Highlighting common occurrences of the word ‘trust’ in most text, one has reason to believe that every positive mention and connotation of the word is followed by it being stripped away completely as a result of human interaction. Academic literature like Rocco’s paper is biased towards the claim, and the study tries to attribute the flaws of email to the generic category of electronic communication, which has since evolved to afford for far better measures of accountability. Kiesler and Kraut reiterate this throughout their HCI research on non-normative online behavior, finding that computer programs are good at identifying other computer programs which try to deceive them. It is humans who are adept at creating structures of deceit that defeat the most advanced pattern recognition algorithms. While certain forms of electronic media can be an additional layer of protection for deceivers, the actual deceit does not end by attacking the curtain that it hides behind. Designers of online communities can do more good by understanding just one thing about our species: when the cat (of accountability) is away, the mice (our species) are out to play.
Our naïveté leads us to believe that forming ties, weak or strong, lowers our probability of being manipulated in digital spaces. But computers do not understand consequence; we as humans do, and through some false rationalization we ignore the guilt of small deceit to accept any associated gains. While those gains might seem more rewarding at certain times, they also tend to frequently serve as premonitions before events that force us to question our own actions. Providing better accountability, through the detailed clarification of the state of every message and every individual is the only solution. A forced read receipt that eliminates plausible deniability is being implemented on all major online social networks. There have been many occasions where I have received responses to questions through such social networks, after repeated failed attempts through email. While there may be guilt associated with not replying to an email, it is limited to our brain and nervous system. Social networks can help us quickly label people who are notorious for deliberately ignoring communication. By making a simple parameter like one’s reputation public to society, a more urgent response is elicited from them. It is with the same intent that Kiesler and Kraut recommended all written word that is published online be subject to the same transparent process of critique. The YouTube video is honest in displaying a ‘Dislike’ button next to the ‘Like’ button. The publisher cannot undo the damage done, but can choose to adapt future uploads to be better received by viewers. Another example is the crowdsourced wiki. It is inevitable for a person who cares about a certain genre of content to correct glaring mistakes, but possible only if given the ability and freedom to do so. The physical newspaper is already dead for a large population. It is replaced by digital content forms that can start conversations instead of being limited to just a one-way consumption medium. The internet, in all the brouhaha about privacy and security, has provided for better answerability. It’s yet another positive story behind a negative headline. Being Human.
Individual. The word itself is so simple, but it describes how complex our lives are and how we as humans learn to adapt situations to suit our needs. We use this and many other words in multiple metaphorical contexts. When a computer is powerful enough to declare that the answer to life, the universe and everything around us is 42, but is unable say what the ultimate question to life is, the flaw may not be in its lack of computational power. The computer may have been intelligent enough to console us humans by blaming itself, when the real problem might have been that there is not one question to life in our minds. It knew perhaps that humans despite their superior intelligence were far too weak to be critical to the evolution of the universe, and that like most other creatures would, despite leaving footprints, perish in the sands of time. To respect our brief period of existence, the computer resumed serving us loyally to help us adapt to the incredible and ever-changing norms of our own society.
Search was our answer while trying to finding information lost in our seemingly limitless digital storage. Our visual acuity, as we have discovered, is often superior to other creatures. Despite being harder, we are able to identify needles in haystacks because of this trait. Yet, what the post-PC world, which so many people are so excited about, has ignored this to a large extent. What the iPhone invented was the ability to navigate through long lists, with exceptionally smooth scrolling. I would wager that 70% of all apps fall into the category of browsing content with vertical scrolling. But we are also quick to realize that it is far too difficult to find a specific item on long lists. Email, Facebook, Text Messages, To Do Lists, Calendars - search was about the best solution we could come up with. A useful thought exercise might be to ask: Have you ever tried to find something by navigating through content, failed, and then resorted to using a search box?
