Behavior: hard-wired or soft-aware?

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Josh Porter has a nice post out this week on the importance of taking user behaviors into account in social experience design. In Behavior First, Design Second, he makes use of an example I often use myself: what if twitter removed the follower count from user profiles? But I differ with Josh’s reasoning that some social behavior is hardwired.

It may be the case that certain human qualities are enduring attributes of human nature (ack, don’t like that term…). It may be that from the Ten commandments through to the Seven deadly sins, qualities like vanity, jealousy, greed and some number of others are simply human. But if they are, I’m inclined to consider them impulses, inclinations, tendencies — effects but not causes. I like to think that these social qualities are most often reactive, are responses to situations, social context, and social relationships or dynamics.

Josh cites the accumulation of followers on twitter as an example of a tendency to collect. It might be that all humans are inclined to collect; I’m more inclined to think that collecting is a social phenomenon. Be that as it may, collecting is related in my mind to ownership and possession. It’s related also, but in a different way, to numbers and magnitudes. A collection is a number of things and a pile of things. It might be that I like the pile, or that I like the number. It might be that I can show off the collection, or talk about how many… Owning and telling are different in my book.

Collecting, then, isn’t to me the behavioral explanation that Josh puts forward, but is a behavior behind which may be different psychological motives:

  • Some twitter users may collect followers and be happy in their hearts for the number they can count
  • Some may think about being seen having a large number of followers
  • Some may think about their own status in terms of their follower count
  • Some may think about the attention they’re getting from their followers

In other words, counting followers is a design-related behavior in which other motivational and psychological (and psychosocial) factors are implicated:

  • status is derived from number of followers
  • attention is attributed to number of followers
  • status is projected onto number of followers
  • status is associated with some important followers (not all followers collected are the same!)
  • vanity is reflected in a number of followers

In other words:

  • Collecting can have a social function: expressing or standing for status or position
  • Collecting can have a communicative function: a representation of status to others
  • Collecting can have a personal function: making one feel that there’s an audience that pays attention

and so on…

Collecting is probably not the original or primary cause or motivation behind the follower behaviors seen on twitter. We may count things, but I don’t think that’s grounds to assume that we count people in the same way. Yes, we count the number of people, but that’s not quite the same. The number can represent and signify to others; our motives for signifying are not our motives for collecting.

I think it is probably more likely that the follower phenomenon on twitter can also be explained by means of interaction design. Twitter is a communication tool. Communication, as a system of action or interaction is contingent on the participation of another person. I can tweet, but I cannot do anything to make somebody else respond. This may be the single-most common reason that new users stop using twitter — they simply don’t get anything back. The only type of interaction that does work, independent of any other user’s attention, recognition, response (etc) is following.

I would claim that following provides success. It’s an action that works, an action that can be completed without involving interpersonal or social contingency. It’s an action that to many users may also serve as a friendly gesture (I’m following you!); which may also involve an expectation (follow me back!), and these have little to do with collecting and a lot to do with exploring the sociality of a tool using competencies developed over a lifetime.

In fact one could argue, though it’s a bit of a stretch, that the expectation for reciprocal following (which is the habit of new users) is a social workaround to the asymmetry of relations designed into twitter. That symmetry is preferred, socially speaking, to asymmetry: and an etiquette of reciprocity is the hack that overcomes the design flaw…

I just wanted to comment on this because it is endlessly fascinating. And because I think the motives in social interaction are multiple, escape attribution to a single behavior or practice (eg collecting), and should be understood and unpacked with an eye to the social dynamics of the site or service in question. Social media interactions are a result of social dynamics, and escape explanation by means of the behaviors of individuals only.

We should be talking about this stuff — and I’m glad to see it covered — because the social practices that emerge around mediated communication and interaction are a complex of personal, social, community, and public uses and utilities, values, and actions.

I hope this is taken in the right way. I want to move this kind of thinking along; my disagreements or distinctions are always with respect and, I hope, a shared interest in learning.

From Joshua Porter’s blog:
We don’t just collect attention, of course. We collect lots of things. Most video games are built entirely around the premise of collecting things. The more you collect the higher your score. The more coins that Mario and Luigi collect, the better they do. It’s a causal relationship. We understand when playing these games that collection is the way to achieve success.

As designers we must remember that behavior comes first. Always. The quirky, the obscure, the vain, the annoying, the wonderful. We need to observe human behavior if we are to support it in design. If people collect things, how can we support that? If people are vain…how does that affect the design? Will it kill some interesting behavior…or will it help drive adoption of the service?

So, back to behavior. Some behaviors that drive us nuts are core to the human experience:

We want attention.
We collect things.
We want status.
We are vain.
We make judgments accordingly.

Adrian Chan

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

3 comments on this article

  1. Pingback: designing (for) behavior and representations of activity | Tom Satwicz

  2. Interesting how value and use emerges after playing with these social tools over time. Twitter has a different meaning to me when I am at an event (following a person’s feed during a presentation I may not be able to attend, meeting up for dinner etc)

    Some folks use Linked in as a way to network and collect business cards. I have yet to find a use for Linked in, but seems useful if you are looking for a job (as one scenario).

    Facebook seems like a place to hook up with old friends from school, but will this be enough to hold people’s attention over time?

    The fun part is being involved and watching it all play out ;)

    Finally, how many people can one person realistically follow? And what about the quality of ones relationships across networks?

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