my etech talk: revenge of the user
I gave my talk at Etech on Revenge of the User today. In typical danah-mode, i spoke a mile-a-minute and, thus, folks kept asking me if i had more material. Thus, i thought that i’d offer the crib of my talk on my blog. I’ve included it in the extended entry. Please note that it was a crib for me and probably has a lot of holes and missing bits. Feel free to add what i skipped in the comments.
WHO AM I
- technologist, social scientist
- 1 year interviewing people on uses of social network software; hundreds of informants
WHY GIVE THIS TALK? WHY HERE?
- everyone is interested in technical hacking
- social hacking isn’t that much different
- we scream about constraints on our technology, but we impose those on our social
- this is dumb. social hacking teaches us about our technology, the limits, the possibilities
THE POINT OF THIS TALK
Social theorists have constructed a body of literature around social networks, to understand how people construct, maintain and utilize their networks to meet daily needs.
Researchers have learned that these networks are a critical part of people’s daily lives. People use their networks to acquire support of all different kinds. They use the structure of their network to find jobs, loved ones, get and make meaning out of recommendations.
Enamored with the value of networks, people have worked to exploit the structure. Any MBA is told that she must build a network to be valuable in business.
Recently, we’ve seen a plethora of companies trying to do the same thing. For the sake of this talk, i’m going to refer to these services as YASNS short for “Yet Another Social Network Service”, an umbrella term coined by Clay Shirky to reference the many services that have tried to explicitly and implicitly present people’s social networks. Most specifically, this term refers to sites like Friendster, Tribe.net, Ryze, LinkedIn, orkut, etc. Of course, there are many services that also draw on social networks without specifically joining the fold, such as LiveJournal, blogrolls, etc. and others who are using social networks in a more explicit nature, such as Spoke and Visible Path. Although this latter group is interesting, little is known about how these will affect social behavior. Thus, i will primarily be addressing the increasingly popular YASNS sites that have gained popularity with disparate social groups.
Many of the YASNS systems concerned themselves with what social theory told us about one’s networks; they turned it into hype. Weak ties are key to getting jobs! The best dates are friends of friends!
Thus, sites were constructed to model people’s social networks so that users could more efficiently engage with their networks. If friends of friends are so valuable, why not make people aware of who each others’ friends are?
Yet, in building these systems, the creators made assumptions about both the networks and human behavior. This is where the trouble began. Creators had a set of assumptions about how their systems would be used. Needless to say, not all users agreed with, or even understood, the philosophies of the creators. As a result, users repurposed the tools available to support their own needs and desires. Thus, what the users did did not match up to the social theory expected by creators. In some cases, these new uses horrified the creators who actively attempted to construct boundaries of acceptable behavior, further aggravating the users.
WHY DOES THIS MATTER?
So, what went wrong? And why does this matter?
First, this matters because everyone seems fascinated by social networks. They aren’t going away. Many of you are building social software or software, involving social networks in some form or another. If we continue to build technology based on loose understandings of social theory, we will continue to be disappointed in the results. Thus, the last year of YASNS gives us a perfect opportunity to understand how design decisions affected user behavior and how user behavior affects any chance of having a business out of social networks.
In order to consider what went wrong and tease out the lessons from this, i’m going to do two different types of analysis. First, i’m going to consider the relationship between the technology and the social theory upon which it is built. Second, i’m going to break down how users interacted with these systems, why this didn’t look like the social theory and how attempts by sites to regulate the scope of acceptable behavior has only made the situation more problematic.
ON SOCIAL THEORY
When i generically talk about social theory, i’m referring to the large body of knowledge about human behavior that has been generated by psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers, etc. This work is grounded in observing and testing human behavior, but it has not built a complete model of social life. This work is developed in a cultural and intellectual context. There are assumptions and gaps in every bit of this.
