Designing for Social Norms (or How Not to Create Angry Mobs)

In his seminal book “Code”, Larry Lessig argued that social systems are regulated by four forces: 1) the market; 2) the law; 3) social norms; and 4) architecture or code. In thinking about social media systems, plenty of folks think about monetization. Likewise, as issues like privacy pop up, we regularly see legal regulation become a factor. And, of course, folks are always thinking about what the code enables or not. But it’s depressing to me how few people think about the power of social norms. In fact, social norms are usually only thought of as a regulatory process when things go terribly wrong. And then they’re out of control and reactionary and confusing to everyone around. We’ve seen this with privacy issues and we’re seeing this with the “real name” policy debates. As I read through the discussion that I provoked on this issue, I couldn’t help but think that we need a more critical conversation about the importance of designing with social norms in mind.

Good UX designers know that they have the power to shape certain kinds of social practices by how they design systems. And engineers often fail to give UX folks credit for the important work that they do. But designing the system itself is only a fraction of the design challenge when thinking about what unfolds. Social norms aren’t designed into the system. They don’t emerge by telling people how they should behave. And they don’t necessarily follow market logic. Social norms emerge as people – dare we say “users” – work out how a technology makes sense and fits into their lives. Social norms take hold as people bring their own personal values and beliefs to a system and help frame how future users can understand the system. And just as “first impressions matter” for social interactions, I cannot underestimate the importance of early adopters. Early adopters configure the technology in critical ways and they play a central role in shaping the social norms that surround a particular system.

How a new social media system rolls out is of critical importance. Your understanding of a particular networked system will be heavily shaped by the people who introduce you to that system. When a system unfolds slowly, there’s room for the social norms to slowly bake, for people to work out what the norms should be. When a system unfolds quickly, there’s a whole lot of chaos in terms of social norms. Whenever a network system unfolds, there are inevitably competing norms that arise from people who are disconnected to one another. (I can’t tell you how much I loved watching Friendster when the gay men, Burners, and bloggers were oblivious to one another.) Yet, the faster things move, the faster those collisions occur, and the more confusing it is for the norms to settle.

The “real name” culture on Facebook didn’t unfold because of the “real name” policy. It unfolded because the norms were set by early adopters and most people saw that and reacted accordingly. Likewise, the handle culture on MySpace unfolded because people saw what others did and reproduced those norms. When social dynamics are allowed to unfold organically, social norms are a stronger regulatory force than any formalized policy. At that point, you can often formalize the dominant social norms without too much pushback, particularly if you leave wiggle room. Yet, when you start with a heavy-handed regulatory policy that is not driven by social norms – as Google Plus did – the backlash is intense.

Think back to Friendster for a moment… Remember Fakester? (I wrote about them here.) Friendster spent ridiculous amounts of time playing whack-a-mole, killing off “fake” accounts and pissing off some of the most influential of its userbase. The “Fakester genocide” prompted an amazing number of people to leave Friendster and head over to MySpace, most notably bands, all because they didn’t want to be configured by the company. The notion of Fakesters died down on MySpace, but the most central practice – the ability for groups (bands) to have recognizable representations – ended up being the most central feature of MySpace.

People don’t like to be configured. They don’t like to be forcibly told how they should use a service. They don’t want to be told to behave like the designers intended them to be. Heavy-handed policies don’t make for good behavior; they make for pissed off users.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t design to encourage certain behaviors. Of course you should. The whole point of design is to help create an environment where people engage in the most fruitful and healthy way possible. But designing a system to encourage the growth of healthy social norms is fundamentally different than coming in and forcefully telling people how they must behave. No one likes being spanked, especially not a crowd of opinionated adults.

Ironically, most people who were adopting Google Plus early on were using their real names, out of habit, out of understanding how they thought the service should work. A few weren’t. Most of those who weren’t were using a recognizable pseudonym, not even trying to trick anyone. Going after them was just plain stupid. It was an act of force and people felt disempowered. And they got pissed. And at this point, it’s no longer about whether or not the “real names” policy was a good idea in the first place; it’s now an act of oppression. Google Plus would’ve been ten bazillion times better off had they subtly encouraged the policy without making a big deal out of it, had they chosen to only enforce it in the most egregious situations. But now they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. They either have to stick with their policy and deal with the angry mob or let go of their policy as a peace offering in the hopes that the anger will calm down. It didn’t have to be this way though and it wouldn’t have been had they thought more about encouraging the practices they wanted through design rather than through force.

Of course there’s a legitimate reason to want to encourage civil behavior online. And of course trolls wreak serious havoc on a social media system. But a “real names” policy doesn’t stop an unrepentant troll; it’s just another hurdle that the troll will love mounting. In my work with teens, I see textual abuse (“bullying”) every day among people who know exactly who each other is on Facebook. The identities of many trolls are known. But that doesn’t solve the problem. What matters is how the social situation is configured, the norms about what’s appropriate, and the mechanisms by which people can regulate them (through social shaming and/or technical intervention). A culture where people can build reputation through their online presence (whether “real” names or pseudonyms) goes a long way in combating trolls (although it is by no means a fullproof solution). But you don’t get that culture by force; you get it by encouraging the creation of healthy social norms.

