Who’s motivating the users?

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Alfred Hitchcock used to say that he never made a “Whodunnit” movie. His movies were “For whom was it done?” In fact a lot of his movies begin with the crime. In some, the victim of the crime turns out to be the criminal himself. What does this have to do with Johnny Holland and experience design? Let’s find out.

In all of Hitchcock’s films, we the audience witness some aspect of the crime. And because Hitchcock was a master of camerawork, and used his camera to let the audience in as a witness, we’re usually in on something that one or more characters don’t know. Jimmy Stewart’s neighbor leaving his apartment in Rear Window, as Jimmy reaches for something he has dropped. The killer’s shadow on the shower curtain in Psycho. A vertiginous zoom in on Kim Novack’s curled hair — an audience reveal that winds up the plot’s second, and formal spiral in the mystery Vertigo.

Hitchcock’s films were as riveting as they were not only for his splendid choices in casting his lead actress, but for his singular talent at subordinating characters to formal puzzles and logics. He is credited as being the first to involve the audience in solving, or “creating,” the film. He was notorious, too, for glossing over his actors’ needs and for attending instead to the visual narration of the particular puzzle at hand. It mattered more to him the direction in which his actors were looking than capturing their motivation.

Hitchcock knew that a mystery thriller could become endlessly suspenseful if actions were not simply as they appeared, but were instead motivated by another, for another, or on behalf of another. This allowed him to continuously shift the “guilt” and “suspicion” from character to character. We in the audience had the job of figuring out who was who, and who was who to whom.

The solution to the puzzle, and to the crime, always came out when relationships among the characters could be resolved.

Action is more interesting when it is a matter of interpersonal motive and relationship, rather than the accomplishment of the task itself completed by the action. It’s a pity there are few good imitators of Hitchcock. (Although there are some; and social films like Crash, Amor es Perros, Red, White, Blue, Babel, and others in which relationships form out of coincidence and chance in a way capture the state of social fragmentation endemic to contemporary society.)

Social media can learn from Hitchcock. We can learn to ask not “What did the user do” but “For whom was it done.” Was it done for his/her own self-image and repute? Was it done for the attention of another? To solicit reciprocal interest of another? To gain notice by a group, club, or circle of peers? To obtain status in front of an audience, or to receive the validation of peers?

I wonder what kinds of social media Hitchcock would design, if he were in our industry. How might he use his “camera” to show the audience something that was off screen to the actors involved in a situation or social interaction. What kinds of relationships he might put people in if he were designing social games. And how he might reveal clues and thread his plot points. Whether the audience might be involved in passing that thread through the warp and woof of a networked social fabric. And how interesting and engaging some of his creations would be, designed not around Who said something but For whom was it said?

Adrian Chan

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

2 comments on this article

  1. Dino on

    what a great post! thanks for the gems to think about ;)

  2. Pingback: alfred hitchcock mystery magazine