One of the biggest assumptions built into social theory concerns the architecture in which we interact. Much of this work is connected with ideas on face-to-face interactions and negotiating life in the context of a city, suburbia or a village. Everyone in this room knows that technology has changed something about this. We can feel it, even if we don’t understand it. Our social life has changed; the types of people we talk to are different; the ability to find people like us is visceral. There are critical differences in everyday social interaction for those of us who’ve gone digital. Even if we can’t articulate the differences, we can feel them.
In reflecting on Mitch Kapor’s argument that architecture is politics, Larry Lessig noted that code is law. In fleshing this out, Lessig equates code to architecture. This is a critical reflection. It allows us to think about how what we build structures the underlying elements to the ways people can interact. This realization doesn’t negate social theory, but it puts it into context. It means that rather than translating everything that we learned about social life into the digital, we must critically reflect what will and won’t work as new social structures are built. The core of people isn’t different, but how they interact might be.
Take spam as an example. There are real life spammers – people who try to sell us things at any moment. There are varying levels, from the street vendors to the marketers. Many of us have structured our everyday lives to avoid these people. We don’t go into that part of the city. We can block these people out. If we create a society where people have easier access to everyone’s attention, spammers are going to utilize this as much as we are! Complex ecosystems all have parasites and energy-sinks. Once your email system scales to a certain size, it will accumulate inefficiencies. We can damn them for existing, but we are simultaneously building tools that meet their needs just as much if not more than our own!
So, let’s ground this a bit and think about the theories being used by the YASNS phenomenon.
First, let’s discuss the argument of 6 degrees of separation. For anyone who didn’t know, this isn’t a term coined by Milgram. His research was called “Small Worlds.” It’s a term coined by a playwright. What Milgram did was question how many hops it would take to get from one person in Nebraska to a person in Massachusetts. For those who aren’t aware, he asked people in Nebraska to send a packet along to someone in Massachusetts. If they knew the target personally, they were asked to send the packet to the target. If they didn’t, they were asked to send the packet on to someone who might know the target. Each person was asked to continue passing on the packet until the target was reached. Thus, someone in Nebraska might send it on to their neighbor who used to live in Massachusetts, who would send it on to someone who lived in the appropriate town, etc.
He found that the average number of steps necessary was around 5.5. Thus, everyone professed that people are, on average, separated by 6 hops! From Milgram’s perspective, if we build a model of a network, the average person will be separated by 6 people!
There’s a crucial missing step in this logic. What Milgram asked people to do was GUESS who would be the likely next candidate in passing on the message. The person did not have a whole networks view. She did not KNOW who should be the next candidate based on shortest path. She only guessed. Without a whole networks view, we don’t actually know the average path length between two people. We only know the how long it took for a message to get through a string of guesses within the network.
Next, take the number 150. I’ve heard over and over again how the average person only knows 150 people. This is referring to research done by Dunbar. He was interested in understanding how many people humans could “groom.” In other words, how many people did a human keep in their social network at any one point in time. Dunbar was interested in how monkeys groomed each other to keep up their social network. What he found was that there was a similarity between monkey grooming and human gossip. Just as monkeys groomed to maintain their networks, humans gossiped to maintain theirs! He found that the MAXIMUM number of people that a person could keep up with socially at any given time, gossip maintenance, was 150. This doesn’t mean that people don’t have 150 people in their social network, but that they only keep tabs on 150 people max at any given point.
What about Granovetter’s “Strength of Weak Ties”? In his seminal work, Granovetter found that the majority of people found out about jobs through weak ties, not strong ones.
First, people have corrupted the definition of weak tie to equate it with friends of friends. This is not accurate, but it’s also not egregious. The idea is that with a strong tie, you are aware of all of their strong ties. What kind of best friend are you if you aren’t aware of your best friend’s other best friends? These people are not inherently your strong ties and, thus, they become weak ties in your world. You have a connection to them; that connection is because they are important in your friend’s life.
But there’s a problem here. Not everyone that you know is a strong tie. And not everyone that you know’s friends are weak ties. In the States, we have a totally different conception of the term Friend compared to the rest of the world. We call everyone that we’ve ever met our Friend. It’s socially appropriate! But this is not what the sociologists meant. As such, most of the people in our Rolodexes are weak ties, not strong ones. We do not have rich interpersonal connections with them.