Companies that build systems that people use have power. But they have to be very very very careful about how they assert that power. It’s really easy to come in and try to configure the user through force. It’s a lot harder to work diligently to design and build the ecosystem in which healthy norms emerge. Yet, the latter is of critical importance to the creation of a healthy community. Cuz you can’t get to a healthy community through force.

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16 thoughts on “Designing for Social Norms (or How Not to Create Angry Mobs)

  1. jon

    Once again, well said. In my post on Nymwars, I talked about how Google seems like they’re listening too much to engineers about how users should behave, and suggested they should listen more to sociologists. Like you for example 🙂

    And just as Friendster’s assault on Fakesters helped spark MySpace’s rise, Google+’s assault on nyms is likely to help Diaspora, Dreamwidth, and other alternatives.

  2. Mendeil

    Thanks so much for putting this out there for all of us to read and think about. Encouraging appropriate behavior has always been a better path. “Be the change you want to see in the world” -Gandhi. I’m curious though, this doesn’t always work for the bullies or “trolls” as you put it. How do you suggest changing social bullying? Call the trolls on their actions? Seems to just feed back into the cycle. I’ve pondered this issue for a while now.

  3. Conan776

    I appreciate your birds eye view of why organic development matters!

    It’s a small world, too, as I ran across someone somewhere in the nymwar trenches this week who declared that they quit Wikipedia due to some protracted fight over the capitalization of your name in your bio there.

    IIRC, Wikipedia originally couldn’t do non-capitalized page names. In that light, here’s an article from last year listing 40 mistakes engineers make when dealing with names for your amusement:

  4. John O'Keefe

    dana, another very thought provoking article. Sounds like you go back a long way in the social network world. As you know though perception is a big problem with the Internet. “People were adopting Google plus early on were using their real names”. Should that say “People who were social selected by Google for their experiment in social networking”. It may be perceived as a choice but if they choose people who will adopt it or almost certainly because their profession compels them to. I am not implying them as unintelligent but just part of this dynamic. Do you feel you had a choice to join?

    cheers John

  5. Rooker

    What really aggravates me is the widespread, face-value belief in Penny Arcade’s “Greater Internet F***wad Theory.” It was a cartoon. A CARTOON.

    And that cartoon is proven wrong by simply spending as little as 10 seconds on failbook or any other site that posts examples of idiotic Facebook comments made by people using their real names.

  6. Andrew Fake

    Rooker: One case study to look at is that of Techcrunch. Prior to a few months ago, their commenting was open; you can comment using an account and comment under whatever name you want.

    It was a mess of trolling, baiting, and largely a waste of time.

    They switched to using Facebook for commenting. There are still trolls, baiting, and stupid comments.
    But there are FAR FEWER of them.

    You see, it’s possible to post abusive things under a Facebook account. But it’s an EXTRA BARRIER. You automatically weed out casual griefers, those who are not willing to put in the effort to either sully their real name with a stupid comment or log out of facebook and log in under some fake account.

    F***wads will be F***wads, but creating greater barriers for F***wads is a worthwhile cause.

    An anonymous culture does not necessarily promote F***wads, but it makes acting like F***wads more convenient.

  7. James Dellow

    I don’t actually understand the problem with “unrepentant trolls” in Google+, because it is easy to filter them out and disengage. What’s more important is helping users to create their circles of trust in Google+. A real name alone doesn’t necessarily help and may create a false sense of security; an unrecognisable face or unknown pseudonym is actually a much better warning to take care.

  8. echidna

    Great series of posts. I’d be curious to hear what you think an ‘ecosystem in which healthy norms emerge’ would look like, and how you’d build it.

    Given that most newcomers to a new social media technology would already be familiar with social norms that have been hashed out over the course of friendster, myspace, facebook, google+, etc, they would probably bring a lot of those norms with them, including ones that make bullying possible. The question for social media designers, then, is not how to build a friendlier ‘ecosystem’ abstractly and divorced from all context, but rather to build it _within_ the very concrete social context established by the (dare I say) canon of ecosystems past.

    Definitely thought-provoking. Thanks!

  9. Kathleen Fitzpatrick

    “The “real name” culture on Facebook didn’t unfold because of the “real name” policy. It unfolded because the norms were set by early adopters and most people saw that and reacted accordingly.”

    danah, this is a great piece, making a series of really important points. But given your argument about the importance of the ways a social network rolls out, I want to pick a nit or two here.

