My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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valuing inefficiencies and unreliability

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?

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22 comments to valuing inefficiencies and unreliability

  • My mind immediately goes to invite only communities.

    I remember desperately trying to get a gmail account and conspiring with all my friends on who we could ask to get one.

    I remember learning about MetaFilter back when it was completely closed and trying to craft the perfect email to Matthew Haughey to convince him I was worthy. Even now it’s $5 to join and that price is there for the exact purpose of slowing people from joining.

    Even now with FFFFOUND! people are starting to talk about it with that tone that it’s the place to be and you can’t enter.

    Are there any other good invite only / close communities that I’m not thinking of.

  • Udi

    On Yahoo! Answers we had a forced waiting period before the asker could select a best answer. The idea is that you need to allow the community enough time to chime in. A better answer might roll in later on. This restriction can be rather annoying to both the askers and the early answerers, but there’s no doubt that it’s benefited the community.

  • I would typically caution against sending flowers to senate / congress offices just because of the typical insistence on everything going through normal scanning facilities which slows things down a lot and could lead to their being nothing but wilted petals left by the time it made its way to the office. I guess it would depend on the given flower service’s delivery method, but it can be tricky tricky. Even a single envelope won’t be accepted just at face value–post anthrax safety measures have it all sent through central pitney-bowes checking.

  • the inefficeincy is the social contact. its why we go out at night. and its what generates replies to your blog at 4:04 am.

  • “plausible deniability” — I love that.

    We all want to fight against “forced accountability”, where perfecting recording of everything makes everybody more and more accountable for whatever stupid thing was said.

    On the other hand, Politicians have said one thing and it’s contrary for quite some time and they still rule the world somehow.

    Plausible deniability, mine: “Sorry, I had other priorities” — Said with a mysterious tone of voice. ;-)

  • joe

    Actually, it’s kind of liberating to not rely on inefficiencies or unreliabilities… maybe I’m a weirdo. Lately, I’ve stopped making excuses. I’ll say, “Oh, I didn’t read that email.” or “Yeah, I couldn’t take your call.” If that’s a problem, fine… they need to understand that I prioritize in real-time and may not be able to align their and my priorities. It’s amazingly liberating because I’m being real. And, as for social network stuff, there’s a sense that you have to take broadcast-type of communications for what they are… and personalized communications for what they are (even if in a broadcast context). For example, how often have you seen someone mention someone else specifically (in an audience-sense) in a twitter or fb status message? That seems to change the nature of the broadcast.

    The thing I wonder about is why Evites seem so much less personal than a mass-email invite?

  • Marc Andresson says (on his blog) that he doesn’t schedule appointments any more. He just says “Oh, I’m not scheduling any appointments for 2007″. If something that is scheduled is the top of his priority list when the time comes, he’ll attend.

    I’m sure it helps to have lots of money in the bank and lots of credibility, I can’t afford this attitude. But talk about liberating :-)

  • Lack of visual/emotional feedback on e-mail and text communication is a big inefficiency. I can only compensate for that on my side by trying to be… expressive in my writing. For example, I insert pauses (…) so people know when I’m thinking or hesitating when I write… or overuse a variety of emoticons, including the less popular smirk. :/

  • Sarah Bluehouse

    well. hmmm. I *value* my ineffeciency because time commitment fosters intent. This world moves too damned fast for me to keep up without being totally jacked in, and I know I, for one, am not built for that.

    Because the thing is, now that the intarwebs are all cool and shit, the demands on our times have increased exponentially! Its like we’ve built systems to make things easier when we’ve just made them more complex… and that complexity demands management and that management demands time. Time I don’t have any more.

    My real-life gang recently switched from an all open policy, to a guided, mediated, several step joining process. You don’t get access to our private bbs until after your third ride. Does this make our recruitment process inefficient? hell yes. But while the value vs nuisance of this inefficiency is up for debate, it has made the group feel more like family. And maybe that’s what slowing down is all about. And its just about our rudimentary desire to be polite, and not burn bridges that makes us blame tech.