Before you object, think who you would call if you were in an emotional crisis; think of who knows all about the ups and downs of your anxieties. There’s no doubt that some folks love to blog their woes to the world, but most of us only have a few people we would call and who we could guarantee would support us through our troubles. Those are strong ties.
Pulling back from tie strength, let’s also look at the logic of the argument. When Granovetter found that people found their jobs through weak ties, he did not find that all weak ties help us find our jobs. Furthermore, he did not say that our weak ties had the power necessary to get us those jobs, simply that they helped us find them.
There’s a reason for this. And this is the most overlooked issue in all of the YASNS phenomenon. Context.
Our relationships have a context to them, not just a strength. That context is crucial for many distributions of information, support and trust.
Consider a weak tie that you party with; he’s dating someone who runs a big tech company. Your connection to him is a weak tie; his connection to his boyfriend is a strong one. He hears that the tech company has an opening. As Granovetter acutely noted, when he hears that you’re looking for a job in that field, he’s likely to tell you about that job, even though he knows nothing of your expertise. Why? The favor of spreading information gives him power as a bridge.
But this does not mean that he’s going to risk his reputation with his strong tie over a weak tie. Say that you want the chief engineering position. He doesn’t know you in that context; he has no way to vouch for your worthiness. Thus, he’s taking a much bigger risk in hyping you to his boyfriend. Even if he lets his boyfriend know that some guy from the clubs wants the job, he’ll make it very clear that he doesn’t really know you, but will just offer that information just in case. He’ll do it in passing, to see if his ears perk up. If they don’t, he’ll let it pass.
Take the dating realm. Have you ever had a close friend set you up on a date? Now, have you ever had a weak tie set you up on a date? One of the things you will find is that when a weak tie sets you up on a date, you often have NOTHING in common with this person. Again, context. Or better yet, focus.
Focus is a researched concept in social networks. Scott Feld talks about the power of foci in understanding networks. You and your strong ties have things in common, the foci of the relationship. Often, the closer you are, the more you share in common. This is why you often have things in common with friends of friends. You and your friend have lots of overlapping things; she and her friend have lots of overlapping things; there’s a high probability that you and that person have some things in common. As Feld noticed, the more you have in common with someone, the more likely you are to be a strong tie, particularly when the things in common are rare.
But, pulling back, shared foci between friends of friends does NOT mean shared foci between a string of weak ties. Foci are not transitive and the less you have in common with someone, the lower the probability will be that you have something in common with someone they know. Take two hops down a weak tie chain and the probability is random.
TRANSLATING TO THE SITES
So, i’ve just thrown a bunch of social network theory at you. Let’s situate it in the YASNS phenomenon.
1) Friends on these sites are not close ties. In fact, they’re barely weak ties! I’ll explain why in a moment. Thus, anything that can be assumed about transitivity across ties is 100% lost. This only gets worse as we go down the chain. As one of my informants reminded me, why would i want to date my hairdresser’s brother’s drug dealer’s second-cousin?
2) Asking favors is fundamentally different than offering them. People gain by being bridges. Thus, to be able to tell you about a job gives me whuffie in our relationship. Feeling pressured to connect you to an open job makes me uncomfortable. In all of the networks described above, the bridge got to control the information flow. In Milgram’s “Small Worlds,” if you didn’t know that i knew the target person, you may not have tried to pass it on to me. If you don’t know that i am dating someone who has something that you want, you won’t try to pressure me into giving you access to it. Thus, i can choose when to reveal my connections in a situation where i can come across as being helpful, rather than being put in a position to feel cornered. Revealing the network shifts the power.
Of course, that’s part of the point, right? All of these sites want you to USE your friends to gain access to jobs, dates and recommendations. But what’s in it for your friends? And what are the consequences?
