with your purchase.

Another interesting issue about feedback is that new users typically need more than experienced ones do – and what is initially helpful can quickly become annoying as a user becomes more comfortable with a product. A human teacher will tailor their feedback to the needs of a learner, but we need to make sites sensitive to how much a user already knows.

vii) Conceptual model

A conceptual model is how the user understands a system to work and is important for giving the user a sense of control (think how frustrated you get when you can’t figure out how to setup the new TV!). With a clear conceptual model, discoverability is enhanced – the user can figure out how to do new things or try variations on existing things. She can also evaluate the results of the actions that she takes.

An example of a conceptual model online is the idea that content spreads on Twitter by being re-tweeted and that this provides a good mechanism of attracting new followers. This model may suggest to the user that she should experiment with what time of day to tweet, how often to tweet and what types of content to share in order to be retweeted more frequently.

Better by design

Next time you’re struggling to figure out the settings on your favourite social network, or enjoying an app or website, consider how each of the above principles has been applied (or not). I’d love to hear in the comments about any great or ghastly experiences you might have had!

2014 in books

One of the things that I wanted to do with my “sabbatical” was to delve more deeply into some of the literature related to [online] communities. Below follows short overviews of some of the books that I read this year. If you’ve got any recommendations of your own, please do add them in the comments.

The Death and Life of Great American CitiesJane Jacobs

This was one of those books that was recommended to me from multiple directions in strikingly coincidental short succession. So I finally conceded that I should read it, even though urban planning seemed a strange topic to spend my free time thinking about…

How wrong I was to have not read this sooner! Jacobs, a resident New Yorker, uses many examples from her home town to lead a fascinating discussion about what’s wrong with how we think about cities. She places particular emphasis on why the street is such an important unit in planning successful communities. Excitingly, I could see various parallels with online communities, and how social network design could benefit from some of Jacobs’ theory. For example, when talking about the role of the street, Jacobs identifies 3 key factors that enable streets to contribute to a sense of safety in neighbourhoods (quoted directly):

  1. There must be a clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space.
  2. There must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on the street equipped to handle strangers and to insure the safety of both the residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs or blank sides on it and leave it blind.
  3.  The sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously, both to add to the number of effective eyes on the street and to induce the people in buildings along the street to watch the sidewalks in sufficient numbers. Large numbers of people entertain themselves off and on by watching street activity.

I think there are clear parallels with how the Twitter stream operates, for example. This prompted me to bloabout the ideas at the intersection of Jacobs’ and Danah Boyd’s work – specifically thinking about online safety. I would love to consider this topic some more in 2015.

Jane Jacobs, urban planning, and the need for concentration. Sunny day in a deck chair with afternoon tea optional ;) Image credit: author's own.

Jane Jacobs, urban planning, and the need for concentration. Sunny day in a deck chair with afternoon tea optional 😉
Image credit: author’s own.

It’s complicated – the social lives of networked teensDanah Boyd

I really enjoyed Danah Boyd’s dissection of the various beliefs about how teenagers use social networks – indeed, it was probably my favourite book of 2014. But it’s not simply an internet explainer/debunking of scare stories for the worried parent. Yes, each chapter addresses a topic of potential misunderstanding – from online identity, to privacy, to the naive belief that the internet is a great leveller. But, Boyd frames many of her arguments in relation to the 4 affordances of online networks – the behaviours that the various online tools make possible.  I enjoyed considering persistence, visibility, searchability and spreadability as key factors in sharing content online – and have started a series of my own musings about these affordances. More to come on this topic in 2015.

Context collapse is the other big idea that has been picked up from the book. It occurs when people comment on content that they may technically be able to see, but which was not meant for them to publicly interact with e.g. your mum commenting on the photos of the party you went to last night.

Alone TogetherSherry Turkle

This is a classic text that’s often quoted when considering the influence of modern technology on interpersonal relationships. Turkle, who’s spent many years at MIT as technology and society specialist, describes the results of almost 15 years of interviews with adults and children about their interactions with technology. The first half of the book focuses on interactions between people and robots, while the second half focuses on our lives online, including how cell phones are enabling us to be constantly connected.

