A Design Opportunity: Contextual Cues for Social Media
Thanks so much for the wonderful comments on my last post both here and on Facebook. If serious conversations on social media are sometimes disfunctional, this is a clear counter-example!
Loren Terveen asks: Why do people post political things on social media? That’s a key question. One obvious answer is to persuade others to agree. When that’s the case, the poster needs to think hard about audience–will this persuade anyone who doesn’t already agree with me? As Andrea Forte astutely points out, to accomplish that you need a sense of your audience. What are their values? What issues matter to them? How can you establish common ground, and build from there towards compromise solutions? All of this is central to one of the textbooks, Writing Arguments, that we use in the class I’m teaching this term, CS 4001 Computing, Society and Professionalism. I’m fond of their example about folks debating public funding for a new baseball stadium in Seattle. If you are trying to convince someone to vote in favor of the stadium, it’s extremely helpful to know if their objection is about whether public funding should be used for sports arenas or to the planned retractable roof. (Indoor baseball? Sacrilege!) Argumentation is a balance between collaborative truth seeking and persuasion, and you can’t persuade anyone if you don’t know where they’re coming from.
But as Loren asks, is persuasion even the point of political postings on social media? In many cases I suspect it is not. A posting is also an affirmation of personal identity (I am the kind of person who supports issue X), an expression of solidarity with others, an affirmation of group identity…. People may in fact not be trying to change anyone’s mind at all, and yet the communication still serves important purposes.
Which brings me back to the current disfunction: in social media as currently implemented today, folks often lack appropriate contextual cues. Who am I really talking to? How is my message being received? Rob Miller at MIT has a great research project where his mailer pulls up tiny pictures of everyone you are about to send an email to before you hit send. He is trying to solve the accidental ‘reply all’ problem–if you are sending your message to 150 people you will notice the 150 tiny icons. It helps for context in lots of other things too–yes, your boss is actually a lurker on that project mailing list. A reminder of who you are talking to is always helpful.
Rob’s work is a great first step. As Kurt Luther and others pointed out, there is a huge design opportunity here. We need systems that make people more aware of who they are potentially talking to, who is actually listening, and how their message is being received.