Search is exceptional at pin-pointing specific information, but it may be a stopgap solution to being able to find something hidden in plain sight. The Chat Circles application was one of many visual solutions to such a problem. It even brought some very familiar concepts of physical interaction to digital spaces. While one might argue against it by saying it might be better for us to adopt the computer’s own qualities rather than try to build into them those that we are familiar with, the constraints for communication that Chat Circles tries to enforce is strangely pleasing. Chat Circles shows everybody who is communicating, without making the actual conversations public. Individuals who are part of circles can see the conversation happen inside it. Like physical spaces, a person has to leave a circle to join another. When entering a conversation using abstract colors and shapes to represent people and conversations may in fact be, as suggested, visual cues that people find more useful than the traditional ‘Buddy List’.
The Themail visualization tool was another attempt to solve the same problem. It presents the people in mailboxes on a timeline, showing words that are often repeated in conversations with them. By allowing users to adjust the length of the timeline, or see the context of how a certain word was used, there is value gained in seeing how people’s lives and priorities have changed in the big picture, while also being able to highlight specific events in a smaller timeframe. This isn’t something that can be done with a search box. Maybe our computers could use our email to show us how similar our perceived answers to life are. Maybe they cannot. But they do show already show that one does not need an equation to see patterns or trends in any activity. One certainly cannot use a search text box to achieve that. When humans are not willing to change, they create technology which adapts to their behavior. If there are so many patterns hidden in our massive catalogs of data, then it is time to find more visual solutions to our problems.
In the past, I have struggled to accept online channels of social interaction. Reading articles on social computing is comforting, as they describe cases that showed me that I am not alone. It describes the flaw in websites trying to act like substitutes for physical(and in many cases tangible) real-world social interactions. Many of these interactions, we may assume, came to being after centuries of evolving human civilization. Human relationships are complex, and we have tried to acknowledge them publicly by dividing them into categories and lists. Mirroring the structure of a human relationship online through an ordinary linear list results in our peers trying to extract meaning from them. When a user tries to create such a list, they might not imagine the side effects it might have. There are always people trying to overanalyze them to draw out characteristics that may or may not exist. If I created a list of close friends I want to follow more closely, that list is transient and subject to change over a large timeframe. If I put myself in the shoes of another person trying to understand what this list might mean, I would expect my assumptions to last as opinions for a long time. I might have issues with the order in which I am listed on such a list. I am probably not alone, which is why there should be no parameter defining order in such lists. I might also have issues with not being included in such a list altogether. Again, since others may misunderstand this just like I might have, such lists should never be made public.
But then, are there elements of social networks which have been welcomed universally? Communication is obviously one answer. It’s asynchronous nature, and the flexibility provided for reciprocation is another. Providing every single person on the internet with their own audience is also one. When you treat people as an audience, you tend to write more responsibly, you make statements that are either phrased after much deliberation or a representation what you truly believe in. Opinions are always open for discussion, even if about an extremely controversial topic. They may certainly be complex to interpret, but will likely have a predictable number of responses. Relationships with people in a closed circle are extremely tricky because people are extremely sensitive about how they are perceived in front of others, they are affected by it personally more easily, yet they are almost always curious enough to decode them to interpret details that may not necessarily be represented by them.
If relationships are so difficult to interpret on the internet, why do we even attempt to create an artificial representation for them online? It may be more useful to have our social networks be more like a social RSS feed reader. Instead of dividing relationships into categories, we might find more utility in trying to divide the subject of each post into different categories. People could be added, removed or shifted around categories, without it changing the way we think about our physical relationships. We could continue to communicate with others as we have in the past, speaking more to certain people than others and posting photos and tagging each other just like we have in the past. There is one major difference, the experience, like Twitter, becomes curated but at the same time allows us to maintain relations with others. We treat each other at face value, and when we post something we can easily select groups that might be interested in the subject.
This has been tried by Google+. The service has failed to become popular, not because it is a bad idea, but because far few users were willing to even bother trying it, since the process of switching would only be successful if a user’s entire circle of friends did along with them. Something like this would be a great opportunity for user testing: seeing if users preferred content-focused social networking to a friend-focused social networking. A simple toggle switch that allows users to follow interests on a newsfeed rather than individual posts that may or may not be of interest to everyone. I am a big fan of curation, and my Facebook lists already do this job for me. I am interested to see how long it takes for Facebook and Instagram to be an integrated experience, because right now both of them use opposite approaches to following people. What we end up using in five years, because I know people are working on improving these experiences, may be close to what I want our social networks to be like today.
