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Searching for passive in an ‘interactive’ world

"…when the information being shared is social in nature, advertising is fundamentally a disruption." - danah boyd

"Any history of technology is filled with unexpected reversal of form resulting from new advances." - Marshall McLuhan

The books have been stacking up [here's a list if you're interested] I've taken lunches where ideas were spilled as easily as beer and food was served. Corners were turned too, where that hang in the thought that I had, the one that wouldn’t quite connect suddenly kicked in and gelled, or at least I realized it had been hanging in the air right under my nose all this time; I'd been staring at it for so long and never seeing it that it almost made no sense, and then finally I found that it did make sense.

Or did it?

Let's try that again..

Passive is everywhere on the web if we consider passive as the opposite of taking action, such as watching a movie on Netflix or looking through Flickr as a slideshow or even just reading this post. The less you have to do the better sometimes. Coincidentally and ironically, as I've been writing this Mark Zuckerberg announced at Facebook's F8 conference that new tools on the site would mean that one can now do less to receive more information in the stream from your "friends." Greater minds than mine can debate whether that's a good thing or not.

I liked what Farhad Manjoo of Slate had to say about the changes: "But Zuckerberg couldn't let this under-sharing stand. "Our solution was to create a new place that's lighter-weight where you can see lighter-weight stuff—that's how we came up with Ticker." If you translate "lighter-weight" to boring, you'll understand what Zuckerberg is saying: Facebook now has a place on its site reserved especially for boring updates.

Now Zuckerberg wants to lower the bar. One thing that we've heard over and over again is that people have things that they want to share, but they don't want to annoy their friends by putting boring stuff in their news feeds," he said during his keynote. To me, this doesn't sound like a problem that needs solving. If Facebook users aren't sharing stuff because they worry it will bore their friends, good! Thank you, people of Facebook, for your restraint in choosing not to bore me."


Interactivity is not always a good thing.

A question: how do you use the web? Really, think about that, it’s not a trick question. I’m not sure that we ask ourselves that enough, but however you use it you can be assured that the web is its own thing and it will continue to be as disruptive as ever, because what the web giveth, the web taketh away.

The digital leash:
Lately, when I’m out for drinks or dinner with friends, accompanied by our constant companions those digital gadgets humming and glowing on the table, I’ve often noticed that as the discussion inevitably turns toward the web an informal consensus forms. That consensus is the feeling of being overwhelmed by constant “engagement.” Me and my friends of course are merely a tiny subset of people on the social web but we are not alone. There are others amongst us who are slowly caring to admit that our waking lives have become time constrained by the ‘requirement’ that we constantly indulge in some kind of social interaction while trying to grab what we can from the ‘stream,’ aka the fire hose of networked information. We are all in this together and it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to just switch off as we get more entwined within the web’s ’social circles.’ No Google Plus pun intended..

I mean just take a look at Google - enter ‘Social media overload’ and you get 4.78 million results..

Social media's half-life:
There’s no point in me digging deep into the tangle of what is and what isn’t ‘social’ media, (although I do believe it’s all just media now). A query on Answers.com returns this: “Although social media as a term is relatively new, many experts cite its origins to the development of ArpaNet – the predecessor of the Internet.” October 29, 1969, baby! (BTW, go to Answers.com and you get a nagging banner ad asking you to add the Chrome extension.)

The web is not a meta-TV:
It might only prove my lack of intellect when I tell you that I have spent recent nights staring at the ceiling while considering how the de facto position for brands online became one of engagement and interactivity, where the passive role of the viewer is hardly considered. The more I knocked that thought around the more I came to accept (with head in hands) that it was because marketers saw (and often still see) the web as a giant meta-TV, and once they had fatefully deduced that, their next thought was that the web’s greatest ability was to allow viewers to ‘interact.’ Two things: that idea is dead wrong, the web is not a meta-TV, and I believe there’s a case for moving toward a better balance of passivity and interactivity. Something akin to a less is more model.

What do we mean by "interactive"?
We first have to understand what ‘interactive’ means. There's a lot of debate surrounding the meaning of that word, and of course there is not the same debate when it comes to social media marketing companies discussing the same word/action. The former debate is rooted in usability and user interfaces and how people interact with web sites, while the latter is about creating “highly effective communication” using ‘interactive’ tools for marketing messaging. As always social anthropology explains interacting as a normal human activity – with other humans that is. eg, IRL.

We continue to live in two different worlds: the one we inhabit and socially interact in, and the one that marketers would love us to inhabit. Nothing new there really except I don’t believe we’ve had to really choose which world we want to live in before. (On second thoughts, I’m wrong, we do have those choices, but I digress…)

So are we getting close to a social web tipping point?