To answer this, lets go back to who your “Friends” are. After Friendster came out, you’d go to a club in San Francisco or New York and people would be talking about their Friendsters. They weren’t referring to their Friends… they were referring to the people that they connected with on the system. When sociologists asked people about their network, they did not pass on the descriptions. Thus, people could speak candidly about how well they knew people, in what context, and what they really thought of them. Thus, when they were building maps of relationships, they could make sense of these variations.
There are three problems with these sites:
1) There are SIGNIFICANT consequences to publicly articulating who you know, how you feel about them, etc. That’s bloody well uncomfortable. Try saying no to that boss of yours you hate but need to play nice with. You would express this as a negative relationship to a sociologist, but you have to put them up on Friendster as equivalent to your lover. Your evil boss and your lover are not the same! Public articulation means that you can’t distinguish them without awkward feelings.
2) People aren’t good at systematizing this. Sociologists didn’t ask people who their weak ties were; they asked about all of their ties and then came up with a uniform metric to gauge everyone’s network. People can’t honestly say how “sexy” someone is on a scale from 1-3. Nor can they discuss trustworthiness without a context.
3) Not all relationships are bi-directional. This has to do with fandom and power. Just because you believe you really know Angelina Jolie does not mean that she knows you. On a more local level, not everyone knows the same about someone they know. For example, your shrink probably knows more about you than you know about her. And frankly, the kinds of questions that your superior can ask about your family and personal life are vastly different than the kinds of question you can ask her. Furthermore, just because you read someone’s blog does not mean that you know them. Even if you comment. It has to be reciprocal and dive beyond the actual public forum.
THE NEXT LAYER
So, we realize that these networks don’t look real. It’s too socially awkward. They’re not built to give us a way to express the subtleties of how we know people, the power differentials, the contexts, the strengths.
Furthermore, they expose more about us to different groups of people than we would ever do in real life. All of a sudden, we have to reconcile the bar-hopping facet of our identity with the proper work facet.
The reason that this became quickly apparent for people is because they usually signed on with one group of friends. On Friendster, it was most clearly demonstrated by the Burning Man crowd. If your Burner friends joined, you signed up and created a Burner profile. This didn’t mean that you were only a Burner, but it was the image appropriate to your group of friends. You dress and act differently amongst Burner friends than you do amongst colleagues. Then the colleagues appeared. Do you shift your profile to look like them? Do you find a middle ground? Doesn’t matter, really… Because your colleagues can see that all of your friends are Burners. Guilt by association.
Take this a step further. They expose the PEOPLE from each facet to each other with us as the only bridge. If the focus of our interactions between two groups were similar, we would comfortably expose them over time. If you find out that your colleague likes jazz, you might take him with you to meet your jazz-going friends. But if he hates jazz, you probably won’t think to introduce him to the jazz aficionados. On Friendster, your ability to connect people because of their similarities is lost. The only similarity that matters is you. Furthermore, they get to interact through the system without you even negotiating whether or not they should meet. All of a sudden, your drunken friends are asking your boss out on a date cause she’s hot. Yikes! Not only does this disempower you, remove the ability for you to connect them as need be, but it now makes you have to deal with the consequences of two different groups with two different standards of social norms.
Of course, this gives people a fright. While many of us in this room live, breathe and sleep techno-world, most people have clearer distinctions between their work and personal lives. I came across this regularly in my fieldwork. Imagine the horror that a young teacher in San Francisco felt when her students accused her friends of being pedophiles because they found his profile on Friendster and it jokingly said that he likes to corrupt young girls. She is required to keep her professional world separate from her personal one; this is a code of ethics of teachers. Yet, the technology collapsed this. Furthermore, it exposed a joke that amongst friends is quite funny, but to outsiders looks offensive. Jokes have context. Consequences.
Not only are the networks not real, they have unrealized consequences. This is where things got interesting because users went in a million different directions.
Faced with an uncertainty of what strength was necessary to link, every user came up with her own scheme of who to accept as friends. On Friendster, users tried to institute a mechanism for employing foci. They created fake characters that would collect people of like minds.
Faced with uncomfortable situations, some users killed accounts or simply stopped logging in. Other users created fake characters to hide behind the social awkwardness and only be seen by a smaller group of users.