    My sense is that the “real name” culture on Facebook came about not because early adopters set that norm — as though they made a conscious decision to use their real names — but because in its very early days, Facebook was entirely focused on extending “real-life” social networks online. The network you joined was the one at your school — in fact, my memory says that you really only had access to the other members within your institution’s network, at first — and so Facebook was a way of representing your social and cultural capital among and for a group of people to whom you were already connected. In that context, not using your real name would make little sense — the whole point was constructing a representation of your “real” self (and of course I know how strange a concept that is) for your peer group.

    I make this point only to extend your argument a little further: given that it entered not into a closed, institutional space in which people are known to one another by “real names,” but instead into a complex set of pre-existing online communities in which people are known to one another by a wide range of means, Google+ should have expected users to carry their many online identities into the new service with them. And frankly, it was silly of them to expect anything else.

  10. Rivka T

    I got onto Google+ by way of media fandom; I think there was some bleed from tech types, but I got invited under my fannish, non-government name, and most of the people I knew who joined early were fellow fans using variants of their fannish names, so my experience and expectations had nothing to do with real names–finally, I thought, a social networking service not focused on journaling where fans could find me! As it happens, not so much. I’m giving it a little more time and then deleting my account before I lose Picasa and Reader functionality.

  11. Piers Hollott

    @James, @Melissa totally agree. My stronger view is that online, your uri is your name, more than the name on your passport. Not that everyone online is proxied by a uri, but that’s the whole id behind OpenID, etc. If you want to know if I’m authentic, look at my ‘blog and decide for yourself.

  12. Adam

    What a great post, an oddly apt from my POV now here in London. I think town planner and social policy makers need to take a leaf out of the UX alchemists handbook…

    One correction, as an Oxford Alum who was on TheFacebook back in the day when only 12 schools had access, was that the culture sprang up from an ‘in the club’ exclusivity of the original schools. That hangover leaves a lot of people over-exposed on the privacy front… It was less the early adopters than the original intention that spilt into the real world, out of the halls of academia- in many ways an accident that has completely reshaped our view of what is private- that ironically sprung from THeFacebook’s small minded elitist original intention…

  13. Mori

    Late to the party here but…

    Adam was right to point out “Thefacebook” origins of our current brand of social networking. We should do everything we can to change the conversation over Social Networking. The Facebook Model ™ was never meant to work for all “social”. Mark Zuckerberg is selling it that way because that’s what keeps him wealthy and relevant.

    More to the point here, it’s true that having some barrier for entry keeps some of the trolls and spammers out. But it’s incredibly misleading to insist that “government ID names only” is the immediate next step from “totally unmoderated anonymous cesspool”. -That- is the big lie being sold to us by the architects of identity politic theater.

    Even a modest system of consistent names is enough to cut down on nearly all spam and trolling, depending on how you execute the strategy. You don’t remotely need everyone to look like a whitebread, starched collar Enterprise silicon valley pundit in order to create “high quality conversation”. But the real problem with Google specifically may lay in the accusations leaked from employees: that guys like Vic Gundotra are self-appointed religious missionaries of “the new social” and how the Internet will be bent to a single ideology of human identity and human conversation.

    The problem is they don’t seem to understand hardly a thing about human beings. It seems more likely, based on their actions to date, that they live in an echo chamber of like minded eager beavers.

  14. Jae Yeon Kim

    As a net user in South Korea I directly know the real name policy does not work. We have had real name policy since 2006 as the government thought that is the effective way to deal with the emerging problem of privacy violation. However, it only made the net environment less safer than before for the majority of the citizens and the net users began to find numerous ways to filter the system. Thus, that’s the lesson. If we ignore the social norms which are established by people’s interaction, what we are going to get is nothing or even worse.

  15. Grant Just-Grant

    Interesting. Thanks for your insights, danah. I’m wondering about the relative merits of power versus influence. Power with influence endures. Influence often extends beyond a persons tenure or life because of who they were. Power exercised poorly does not endure and is frequently worked around. The design of systems (so that they endure), may be better served by encouraging self-regulating behaviours of influencers who then affect the social structure of a group.

    As a scientist/engineer, I look for thoughtful, insightful comment (even if I disagree withit) and sites with a high signal:noise ratio.
    Sites like yours do that. Usenet used to do that by making it very clear whether a group was moderated, what the rules were and the penalties for disobeying the rules. The trolls and other miscreants could go to the unmoderated sites to wreak their havoc while folk on the moderated sites could enjoy well informed debate.

    Online services provide a “service” – they *serve* (not dictate) to a community. Otherwise they should be called something else. Pseudonymity protects users from stalkers. Influence can still grow in online communities by virtue of the wisdom, wittiness, insight, analysis skills or helpfulness of a particular individual. His/her influence will grow and the values they hold will be more likely to infect those around them.

    The “real name” / pseudonym argument ignores the key issue of what we (the users) want online community to look like and for system designers to meet that need.

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