Social Interaction Design Primer II: 2. Action Systems

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We need an action system for our content/information system. Action systems traditionally belong to interaction designers, and they tend to describe actions that are constrained and enabled by the user interface, as well as back-end architecture, features, and functionality. Action systems conventionally hew pretty closely to visual design languages, and there are many standard and conventional systems (including pattern languages) around for user behavior around UI elements, such as pulldowns, lists, multiple selection windows, form pages, wizards, and so on. Action systems describe the user interaction with what is on the screen, and with what the user’s (inter)action does: search > results; submit > preview; mouse over > popup, and so on. The screen can only display so much, so once a user begins to interact, her actions result in new content, windows, screens and so on.

Attention: this article is part of a series.

Action systems are particularly important because they shape and constrain user participation. Here Web 2.0 really differs from 1.0, because the action is with another user, or audience of users, and not with webpage alone. In social media, for example, the “call to action” is often a “call to interaction.” This mightbe a gestural (non-linguistic) interaction, or it might be a communicative (linguistic, video, audio) interaction. The call to interaction germane to social media is the reason we need to adapt some psychology to our framework of interaction: any user’s understanding of what the “call” or appeal means is in part individual/personal, and in part public/social. And of course the user’s own thoughts and understanding of any online interaction is a product of his or her unique style and competence in social interactions, and reflects his or her engagement with online media. This simply means that it is far more difficult to codify the appeals and calls to action on social media than on web 1.0.

The discrete sequences and steps involved in web 1.0 interactions are basic transactions: the user does X and the software/site verifies that X has been done. In web 2.0, the user does, or says X, not to the software application but to other user(s). The software application of course cannot verify what X meant to other users: action X is communicative, and social, and hence a matter of human relationships.

In social media, for example, the “call to action” is often a “call to interaction.”

Online social actions together form social activities. But how do we formalize the social activities on social media? Social media applications and sites can be grouped into categories, according to the theme of their activity. They can be grouped also by their shared interface approaches (page-based, desktop, mobile, etc.). We can group them according to their business model, industry, or other market-oriented utility. We can also group them by using broad interaction and communication types: messaging, feeds, blogging, social networking. Lately, it’s been common to group social media applications by industry terminology, as in: distributed conversations, aggregators, lifestreaming, social presencing, and so on.

These are all valid categories, and serve the purpose of describing and articulating differences well. But they are conceptual groups — none of them is user-centric, and none of them articulates differences of social action as it is intended and experienced by users. As you may have already guessed, I would like to therefore supplement these categories with the characteristics of user and social practices as required by a social interaction design framework.

We use sociology to describe social encounters. As the sociologist Erving Goffman puts it, in any social encounter, “in order to know how to proceed, we need to first know what is going on.” Goffman’s symbolic interactionism becomes incredibly layered and detailed in its analysis of “real” face to face situations, where body language, face, turn-taking, context, ritual, and more combine to “frame” what’s happening in any social encounter. However, social media’s bracketing out of the face, and of co-presence, creates its own characteristics, having as much to do with what’s not there as with what is there.

Our use of symbolic interactionism will borrow concepts specific to the framing of talk, but modified for the mediating transformation of online interaction. For now though, we can move on as long as we understand that a call to interaction is a call to interact socially, not just with a software application.
Action systems in social media are social action systems enabled by web-based or application-based design and interaction elements. The call to action designed into the screen is intended to engage, sustain, and perpetuate participation of individual users (having a “social” experience with other members). For example, where the conventional “user action” is entering text into a form (specifically, a text area), the “social action” may be blogging. Where the “user action” is browsing search results, the “social action” might be viewing potential online dates. And so on. The conventional description of the user act is too technical to capture the meaning of the act to the user, not to mention of the act in a social activity or social practice.

social action systems comprise of user acts, actions, activities, and facilitating social practices

Social action systems are built on the individual user act, which expresses or captures an action, understood over time as an activity. These acts anticipate a personal or social response, and are therefore very different from the “acts” described by conventional software interaction design. Individual and social activities combine in what we call “social practices.” The purpose of social interaction design is to organize and design individual user experience such that, when aggregated, social practices emerge. For example, LinkedIn is used to connect professional user profiles for the purpose of passive and active career/job networking with both colleagues and strangers. The user act may be writing text (using a form page); the action is updating a profile; the activity is maintaining a professional presence in a community of networkers; the social practice is professional online networking. The site where this happens, LinkedIn, is themed: professional networking.

Now, a dating site may use many of the same web design and page elements, buttons, menus, and may even also be organized around profiles, have a discussion board, provide member search by advanced filtering, and so on. But its theme is different, and thus behavior is different, as are codes of conduct and user expectations. Thus an interaction system for social media clearly exceeds what’s on screen. Social action systems should reflect the thematic social activity they support.

Having established that social action systems comprise of user acts, actions, activities, and facilitating social practices, let’s now take a look at two types of social action system.

It can be argued that all user activity on social media communicates — that it all can be understood to mean something to somebody else. But not all user activity is intended to communicate something in particular, or to a particular person. And there is little guarantee that what is intended is how it’s interpreted. Social interaction online includes two kinds of action: symbolic action and communication. What they have in common, and where they are fundamentally different from software interaction systems, is that they mean something. And not just that they mean something, but that what they mean was meant to mean something by another person. All social action is inter-subjective.

Symbolic action - is action or interaction on social media that does not specifically communicate a message to a recipient or audience. It may be a “social” form of individual activity, such as bookmarking, posting video, updating a member profile, or may be gestural, suggestive, or solicitous of a response without making a statement. Social media create ambiguities of user intention in unique ways, and these make for a very rich palette and repertoire of symbolic action.

Communication - is interaction that does communicate a message to a recipient or audience. Communication takes two forms: direct communication and indirect communication. Direct communication is messaging, emailing, writing/recording a communication for somebody (personal or public, individual or audience). Indirect communication is communication that occurs in front of an audience (it’s social) but which is not directly addressed to somebody in particular. Many examples of blogs, tweets, video posts, and so on, are indirect communication. Both solicit responses from others, and both are motivated by an interest in acknowledgment from others, implicitly or indirectly if not explicitly and directly.

Regardless of whether action online is symbolic or communicative, directly or indirectly, it is always social. Users know that there are other users, and are thus aware that what they do online is seen by others. This means that users themselves relate to how they are seen, and whether they are seen participating. Each user will have his or her own understanding of what their actions mean, how they look and appear (to themselves and to other), and this in turn will shape what he or she thinks works, for what, and with what consequences. Without this ambiguity, social media would be not only boring but lifeless.

In the next part of this post we will look at a a current trend in social media: feeds and lifestreaming. Using the status, activity, and news feed (this includes twitter and other lifestreaming apps) as examples of talk, we’ll examine some of the social aspects of both the tools and their uses.

Image by victoriapeckham

Adrian Chan

Adrian Chan is a social media expert and social interaction theorist at Gravity7. You can follow him on twitter at /gravity7

4 comments on this article

  1. Adrian,

    These are really thoughtful posts. You are coming as close as anyone I’ve seen so far to answering the most fundamental question that exists about social media: What is social about social media? Everyone else seems to talk around the question. I have a few thoughts about the approach you are taking that I’ll write up once you finish the series.

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