Turkle’s thesis is that by being constantly available for many small interactions – from text messages to IMs – we’re finding deeper emotional intimacy more elusive: “Technology promises to let us do anything from anywhere with anyone. But it also drains us as we try to do everything everywhere. We begin to feel overwhelmed and depleted by the lives technology makes possible. We may be free to work from anywhere, but we are also prone to being lonely everywhere. In a surprising twist, relentless connection leads to a new solitude. We turn to new technology to fill the void, but as technology ramps up, our emotional lives ramp down.”

However, Turkle also acknowledges that while being online may now feel very familiar, it’s still early days for deciding as a society how we use the internet. By observing and reflecting on how we use technology to engage with other people online, we can decide how we would like these technologically-mediated relationships to evolve in the future. This certainly seems to be echoed in the various blog posts on the theme of “digital detoxing”. There’s also an increasing emphasis on messaging apps that allow us to share directly with specific friends, rather than the broadcast model of sharing that we became familiar with thanks to Facebook.

In summary, I found the second half of this book especially interesting, but its conclusions are based primarily on what seem to be small-scale interview data, and they cover a range of different online environments – from multi-player games to the use of social networks by teens. As Boyd’s book illustrates, these are complex topics, each of which can require many different studies to refute what may have been “intuitive” ideas about identity, privacy and internet addiction. It was good to read both in quick succession and compare.

Everything is obvious – once you know the answer – Duncan Watts

As they say, “Hindsight is always 20:20” and Duncan Watts argues that this is exactly the problem when trying to make conclusions about group behaviour after events have taken place. We convince ourselves that there were obvious, rational reasons why the stock market plummeted or that catchy song topped the charts, and yet we remain poorly placed to make predictions for future events. “Everything is obvious…” includes examples from Watts’ own work, such as the MusicLab online experiment that he used to demonstrate the importance of social cues (“the rich get richer effect“) on the popularity of content in social networks.

Society and the Internet – how networks of information and communication are changing our lives

This collection of short essays, edited by two members of the Oxford Internet Research Institute, considers a wide range of studies of the Internet – from our relationship to our online profiles to the role of social media in journalism. There are also chapters on the economics of attention (and implications for advertising) as well as sections on big data.

The most interesting chapters for me focused on digital democracy – including whether the Internet has been used successfully to engage voters in discussions about politics. One chapter considered the importance of personal networks in the success of online petitions, noting that for the two UK government sites studied, a petition lived or died in the first 24 hours after it was posted (where living or dying is defined as being on track to obtaining the minimum number of signatures required for Downing Street to issue an official response about the petition’s topic).

Another chapter analysed the promises made by the current UK coalition government to use the Internet as a tool to encourage political debate, concluding that there is a lack of places for genuine deliberation online. Instead, the favoured route to gathering public opinion is aggregation e.g. via petitions, upvoting or hashtags that cluster individuals with similar opinions. However, aggregation does not provide an opportunity for participants to exchange, discuss and modify their beliefs.  How we create forums for deliberation is something I’d like to focus on in more detail in 2015.

Learning about society and the Internet in a local cafe this summer. Image credit: author's own.

Learning about society and the Internet in a local cafe this summer. Image credit: author’s own.

The Book of Trees – Manuel Lima

This was prize fruit from an afternoon of book store foraging, and provided a beautiful visual break from some of the other books I was reading. The book is an exploration of the use of tree diagrams as communication tools for over 800 years, with gorgeous images ranging from computer-generated visualisations of linguistic relationships to hand-drawn scientific diagrams and mythological imagery. A lovely, visual take on how we depict relationships between things, and over time.

The book of trees - visualizing branches of knowledge. Image credit: author's own.

The book of trees – visualizing branches of knowledge. Image credit: author’s own.

Buzzing CommunitiesRichard Millington

Buzzing Communities is a great starting point – or opportunity to reframe your thoughts – for anyone working with online communities. Millington outlines 8 elements that he believes every community manager should include in their role, and devotes a chapter to each. The chapters consider what is practically involved in each area, and which metrics to track in order to determine whether your activities are working. Topics covered include: planning events, creating content calendars, building meaningful relationships with community members, and when to step in if discussions are getting heated.

There’s some referencing to research literature throughout the book, but it’s my sense that because this is a rapidly evolving area, there are likely to be omissions. For example, there’s a quick comment in one chapter about putting all your important info above the fold, but recent data and discussions about this topic are less clear-cut. Ditto some of the information about encouraging online discussions, where I’d like to see some more reference to areas such as Communications Studies, and to recent trends with moderating comment threads on news articles. These changed have ranged from closing comments entirely, to introducing new tools to encourage better commenting, to studying the influence of participating editors on the amount of deliberation in comments sections. Perhaps one of the main issues is that this book aims to cover a lot of ground, and to delve into the key literature in many of the areas would probably be a book in its own right.