Fake characters – Fakesters – were also used to make it fun, not serious. It was a way of relieving the social tension. Fakesters were people who joined the network, putting up fake personas. They represented themselves as Giant Squid or Homer Simpson.
Some users were upset that they couldn’t see everyone so they tried to scheme the system to be able to do so. Suddenly having access to people different than them, some users used the network to attack. On Friendster, the Neo-Nazis went wild, going after people of visible color. They used the power of the network to connect to large groups of people, pseudo-anonymously. For many, this was the ideal case. But for those being attacked, this was horrifying. The Neo-Nazis weren’t the only group connecting en masse in a way that is startling. Informants tell me that people on the east coast use the network to deal cocaine.
Friendster was the first company faced with a situation truly out of control. Users were demanding contradictory things. Behavior ran the gauntlet! But Friendster played in to the cardinal no-no learned from science and technology studies: they tried to configure the user.
CONFIGURE THE USER
When technologies are built, the creators often have a very limited scope of desired and acceptable behavior. They build the systems aimed at the people who will abide by their desires. Often, their users don’t have the same views about how the technology should be used. They use it differently. Creators get aggravated. They don’t understand why users won’t behave. The demand behavior. First, the creator messages the user, telling them that this isn’t what is expected of them. Then, the creator starts carrying a heavier and heavier stick. This is called configuring the user. And y’know what… it doesn’t work.
Sure, Friendster stopped some bad behavior, but at what cost? They succeeded in getting rid of most of the people playing games with the site, but they also lost the foci elements that let people find people like them (often a better mechanism for dating) and the ability for people to safely guard themselves from others. And guess what? Their heavy handedness didn’t make the network any more real. Most of the things that make it peculiar to use come from the social awkwardness.
People often tell me that it worked because people are actually dating. So what? Give anyone a room full of attractive people and peopel will try to find a date, even if it is a tech conference. That doesn’t mean that the model is working or that it’s sustainable.
The Fakester chaos was a *reaction* to being configured. They were making it light on the outside, because no one can take it seriously on the inside. Some were so frustrated at being condemmed that they created a Fakster Revolution, complete witha manifesto. People are still faced with a set of friends that demonstrate the people that they might have known at the time that they connected to Friendster (but often don’t actually know). As more people get on the network and their lives shift, their Friendster representation will get more outdated and more difficult to negotiate.
On average, people only remove friends because of serious fights; they rarely clean out their friends, unless there are specific reasons to do so (i.e. minimize social awkwardness). Friends lists are not an accurate portrayal of who people know now, who they could ask favors of, who they would feel comfortable introducing at the moment. They’re a weird product of people from the past, people from the present, people unknown, people once met. Killing Fakesters doesn’t make social networks any more real. It misses the point.
Yet, the more we try to force users into desired behavior, the less we pay attention to why they’re doing what they’re doing. Users are reacting the designs that creators choose.
Why did people try to amass innumerable friends in Friendster? They wanted to see more of the network. In the early days, they wanted to be listed as one of the most popular people in others’ networks. Friendster used to list this but they removed this feature when they realized how problematic it was. Yet, it came back in full force with Orkut where every list is based on popularity. Guess what? It came back with the same problem. The more popular someone is, the more others see them and try to link to them because one might assume that this person will take on friends or because other people recognize this person or because it seems like a way to meet more people. It doesn’t get us any closer to having a social network that means something.
Of course, maybe this is just a foolish goal to begin with. Maybe we need to discontinue our rhetoric that we’re trying to build social networking software. Why don’t we do this? We don’t do this because that’s how we’re trying to build a business model. We’re relying on this to be real to sell to investors, to convince new users that this is useful, etc.
We’re at a cross-roads with social networking software.
We can pretend that the current path we’re on – Friendster, orkut, LinkedIn, Tribe, etc. – is all the hype. We can pretend like it’s really possible to force these users to create everyday social networks that will make all the theory fall into place. We can sell this fantasy to VCs, bankroll money and hope that users will play along long enough to make it all worth it.
