Over the last several years I have made a conscious effort to explore the theoretical underpinnings of interaction design and the behaviors that shape our audience’s expectations and experiences with the systems we build.
Such an exploration was a welcome extraction from a comfort zone of reading about cool tricks to try with new software or novel tactical approaches to designing whatever it was I happened to be paid to design.
But aside from a few 140-character conversations on Twitter or over drinks at conferences, it can be difficult to hear other interpretations of what can be complex material.
Likewise, I also realized I was really only having these conversations in my own close circle of colleagues and friends. I needed to branch out.
Cornell University’s Trevor Pinch led a discussion titled “Goffman and Technology: Online Interaction and Material Peformativity” where he explored themes he recently published in his article “The Invisible Technologies of Goffman’s Sociology”, published in 2010 by Technology and Culture, and his research informing an upcoming book.
The event attracted about 30 students and faculty, and was open to the public as evidenced by letting me play Ivy Leaguer for a day, and consisted of about 50 minutes of lecture and another 20 minutes of question and answer.
I’ve read my share of Goffman and a few scholarly articles about his work so I had a good fundamental understanding of where he stood, and I also absorbed the Invisible Technologies article prior to the lecture, which allowed me to focus on the implications of the material and not just the material itself.
I didn’t have to travel uptown to make the leap applying many of Goffman’s observations to digital social interaction. His famous observations and conclusions from the United Kingdom’s Shetland Islands hotel regarding the front of house/back of house staff at first glance seem to easily translate to our online and offline identities.
But the lecture examined concepts such as materiality and role distance in Goffman’s work that came to life in the discussion. Pinch referenced the swinging kitchen kickdoor as a technological solution to a situated material problem: that “the two spaces [the kitchen and the dining room] must be bounded enough to permit participants to change their behavior accordingly as they enter or leave”. He then referenced modern restaurants where the kitchen is now exposed to the guests. I thought, mistakenly, that the discussion was going to continue down a path with the exposed kitchen as a metaphor for the blurring of offline and online identities and mental models of privacy, but the discussion led to the referencing Latour’s sociology of doors instead. Interesting, yes, but with my interests it was ultimately a lost opportunity.
There were similar instances where I was teased with where I thought discussions could lead but was taken down a different path. For example, Pinch also discussed his research investigating social behavior in the AcidPlanet.com web community, touching on themes of copresence and mediated asynchronous interaction (based primarily on reciprocation, peer norms and obligations).
As someone knee deep, hell, shoulders deep in developing social tools for communities of practice, I was genuinely excited when he discussed “scopic foccussing”—staging parts of content such as ranking and voting systems which he referred to as “doubly social” since these devices enroll users to participate, and the users ultimately determine the outcome. But I was again left wanting more depth into the sociological underpinnings of the ranking, voting, & reputation systems Pinch mentioned.
Specifically, these tools seemed either rudimentary or susceptible to simply gaming the system to achieve an outcome, as many tools in the marketplace are today. When Pinch mentioned the R=R for voting reciprocation, I anticipated some criticism of such a model since it may lead to inauthentic conclusions. But instead the discussion shifted to how the system awards prizes to music tracks with the highest number of votes and most played.
The professor also touched on how AcidPlanet.com community members can create multiple profiles to suit different genres of music they uploaded, but did not discuss the ramifications of a social system enabling multiple profiles without verified user names or identies, though there were mentions of numerous trolls in the community. Could there be a relationship?
I realize looking back that it sounds as though I was disappointed in the event or that I was expecting it to be a more academic flavor of the tactical books I had been digesting a few years ago, but that’s not entirely the case. It’s also not any indictment to claim my interest in reputation and social behavior in communities is different than that of the professor’s work. I knew I was out of my element participating in such an event, and my expectations weren’t bound to the agenda at all (so by no means did I think this was a bait-and-switch).
But it was energizing, if not initially uncomfortable, to find myself challenged to think about these ideas without direct correlation to my work. This lecture won’t be the last time I take a few hours to leave what I know well to dig deeper into the harder questions.