Two deeply embedded values in the world of technology development are efficiency and reliability. Companies pride themselves in maximizing efficiency and reliability and, for the most part, consumers agree. We like when our search engines produce results quickly and reliably. Yet, when it comes to social technologies, I suspect that efficiency and reliability are not the ideal metrics.
Let’s start with reliability. In some senses, we want our social technologies to be reliable – we want to know that our phones will work when we need them and that our email will get to us. While we want perfect reliability for our own needs, we also want there to be failures in the system so that we can blame technology when we don’t want to admit to our own weaknesses. In other words, we want plausible deniability. We want to be able to blame our spam filters when we failed to respond to an email that someone sent that we didn’t feel like answering. We want to blame cell phone reception when we’ve had enough of a conversation and “accidentally” hang up. The more reliable technology gets, the more we have to find new ways for blaming the technology so that we don’t have to do the socially rude thing. This is one of the reasons that LinkedIn is painful. Instead of blaming the technology, we have to blame our friends and colleagues when we don’t hear from the contacts we’re trying to reach. YUCK.
So, what about efficiency? Think about Facebook Causes. Think about how easy it is to efficiently spam everyone you know to join the Cause. Hell, the technology will spam your friends even when you don’t try. Does this actually build social capital or convince your friends to participate in that cause that you love? Probably not. Likewise, an evite is less inviting than a personalized email trying to convince you personally to come. This is also the case when it comes to trying to convince your Congresspeople of something. Thanks to email, you can efficiently spam your congresspeople with little effort. But that there is the problem – with little effort. The more efficient a means of communication is, the less it is valued. This is why politicians take personal letter (particularly written ones) more seriously than email or forms that people can quickly fill out. (Of course, if you *really* want to be taken seriously, try sending your Congresswoman a bouquet of flowers. Not only did that take effort, it actually cost something too.)
Social technologies that make things more efficient reduce the cost of action. Yet, that cost is often an important signal. We want communication to cost something because that cost signals that we value the other person, that we value them enough to spare our time and attention. Cost does not have to be about money. One of the things that I’ve found to be consistently true with teens of rich and powerful parents is that they’d give up many of the material goods in their world to actually get some time and attention from their overly scheduled parents. Time and attention are rare commodities in modern life. Spending time with someone is a valuable signal that you care.
When I talk with teens about MySpace bulletins versus comments, they consistently tell me that they value comments more than bulletins. Why? Because “it takes effort” to write a comment. Bulletins are seen as too easy and it’s not surprising that teens have employed this medium to beg their friends to spend time and write a comment on their page. Teens’ views on Facebook Apps reflect this same attitude. While they think they’re fun at first, they begin to loathe them after a while because they’re seen as spam that your friends send you. It’s simply too efficient to spam your friends, even if you can only send 10 a day.
In the physical world, architects and city planners often build inefficiencies into the system for a reason. I remember a talk by Manuel Castells where he spoke of forcing people to stand on line at regular intervals in public places, even when the activity could be made more efficient through technology. He viewed these kinds of inefficiencies as critical to the well-being of society because they provided a context for people to interact with strangers and, thus, build connections that glued the city together. This worked especially well when people could collectively complain about the people in charge – it provided a reason for social solidarity. (Think about the social solidarity built in NY when there’s a brownout or a transit strike.) Physical architects must constantly struggle with maximizing efficiency versus providing room for inefficiencies because of the social good that comes from them.
I have a sneaking suspicion that tech architects never even think about the possibility of creating inefficiencies to enhance social good, but I’m not sure. Since many of you mysterious readers are passionate about social technology, let me ask you. What examples of intentional (or unintentional) inefficiencies do you see in social tech? How do users respond to these?