Finally, one thing I particularly liked was the emphasis on a proactive rather than reactive mode for community management, to ensure that time is being spent on areas that will have most overall benefit for the community as a whole, instead of being side-tracked by small, noisy flare-ups.

Co-ordinating communities - dressing for the role ;) Image credit: author's own

Co-ordinating communities – dressing for the role 😉 Image credit: author’s own

Dealing with Disrespect – Jono Bacon

Jono Bacon is the former Ubuntu community manager who has extensive experience working with online communities. His first book, the Art of Community, is a great introduction to community management, delivered in Bacon’s straightforward style, yet covering a lot of ground. In 2014 he followed this with Dealing with Disrespect, a freely available online handbook for coping with difficult interactions online.

Much of the emphasis here is on developing empathy, and improving our individual communication skills – things that I’d certainly agree are good foundations for any successful conversation. But after the abuse problems that have become increasingly apparent on Twitter this year, it’s hard to believe that these suggestions alone are enough to counter what feel like much deeper cultural issues.

So how do we create safe online spaces? And whose role is it to intervene when things turn unacceptably nasty? Can community management ever successfully mediate a truly meaningful exchange of opinions, or is there an acceptance that we retreat to more private spaces for difficult conversations? Or perhaps we decide that we can converse only with those who share our opinions? I’m interested in how these conversations develop in 2015.

Sharing our lives online – risks and exposures in social media – David R. Brake

I’ve not finished this yet, but I’m enjoying the perspective on why we choose to share online, and the possible consequences. Brake starts by detailing the various potential harms from posting online and then moves to consider scholarly perspectives on what motivates us to share, as well as what is different about social media compared to offline interactions. This includes the concepts of time and memory online – something I’ve been particularly interested in this year (e.g. when considering the persistence of online content). Looking forward to reading the rest of this.

Sharing our lives online - or jotting down thoughts in our notebooks?  Image credit: author's own

Sharing our lives online – or jotting down thoughts in our notebooks?
Image credit: author’s own

Additional reading

  • Critical Mass – how one thing leads to another – Philip Ball. An easy-to-follow and wide-ranging exploration of human behaviour in terms of  the actions of groups. Too much to summarise in a single post with topics including modelling diversity, the economics of markets and traffic flow.
  • Six degrees – the science of a connected age – Duncan Watts –  A network science classic, not reviewed here partly due to lack of space, partly because it’s already reviewed online, and partly because I realised fairly early on this year that online behaviour and technology was what I wanted to explore in more detail, rather than more mathematical approaches to network theory.
  • Triumph of the city – Edward Glaeser – I read this as part of my explorations of social networks as online cities. It’s not strictly relevant, but had some interesting chapters about what causes urban decline and the relative “economics” of urban and rural spaces.

And what’s next on my list…


The comfort of strangers – finding safety by putting eyes on the digital street

I recently read Danah Boyd’s “It’s complicated” which I enthusiastically recommend as a great dissection of many common concerns about the Internet. Boyd devotes chapters to topics such as identity, privacy, danger and addiction, discussing them in relation to the behaviour of teens online. In addressing the fears that adults have – many of which are seeded by media scare stories, she argues – Boyd is clearly flying a flag that proclaims “The kids are alright”. However, many of the ideas that she presents apply well beyond teens, and provide great starting points for conversations about our collective online behaviour and the assumptions we may have made about it.

One of the sections of the book that particularly caught my attention was the conclusion of the chapter on danger. The majority of the chapter refutes the media-inflated idea that kids who use the internet are at risk from strangers lurking in chat rooms or on social networks.  Boyd argues the dangers to teens on the internet are not as scary as news stories might have us believe.

But she also acknowledges that teens do occasionally end up in destructive situations online. She explains that this is usually the product of troubles in their offline lives, ones that give them reasons to engage in risky or damaging behaviour online. In one example, a teenage girl detailed her struggles with abuse and suicidal thoughts via a public YouTube video, which tragically failed to get her the support that she clearly needed.