When Jim Hollan and Scott Stornetta decided to write about the merits of electronic communication, I was 4 years old. The first time I used a computer was when I was 10. This was a really old Japanese machine that would not work in the peak temperatures of New Delhi’s summers and winters. To be constantly reminded that its humongous 4MB hard drive full of games like Space Invaders and Digger was lying there unused was more difficult to digest than the fact that this computer was useless for almost everything else, let alone communication. We decided to buy a faster, more powerful 300MHz Celeron when I was 12. We used telnet to send email in 1997. We have Microsoft Exchange on low-end feature phones now. Our computers have grown up since then. But so have our expectations of them. It was unfair for the cynics of 1992 to have tried to quantify the mediums of “Being There” (physical) and “Beyond Being There” (digital) in order to declare one or the other as a winner. It is still not invalid though to maintain a stance that the two remain considerably different. This can be best illustrated with a present day experience of both physical and digital collaboration:
Groups A and B are two 4-member project teams that I was part of, for different classes. For an assignment, A decides to meet at school, and B decides to engage in a video conference through Google Hangouts. Group A’s task was to come up with an idea to pitch to their class, whereas Group B’s task was to write a shared document for submission to their instructor. Both tasks were completed with great efficiency in a period of two hours. Members of group A shared a physical whiteboard to log their ideas. When the group found an idea to expand upon or one to disagree upon, they could snatch a marker and scribble on the whiteboard. Their was constant communication and changes in the tones of voices and emotion, coupled with limited space on the whiteboard that the group used to refine their ideas. Group B’s story was that they had already divided the document they were writing into four parts that each individual was focusing on. When in doubt about a certain subject, another member would offer to fill in gaps without much commotion or disorder. The group would also take breaks to re-prioritize the sequence of ideas for the purposes of presentation. Both groups were able to complete their tasks with an agreed-upon result. As soon as my meeting with Group A ended, I was able to transition into Group B’s meeting sitting in the same chair. Though not impossible, this was less probably less practical in 1992.
The example above was useful to highlight that despite having vastly superior technology in 2013, we do still like to partake in the activity of physical meetings. The physical constraint of limited space is very useful for design brainstorming. So is being able to consume your team’s emotions and reaction to ideas in physical space. We recognize each medium’s distinct qualities. They both co-exist for us to be able to use one, or a combination of them. We have certainly stopped pretending that the line the article uses to differentiate between the two has not been blurred. While talking about technology and lines being blurred, I would like to paraphrase what Bret Victor explains in his talk about “Inventing on Principle”:
There is no problem technology cannot solve. You first ask whether it needs to be solved by technology. Sometimes there exist problems that should be solved by technology, but the right tools just do not exist. Sometimes you have to create the very tools you need to solve such problems.
Bret’s interpretation is beautiful and his entire talk is worth seeing. He tried to convince the group of people who complained that tablets were primarily devices for consumption to think otherwise. He argued that to create visual content, people should not be limited to programming through code. Using the iPad and a couple of sliders he had the code for a game write itself. Researchers and design practitioners like us like to take up such challenges. We try to anticipate not just the problems of the future but also reasonable ways of solving them. We do not always have the tools we need but are able to quickly hack together stopgap solutions. Once we are confident that an idea is worth pursuing, we make sure we improve our tools as they must not adversely affect the ecological validity of our experiments or the sustenance of our projects.
We can also not afford to be overly cynical about the shortcomings of new technology. Early adopters can also be thought of as designers who decide what may be done with the blank canvas that the new technology has made available. When smartphones became popular, web designers understood that websites had to improve; they created responsive web design. When people realized the web could replace print, a side effect was dramatic improvements in typography and font-rendering, some of which were made possible through web-fonts. Mostly though, it was made possible only by constantly thinking about these technologies to see how they can improve our lives or make them worse. When Adobe killed Flash, they knew they had to adopt HTML5 which is why the announcement of Adobe Edge followed shortly after. Our openness has made a positive difference in the world of technology. But this is not to say that one should not be critical. On the contrary, as designers we should be hypercritical. Because criticism can be very different from cynicism. Also, the fact that not every idea is worth pursuing.