Social Interaction Design Primer II: 5. Designing to forms of social action

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We have covered just three forms of social action common to one kind of social media application. There are others more important to social networking, profile-based sites, mobile, and other kinds of social media. They include the form of self-presentation (profiles), the form of social networking (friends and friends of friends), the form of social gaming (apps, widgets, and games), to mention just three. But our goal here was to use lifestreaming applications as an introduction to applied social interaction design, and we chose to focus on temporality, audience presence, and communication.

Design choices made will shape whether or not questions are answered personally, by friends, by experts, or by anyone.

Now within each of these forms are design formats. These are more specific and particular than broad forms of mediated social action. We don’t have the time here to detail each, but we would be selling the framework short if we failed to at least mention some examples and explicate how a design language might be described for several of them.

We will take just some of the formats of the form of communication as examples. As noted, lifestreaming applications are fairly unstructured and open. But communication, and social talk in particular, can be very structured. According to Erving Goffman, forms of talk in face to face social encounters include such diverse examples as intimacies, pastimes, games, rituals, and ceremonies, in increasing degrees of structure and organization. Intimacies are highly personal and private, and are navigated by participants by means of personality and individual character, competence, and preference. Rituals, on the other hand, can be virtually devoid of personal qualities and will often rely heavily on role, position, authority, and so on. Lacking the context demanded of rituals, online social interactions by nature tend to emphasize higher degrees of personal handling. But some degree of ritualization does seem to have emerged around conventional online behaviors, especially greetings, acknowledgments, and other examples of interaction in which a preliminary acceptance or rejection sets up later communication.

Designers have of course been working with communication application design interfaces for years. And indeed, message envelope, priority, order and sorting, notifications and alerts, and other design conventions were established in email applications long before their adoption by social media. Similarly, groups, channels, and subscriptions share some number of design standards. And the design of chat, too, has influenced IM, and lifestreaming in turn (as have message boards and web-based discussion boards).

Users may be as or more interested in who is talking than in what she or he is saying

But there are ways to structure talk and communication that deal less specifically with message formatting and navigation and more with the structure of the kind of talk. Questions and answers, for example, are a structured kind of talk. Designers can use question and answer formats to facilitate and display these kinds of exchanges. The designer may also use conventions for the display questions and their answers, ratings, answer threading, answer categorizing, and more. There are some lifestreaming applications built around questions and answers, and there will certainly be more. In each, designers can choose how to route questions (publicly, to a social network, by design, or by text formatting), how to handle answers, how to make them searchable and browsable, how to tag or categorize them, qualify and rank them, verify, validate, accredit, relate them, and so on.

Design choices made will shape whether or not questions are answered personally, by friends, by experts, or by anyone. Those design choices will in turn shape whether or not questioning and answering is a social activity, a personal activity, or whether it serves the purpose of building new relationships, creating a knowledge base, surfacing experts, recommenders, and so on. Without going into the design white-boarding that might accompany these choices, we can see already that just one format of communication (QA) is richly textured and design-ready.

We could also take the example of symbolic exchanges, and of meta-communication in general. Here we deal not necessarily with what is said but with what is meant, and not in words but in hints, suggestions, solicitations, and other non-linguistic forms of symbolic interaction. Symbolic interaction on Twitter and on most lifestreaming apps is conducted with words. Twitter does not have an icon or smiley set available, as most IM and chat applications do. For this reason, the use of @name by convention solicits a written reciprocal acknowledgment. (Users can be nice, generous, or cold and unresponsive, or seem to be, depending.)

There is the example of what we call the message envelope: its urgency, priority, newness, subject, and addressing. Again, lifestreaming applications share the stripped-down design simplicity of flat messaging presentation. All messages look the same, even those that reply to or direct message a user. And there is no distinction between “normal” and “commercial” messages. These enhancements would be easy to imagine, regardless of whether we think they would be improvements to the application. These are important attributes of communication insofar as they tell about the message, conveying how important it is, time sensitive it is, and so on. Currently, lifestreaming apps simply show messages. But a meta-Twitter application that summarized twitter activity might be an interesting tool if it provided visual cues and notifications — sparing the user the need to read messages one by one.

In addition to structuring and organizing communication and messages, we can structure and organize the speakers or participants. Users may be as or more interested in who is talking than in what she or he is saying. Users can be grouped, by their relationships or by their affinity to topics and themes. And of course direct communication between members can be distinguished or separated from the rest of the stream of talk. The formats for these are emerging only now, and will evolve as social technologies proliferate and increasingly go mobile.

It would take significantly more time and space than we have here to outline and arrange the forms and formats of social action for social communication alone, let alone other forms and their related formats. And these would only address the interactions on social media. We are already seeing games and experiences that play with the meta-data and representation of online social interaction, and these would require their own frameworks of social action. For this reason we will stop here and conclude with a view to what comes next for social media.

We conclude this post in the next and final part.

Image by timparkinson

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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