Social Interaction Design Primer II: 4. Forms of Action

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In order to proceed now with these examples, we need to develop our framework further to account for and describe what’s on the screen in terms of individual user experiences and aggregate social practices. We will do this on the basis of the social action systems touched on above. We will structure these social action systems into forms. While an imperfect term, “form” conveys the degree of structure and organization as well as materiality we are looking for. “Frames” could work also, or possibly “formats” — but both of those terms carry other connotations. Frames are used mostly with “perspectives” of experience; and formats for visual treatments or media forms. Our forms of social action will be user-centric, in that they will start from user activity and behavior, but will accommodate the resulting production of social content also. These forms will combine social media acts, actions, and activities, and provide us with an interpretive schema layered on top of conventional interface and design frameworks. Forms support the two major types of social action, but are material technical implementations, and so require slightly different treatment. They have a several components, including: visual, functional, temporal, and content components. (Note that forms do not describe user intentions or motives—those require a psychological framework for user behaviors. The psychology of social media use practices will describe what users “think” is going on; forms will describe what we think is going on.)

The social media “forms” of social action most germane to lifestreaming and feed-based applications are temporal forms (for sustaining talk over time); forms of creating audience presence (a sense of presence is a must for any social conversation tool); and forms of communication (for identifying the what, where, and for whom of communication).

Temporal forms
Temporal forms are perhaps the most interesting, because they require some visualization of (past) time. All social media “design time” insofar as preserve past interactions and content, and all are used over time insofar as they become a part of regular habits and routines. But there are two kinds of time: lived time, and incremental time. Put differently, the time which has rhythm, pacing, speeds and intensities (boring, exciting); and the time we use to measure and which is all equal: minutes, hours, days. Time is a challenge for visual design languages. The “lived time” of social media lacks the continuity of face to face encounters, and is best described as discontinuous. Furthermore, it is asynchronous: interactions are out of synch, and what may be a highly-attentive stretch for one user could easily be out of step with his or her friends. (Members of dating sites and chat-oriented communities often have routines, such as after work and late night, which supply some of the sense of “being there” that comes with being together.)

In lifestreaming applications, content, usually posted messages and items, is displayed in order of newest to oldest — as is common to email, chat, and IM (messaging apps). Messages are browsed or read by means of paging back (Twitter over web) or scrolling down (Twitter in desktop application). Dipity, Swurl, and Twittervision exemplify several alternatives: left to right scrolling through a timeline; flipbook for flipping messages one at a time; and mapping for attaching messages to place. For the most part, however, the chronological form is adequate and little other navigation encumbers flow-oriented application design. It helps that Twitter is designed to be an app for “now,” or for present-tense communication. In fact Twitter archives do not stretch back more than a couple days on most clients.

Is this the only way to design time-based applications? Is an application like Twitter simple because our needs and uses for it are simple, or because content belongs to a now and a recent past — as opposed to sections, categories, pages, lists, and so on? Chronology is not the only means by which to structure or organize temporal activities. Talk, for example, uses turns as a means of organizing time when there are several participants involved. Turn-taking comes from face to face conversation, and structures participation such that a “round” of talk “sticks to the topic.” Participants “take the floor” to talk, then hand it to somebody else. And Twitter, notably, does not handle turn-taking well. Twitter’s open-ness and unstructured-ness preempts the visual continuity that commenting on Facebook status updates successfully provides. In fact Twitter is by some accounts leaving many of the benefits of serialized social interaction to others: Friendfeed and Facebook’s news, activity, and status feeds most significantly.

Serialization is visualized differently by several lifestreaming applications. These applications either provide alternative views of message archives, or complement the conventional message list with these alternatives. These visualizations include flip-books (page through messages), horizontal timelines, slideshows, and calendar views. is an example of a lifestreaming service that invites users to create narratives out of their feeds, thus taking the “serialization” of daily activity streams literally and visually. (Facebook’s implementation of commenting builds comment threads, or “loops in time” attached to particular updates.) None of these create a different “temporality” but are different ways of viewing archives (the past).

Presence is the hidden dimension of the temporal continuity sustained during an open state of talk. In co-present social encounters, participants need to be in close enough proximity to be able to hear, if not see, one another. How then does an application like twitter establish this kind of presence? And since social media deal in non co-present interactions and encounters, are we not talking about a dimension better described for what it lacks than what it avails? Indeed, presence can only be signaled or indicated online — like temporality online, presence is discontinuous and asynchronous, or absent.

When we talk about presence in social media, we mean several things: the indication of a user’s presence; indication that the user may be paying attention; and indication that the user is available for communication or other interaction. A user’s state of presence may be indicated as “currently online” — as in case of synchronous or state-aware applications. Or it may simply be built into the assumption (social practice) of the application’s use. A user’s attentiveness, too, can be indicated or assumed, although indicating that a user is presently paying attention is of course difficult, barring use of live video/webcam. And a user’s presence availability for interaction, likewise, is indicated or assumed (we can usually tell when a user is active, and when s/he may simply have “checked in” but has not indicated active participation).

The fact that audience presence and interest is motivating to many users is clear from the amount of attention so many users pay to their stats.