We can wake up and make sense of what we’ve done. Together, developers have created a new social architecture; users have created a new set of social norms that sit on top of that architecture. Certainly, it’s sociologically fascinating – that’s why i’m here! But it’s also teaching us a lot about how people can and will use technology to socialize, what they’re weaknesses are and why. The discomforts that users feel are calling for new technology, new ways to handle social behavior. The more we try to force them into behaving the way we want, the less we’ll be able to solve the problem.
But that’s the problem. Social behavior doesn’t have a technological solution. We’re all involved with social software because we see needs that technology can solve. Yet, by building the technology, we don’t simply address or fail to address those needs; we create new realities. At this point, we need to think in a new way. We need to think about what new realities we formed, what new problems evolved, what new needs happened. Then we need to iterate.
We’ve learned a lot for YASNS. Perhaps, we just need to sit back and figure out how to iterate these lessons into social software. Here are a few major issues that i think emerge and need to be addressed in the next iteration:
1) How do we create a nuanced way for people to negotiate different social contexts without creating unbearable collisions?
People should be able to comfortable, and EASILY, determine who should be introduced to who. If we figure out how to empower the bridge without wearing them down, they’re far more likely to want to participate in the technology we create. Right now, we disempower them AND wear them down; this is not a survivable model. When Jason Kottke posted to Craigslist looking for someone to manage his social networks, he was dead on: this is more of a pain in the ass than valuable.
2) How do we let people show face? In other words, how do we let them be socially appropriate?
LiveJournal has figured this out in part. Everyone can read a kid’s LJ. But the parent that reads it gets a different view than the friends. Why? Because it’s one presentation with different access to different people. How do we model this in social software applications?
3) Some people want to be seen; some people want to be hidden. By making everyone far more accessible, those who have something desired become more visible targets. While trying to elevate those in need, give them newfound access to their networks, we can’t overwhelm the targets and expect them to play along. How do we meet the needs of different people?
In LinkedIn, we expect our friends to block connections to us that don’t require our attention. This isn’t sustainable; it’s exhausting. Most of the time, our friends would rather let us deal and feel guilty being put in the position to decide whether or not something should be passed on. It’s awkward to have a pending request that needs to be forward.
In Friendster or open networks, everyone’s fair game. Nowhere is this more painful than hearing the horror from people subject to hate attacks. Sure, there’s hate offline, but the social norms control it with greater intensity offline than online. How do we create a system that protects these people from those who want to attack them? No one wants to go online to be attacked.
4) Finally, how do we create architecture that will allow for regulation through social norms? This is a huge challenge! Sure, we can all think back to MUDs and MOOs where social norms created the boundary cases of acceptable behavior. But we also all know the story of LamdaMOO and why it failed. The code that we build does not currently allow for rich regulation based on social norms. Trolls ruin it for all of us. This is part social problem and part technological problem. If we open our eyes to the social, perhaps we can figure out how to iterate on the technological?
The technology will not solve the social, but each design decision made in the technology affects the social. There is no formula though, no clear algorithm. No social scientist can predict what social behavior will emerge from each technology you build. But we can make sense out of what is going on and we can help you iterate.
The biggest trick in social software is to realize that, just like we can’t predict the behavior that users will have, we can’t force them into behaving the way we want them to behave while simultaneously giving them freedom to be social. The only thing that we can do is try to understand what is motivating new behaviors and figure out how to adjust the technology accordingly. We must recognize that, for any social software, disparate users will have disparate uses. But like any good city, we have to figure out how to create a live and let live environment, where those who want to visit XXX stores will do their thing without driving the moms with small children insane. You can’t kill unwanted behavior without also killing desirable behavior. This is a design challenge, an architectural challenge and a social challenge. And, of course, a business challenge. If we want to make social software that meets the needs of a disparate group of people and not just ourselves, it’s time to take up this challenge. Otherwise, we’ll spend forever frustrated, failing to understand why other people aren’t like us.