erova notebook • a user experience blog by Chris Avore

Field Trip: Discussing Goffman and Social Interaction Design

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.

Branching out, in this instance, meant attending a New Pathways for the Social Sciences event hosted by the Institute for Social Economic Research and Policy at Columbia University.

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 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 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.

  • Lynne

    It is most definitely a challenge to partake in discussions like this, or even to just wrap your head around more theoretical stuff. We do get buried in our day-to-day and busting out and doing ‘field trips’ like this are key to shaking things up–and are what ultimately lead to innovations and breakthroughs (for me at least!)

    Goffman is certainly interesting–I wish I’d been able to join you! Thanks for the nice write up, Chris :)

  • Chris Avore

    Hi there Lynne and thanks for sharing your ideas.

    I definitely agree we need to get out of reading the same stuff, talking about the same ideas, and using the same methods to different challenges or opportunities we encounter every day and every project.

    But it’s not easy–I notice the irony re-reading this post that I wanted to branch out but then I appear disgruntled that the talk didn’t reflect my own interests and tactical applicability of the subject matter.

    Perhaps this was branching out on training wheels, or four extra ice cubes in my scotch. To really expand my perspective, I’d probably be best served sitting in on lectures that didn’t even cross into interaction design or digital mediums at all, leaving me to grapple with concepts that require a deeper synthesis to incorporate into my work instead of surface-level bolt-on approaches.

    I’m certainly up for exploring these ideas more in Denver over oysters and cheese at the IA Summit (when yet again we’ll be mingling with our own tribe of practitioners).

  • Lis Hubert

    This is great Chris! I very much want to get into “uncomfortable” things like this moving forward. Always a step ahead :-)

  • Chris Avore

    Sounds great Lis. I’m going to do a better job of giving our friends a heads up of when I find events like this Goffman event.

    Here’s a couple more I tracked down as well that I’m going to try making an appearance at as well:
    (I’ve already signed up for Program or Be Programmed and Social Media: Social Uprising)

    The Quantitative Methods in the Social Sciences is also something I really want to check out:

    It would have been great to have had you there to kick ideas around afterward so let’s try to make it happen next time.

  • John Labriola

    Great summary Chris. I can see how you were disgruntled, the title of event, location, speaker, etc.. all lended itself being an intermediate to expert type event. My guess this was more of a introductory. If you have never read Goffman or really thought about the theory behind social design, it sounds like it would have been more intriguing.

    As with Lis and Lynn I think we need to balance the practical with the theory. About two years ago I made a goal to alternate.

    I also think conference and event organizers need to balance their event offerings. But they have the added difficulty of balancing beginner, intermediate, and expert.

    Thanks for the write-up! Keep em coming, events like these are far and few in-between in Cordoba ;-)

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