Why are cries for help and other warning signs of underlying misery often ignored online, or fail to attract the attention of adults who could intervene to help? One of the reasons Boyd provides is that adults are turning a blind eye to the struggles of others in an effort to protect their own children. By banning their kids from hanging out in online spaces (where they fear their kids may encounter others with problems) adults remove the eyes – and the support networks they could attract – that those in trouble really need.

Community – the digital eyes have it

In concluding the chapter, Boyd urges us to stop turning our backs so that we face away from the “scary” interactions we might find online. And to stop hoping that turning inwards will mean that the bad things will no longer be a threat to us or our loved ones. As she explains,  “When parents create cocoons to protect their children from potential harms, their decision to separate themselves and their children from what’s happening outside their household can have serious consequences for other youth, especially those who lack strong support systems. Communities aren’t safe when everyone turns inward; they are only safe when people work collectively to help one another and those around them.

Just as on a street, removing our adult eyes from the digital street leaves it an unwatched space, one where neither we (nor anyone else) will notice when it’s important to intervene.  “People may appear to ignore a child biking down the street,” says Boyd, “but in a healthy community, if the child falls off the bike, concerned individuals will come out to help because they are all paying attention. Young people need the freedom to explore and express themselves, but we all benefit from living in an environment in which there’s a social safety net where people come together to make sure that everyone’s doing ok.

Boyd notes that her call for eyes on the digital street to create a safe atmosphere is an extension of an idea that urban theorist, Jane Jacobs presents in her book “The death and life of Great American Cities”. Intrigued, I decided to take a closer look.

The digital street - stairway to heaven or highway to hell? Image credit: Flickr user Magdalena Roeseler:

The digital street – stairway to heaven or highway to hell?
Image credit: Flickr user Magdalena Roeseler:

Urban planning theory – and the digital street

Jacobs’ book is a strong criticism of urban planning in large cities in the US. It’s also surprisingly readable, and a fascinating consideration of the social dynamics of how and why people use spaces in cities. The more I read, the more I saw parallels with online interactions – not just among teens, but more generally among anyone using shared online spaces.

Cities, unlike small villages, are places where we expect that the majority of residents will be complete strangers. And yet these strangers can create dynamics that ensure that there’s an environment that feels safe. Jacobs argues that one of the functions of streets is to create that safety, which is achieved via the following 3 conditions (quoted directly from Jacobs’ book):

  1. There must be a clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space.
  2. There must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on the street equipped to handle strangers and to insure the safety of both the residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs or blank sides on it and leave it blind.
  3.  The sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously, both to add to the number of effective eyes on the street and to induce the people in buildings along the street to watch the sidewalks in sufficient numbers. Large numbers of people entertain themselves off and on by watching street activity.

Sharing our online sidewalk stories

Doesn’t this also describe the way things might work in some places online? Many of us are strangers to each other on the Internet. Our feeds on social networks such as Twitter are full of people we haven’t necessarily met in person, despite reading their musings for years. And yet Twitter probably fulfils the three conditions Jacobs defines:

  1. There is a clear demarcation between public and private – we share what we want people to know, and there is an unspoken etiquettes that usually results in everyone respecting the context in which the information is shared. So, for example, you might live tweet the talks at a public event, but the private conversations you have in the bar afterwards don’t end up online
  2. There are plenty of eyes on the Twitter stream (although what those eyes are engaged with i.e. who they choose to follow, is a matter of personal choice much as you might choose which neighbourhood you live in)
  3.  There are “people on the street” at all times of day as users around the world interact with each others.

So in light of this, how many of us feel that the eyes that we put on our digital streets are not just looking for information or entertainment, but are actually looking out for each other? How feasible is this and does it differ from street to street, platform to platform?

In considering some of the factors that might affect a willingness to look out for one another, how big is your digital street, your community? And what determines whether you’d offer to help if you saw someone in trouble, either because they were being publicly harassed or because a change in their behaviour indicated that they might need a hand? Perhaps you feel more comfortable reaching out via a back channel, rather than in public. Or do the ties to a semi-stranger feel too weak so that it would be awkward to get involved at all?

Does this kind of helpfulness also extend to keeping your digital street in good order in other ways such as reporting spam, blocking bots and encouraging good behaviour by upvoting liking or resharing content that you’d like to see more of?

I’d love to hear your feedback and ideas in the comments!