Presence provides a ribbon of discontinuous attention across talk-based tools in general. But we can use the example of twitter to tease out a few observations of the particular modes of presence common to social media. For one, the less that is indicated, or made explicit, in the form of an application’s user presence status (“online now”), or as a user declaration (such as a question posted to twitter, which would suggest that the user will watch for replies), the greater the ambiguity raised with respect to presence, attentiveness, and availability. This may seem at first to be an inefficiency of the application. But as we have said, social media benefit from ambiguity: it can engage, motivate, and often captivate users. Ambiguity of presence then takes shape in user experiences like “is anyone here?”, “are you here?”, “did you get my message/see my post?”, “are you ignoring me or do you disagree with me, not like me, or simply not want to talk to me right now?” In face to face interactions, these are easily handled by facework, looking at and looking back, use of body language, and of course suggestive language and statements. They are not so easily handled on feed-based apps like twitter, and thus become a factor of the user experience and of emergent social practices. Ambiguity piques user interest. (The kind of interest piqued is a matter for an article on user psychology.)

Discontinuous temporality and presence through absence thus form the “situation” or context of talk-based tools, and their production of “time” in particular. Let’s move on then to the matter of assembling an audience. Unlike social networking sites, the audiences on many feed-based applications are open: in the form of a public timeline. Audiences are comprised of followers, friends, and a public. Indications of an audience’s membership and presence are critical to talk-based tools, for the obvious reason that users are interested in posting to audiences, either of known friends, individual users, or “everyone” at large. And users are not just interested in the audience, but in being seen by the audience. (Given the choice between being on stage with no audience, and being in an audience, there are those who would prefer being on stage.) The application can show the audience present for an interaction, or show the audience comprised of a user’s followers, or simply reference the “possible” audience by means of a user’s network, or the greater web in general. The fact that audience presence and interest is motivating to many users is clear from the amount of attention so many users pay to their stats. Audiences can be indicated by means of numbers of people, numbers of links, comments, numbers of views or visits, and even ratings, diggs, bookmarks, and so on. Again, there’s ambiguity between audience size and audience attentiveness and engagement, and again, this ambiguity can be motivating and compelling. Every social media user is compelled first and foremost by the possibility that his or her presence is noticed, acknowledged, distributed, and liked, for the simple reason that the user’s position and status in relation to other users is undermined by physical and temporal separation.

We could say much more about the differences between talk-based and feed-based applications and how they assemble audiences and indicate their presence. But for now, let’s just touch on the most recent development in gathering social media audiences: aggregation of distributed conversations. Applications like Friendfeed, SocialMedian, Swurl, and numerous others aggregate the “conversation space” by pulling in feeds and comments on feed items for convenient viewing and participation. Aggregators are tackling the problem of audience fragmentation created by the proliferation of social media applications and the acceleration of talk and commenting across them — and of the adoption of faster, shorter posts in an ecosystem of increasing proximity and presence. Unfortunately, aggregators only partially succeed, for their existence adds to the list of talk-based applications. Clearly, the need for a user-centric application interface to a user’s relevant friend, colleague, and topical news sources and feeds begs addressing. Destination sites all hope to become the few preferred means of getting this done.

Aggregators address the problem of audience presence by collecting incoming feeds and messages. However, for each aggregator to provide the use and social value promised on top of information value, it needs a user base of active members. The audience problem cannot be solved by aggregating pipelines alone.

Finally, feed and talk-based applications of course organize and facilitate communication. As we saw, communication may be direct or indirect. Messages are posted to a person or audience directly when they are addressed to that audience, or indirectly when they are just posted in front of an audience. Communication itself comprises message content (what is said) and meta-message communication (what is solicited, suggested, and implied beyond what’s stated in words themselves). Linguistic types exist that are common to social media, for example, simple declarations of fact, intent, and feeling; requests and questions; recommendations; invitations; greetings and sign-offs; and more. Some linguistic types are less common, for example: instructions, commands, orders, and special speech acts such as pronouncements (the “I do” of a wedding) and physical threats.

It’s a fact of communication that the information in the utterance is separate from the utterance itself, that in other words what is said is not said just in the saying of it. This distinction between “performing” speech and saying something opens up the intentional and interpretive possibilities for communication, and this is doubled again when a medium is involved. For the medium requires first that communication is captured, or rendered as an artifact. It’s the artifact that is posted/distributed, not the performance. Any recording of communication is thus already at one remove from the act of performing the communication.

There is a further dimension to communication critical to designing talk-based social media. It is the conversion of communication into an action system. Strictly defined, publishing is communication, but it requires no action. In social media, communication solicits action (interaction, or participation). An action system exists when communication is followed by the act of acceptance or rejection (of what is communicated). Here, too, ambiguity arises, for the communication can be accepted without being agreed with. In fact, it can be accepted without even being understood — either in terms of what it says or what its author intended. Furthermore, a person can acknowledge the person communicating and not in fact accept what is communicated, thus committing to communication without accepting its claims. Any of these aspects of communication may come into play with social media. Thus a tool like twitter can be many things to just as many people, according to the ways in which they tend to communicate, and according to the aspects of communication that compel or touch them the most.

In the next section we look at designing to different forms of social action, looking at communication in particular.

Image by voght


Adrian Chan

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

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