  • Ron Mecredy

    I think technology will always have inherent errors/glitches/gremlins because it is created by a human. I actually enjoy an occasional power outage/server crash at work, because it gets people out from behind their desks and talking face to face. I consider myself a apprentice information architect, so I really appreciate your questions.

    A colleague cautioned about the unintended consequences of having a “social network” that moves too fast – could there be significant societal issues analogous to a stock market crash if there are no automatic “off” switches to trading in a market panic.

    Now the question becomes, how do we translate the wisdom of the physical architects that has been refined and passed down the ages since masonry began…they have a few years on Information Age.

    p.s. I learned about you through the Washinton Post article today and linked the article into my Facebook.

  • Joey Pitt

    Think about the efficiency embodied in post war city planning. “System” designers thought it would be a good idea to separate uses through zoning law. Levittown is the residential development that architects love to hate for this very reason. The horrors of suburbia were born with the best intentions of cleaning up the clutter that was mixed use urban development.

    I don’t know if improving social interaction online is all about providing strategically inefficient interaction. The magical thing about (good) urban space is how indeterminacy is built in. Use is described by the user, rather than being prescribed by the system. People inhabit these spaces for any number of reasons, which inevitably leads to a better social environment.

    I know that this is a little off topic, but I would really like to see more features in SNSs that aren’t purely “social”. Since there is so much information tied to identity online, these features could be REALLY useful. Think about Last.fm/ Pandora, or some of the better Facebook apps…

  • IMHO, one of the big blind spots in the ideals of “hackers and painters” and “code is art,” etc., is that art is very free to strive towards unreliability, inefficiency and inelegance. And, generally speaking, engineers and system designers tend to be bound to ideals of reliability, efficiency and elegance.

    It’s definitely a potential, in art and architecture, to strive towards things really *not working* to change the way people interact with the work and/or each other.

  • Ron Mecredy mentioned his colleague “cautioned about the unintended consequences of having a ‘social network’ that moves too fast” and I sort of broke that open this way:

    Brief full site downtime for upgrades or maintenance creates a forced and potentially healthy “vacation” and other interaction opportunities. First, site members must either complete or otherwise save their interaction for later. Next, connected people usually interact outside their normal paths – contacting each other to communicate about the downtime and when they themselves will be on next. During the outage, they’re left to either fill their time in other ways or find another outlet. While this may drive some people to competitors’ sites/services, it often generates that rush of “OMG what am I going to do without [site name] for 2 whole hours!?!” Finally, they’re able to offer each other support and reconnect after an upgrade, communicating on how to use a new tool or reporting technical issues.

    Personally speaking, planned downtime can serve as a reminder of a site’s importance to me, and this usually coincides with me donating a few dollars / content support.

    To my way of thinking, interruption isn’t necessarily an inefficiency but it can have unintentional benefits.

  • Ron Mecredy mentioned his colleague “cautioned about the unintended consequences of having a ‘social network’ that moves too fast” and I sort of broke that open this way:

    Brief full site downtime for upgrades or maintenance creates a forced and potentially healthy “vacation” and other interaction opportunities. First, site members must either complete or otherwise save their interaction for later. Next, connected people usually interact outside their normal paths – contacting each other to communicate about the downtime and when they themselves will be on next. During the outage, they’re left to either fill their time in other ways or find another outlet. While this may drive some people to competitors’ sites/services, it often generates that rush of “OMG what am I going to do without [site name] for 2 whole hours!?!” Finally, they’re able to offer each other support and reconnect after an upgrade, communicating on how to use a new tool or reporting technical issues.

    Personally speaking, planned downtime can serve as a reminder of a site’s importance to me, and this usually coincides with me donating a few dollars / content support.

    To my way of thinking, interruption isn’t necessarily an inefficiency but it can have unintentional benefits.

  • ROFL. Julia – Many SNSs try to never give you downtime if they can avoid it. I used to laugh at how MySpace would replace the site with PacMan when they went down so that users had something that they could do. Tehehe.

  • Tex

    Overly efficient technology that ultimately leads to inefficiency?

    The cubicle.

    The goal, of course, is to distance the cube monkey from distraction. The reality is that it becomes so isolating the person festers in depression and ends up being less productive.

  • for several years now i’ve been exploring how we can create technological devices / software that do not succumb to the ideology of efficiency upon which they were built. in 2006, i designed and built a piece of technology in called personalsoundtrack. the primary purpose of this tech device was to make the user less efficient, by supporting meandering, loitering, and “wasting time” in general.

    my masters thesis questioned the value of efficiency in technological device design. i explore devices like the “drift table” (gaver, et al.) and designed my own device to examine how efficient tech can negatively regulate and influence social interactions. i was seeking to create a genre of device design that would allow the individual to explore the role of Efficiency within the context of daily life.

    i’ve got a bunch of my papers/projects online if you’re curious to read a bit more about them:

    http://ace.uci.edu/~gelliott/papers.html

    &

    http://ace.uci.edu/~gelliott/projects.html

  • Interesting. One of the things I’ve always wondered about was how online communities and social networking sites allow for “allowable deviations” from its social norms. These are important functions IRL communities (eg. speeding 5kms over the limit in a relatively traffic-free road, taking a pencil home from work etc etc) in that it gives us a breather from those social rules. While social norms in SNS and online communities are more fluid and ever-changing, I do believe that we still need a break from the rules. Perhaps that is why we accept inefficiencies so readily?

    Anyway, in Australia, broadband infrastructure in general provides me with those breathers. :P

  • Nice write up Danah.

    I think that people purposely create inefficiencies without calling it as such all the time. We make it easier to subscribe than unsubscribe. Easier to read than post. Easier to do what we want than not.

    In game design we create inefficiencies to allow players to not only take the desired path, but also to force them to cooperate. Games and social applications are social engineering as much as enabling technology. The decisions to were we build in efficiencies directly influences the flavor and success of our social applications.

    That said, I do believe that in the Web 2.0 world we need to be a bit more cognizant of not only making technology efficient, but also making sure that people have opportunity and contextually interesting reasons to interact.

    -Marty

  • A key to the success of SF Net (the series of networked chat-terminal kiosks set up in San Francisco cafes in the 90s) as I’m told, was the fact that only one person at a time could type at a kiosk, which would lead to people lining up and eventually watching the person ahead of them typing. Soon it was a common sight for multiple people in a place gathered around the kiosk and chatting face to face while taking part in the chatroom conversation with mutual friends in other neighborhoods. The online bit supported the face-to-face which was core.

    Now everyone has their own laptops and phones in the SF cafes. This tech is so much more efficient, it’s enough to make you throw it out the window. Now, folks rarely meet new local friends through the tech. In fact, you can argue that today’s tech drowns out more opportunities to meet new friends face to face.

    PS- What was SF Net, and why do I consider it effective? Check out the “SF Net Nostalgia” tribe group, still alive with people pining for SF Net and keeping alive the community that grew around it:
    http://sfnet.tribe.net/?current=tribeallposts&set=y#tabs

  • danah: this is a great post, one I have mentally recalled many times in many contexts, and yet one I had a hard time recalling online. I was remembering it as arguing that friction can be a good thing, and kept searching for it using the term “friction” rather than “inefficiency”.

    Recently, a comment on a blog post I wrote about Twitter: a witness projection program provided the impetus for me to search through your archives to find this piece. The comment included the observation – about Twitter – that “on the positive side, it’s also the easiest means of directly connecting to the whole world, every 6.5+ billion of us for free” … and that reference to ease and hyperconnectivity reminded me [yet again] of this post.

    Your observation that “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” is at the core of what bothers me about the way that some people use Twitter: as an efficient / inexpensive / frictionless way of “communicating” to many others. I know you were not explicitly referencing Twitter in your post, but I think that many of your insights apply. Many people may value many of these signals (tweets), but personally speaking, I find that any sufficiently large number of signals is indistinguishable from noise, and generally prefer more costly forms of communication such as F2F discussions, email, other 1:1 (or few:few) online exchanges … including comments on blog posts.

    Thanks for posting a blog that keeps on giving :-).

  • […] danah boyd put it, Social technologies that make things more efficient reduce the cost of action. Yet, that cost is […]

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