For any insights or answers to any questions I’ve had about social media in general, I always seek out the one person I have long admired as a qualified expert in the field – danah boyd. If you don't already know, danah is a social media scholar at Microsoft Research New England and a Fellow at the Harvard University Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

In February 2010 she authored an essay for UX Magazine entitled Streams of content, limited attention. At the heart of her essay is her understanding that as we move from a broadcast media age into a networked information age, “Internet technologies are fundamentally dismantling and reworking the structures of distribution.” The web and its insistent technologies are constantly moving in other words.

Here’s some extracts from the essay:



Democratization. Switching from a model of distribution to a model of attention is disruptive, but it is not inherently democratizing. This is a mistake we often make when talking about this shift. We may be democratizing certain types of access, but we’re not democratizing attention. Just because we’re moving towards a state where anyone has the ability to get information into the stream does not mean that attention will be divided equally. Opening up access to the structures of distribution is not democratizing when distribution is no longer the organizing function.

Some people might immediately think, “Ah, but it’s a meritocracy. People will give their attention to what is best!” This too is mistaken logic. What people give their attention to depends on a whole set of factors that have nothing to do with what’s best. At the most basic level, consider the role of language. People will pay attention to content that is in their language, even if they can get access to content in any language. This means Chinese language content will soon get more attention than English content, let alone Dutch or Hebrew content.

Stimulation creates cognitive connections. But it is possible for there to be too much stimulation. We don’t want a disconnected, numb society, nor a society of unequal social connections. So driving towards greater and more intense stimulation may not be what we want.

Of course, there’s money here and people will try to manipulate this dynamic for their own purposes. There are folks who put out highly stimulating content or spread gossip to get attention. And often they succeed, creating a pretty unhealthy cycle. So we have to start asking ourselves what balance looks like and how we can move towards an environment where there are incentives for consuming healthy content that benefit individuals and society as a whole. Or, at the very least, how not to feed the trolls.

We need technological innovations. For example, tools that allow people to more easily contextualize relevant content regardless of where they are and what they are doing and tools that allow people to slice and dice content so as to not reach information overload. This is not simply about aggregating or curating content to create personalized destination sites. Frankly, I don’t think this will work. Instead, the tools that consumers need are those that allow them to get into flow, that allow them to live inside information structures wherever they are, whatever they’re doing. The tools that allow them to easily grab what they need and stay peripherally aware without feeling overwhelmed.


Toward the end of the essay boyd concludes: “…when the information being shared is social in nature, advertising is fundamentally a disruption.“

I’ll leave it at that for now.

Intuition and context:
Let’s switch gears.

“In my minds eye, I visualize how a particular.. sight and feeling will appear on a print. If it excites me, there is a good chance it will make a good photograph. It is an intuitive sense, an ability that comes from a lot of practice.”

“It is my intention to present – through the medium of photography – intuitive observations of the natural world which may have meaning to the spectators.”
Ansel Adams.

“The obsession with performance left no room for the development of the intuitive or spiritual impact of space and form other than the aesthetic of the machine itself..”Arthur Erickson, Architect and Urban Planner.

There are not many words in those quotes yet they distill almost perfectly the challenge of what it means to be creative, and there is so much in them that I find analogous to the web and how we use it. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that when Adams writes “which may have meaning to the spectators..” and Erickson writes “obsession with performance” those lines of text foretell the idea of UI/UX as well as engagement, metrics and analytics, but better yet the word intuitive crops up three times.

And another word that isn’t in those quotes because it’s subtextual and therefore doesn't need to be spelled out, is context. Both men cover context without having to point it out. The presentation of their work was meant to be imbued with context, meaning, spirituality, aesthetics and passivity – you will see what you will see, you will experience what you will experience. We only have to respond to their work as it suits us, they are asking nothing more of us.

Intuition serves us well and it's important. When brands say that their site has been designed to provide an “intuitive user experience,” what the site’s designers really mean is that they hope they are presenting to you the viewer, the correct user tools that you have already learned to use instinctively when visiting other websites. We never had to “learn” how to view Adams’ photography or feel the space that Erickson provided in his architecture - we just intuitively “knew.”

Sticking with photography, let’s turn to my friend Sasha Frere-Jones who was profiled late last year on the New York Times Lens blog.

In a video as we watch his captured images float by, he points out in voiceover that “there are a lot of photographs now that are just like text messages..[edit] ..I’m here and this thing happened, now you my friends and strangers, now you know..” [NB: Instagram launched 2 months after this interview]

And he also says: “It helps when you’re sorting through the web, to not have a fixed idea of what you want language or pictures to do, but to think of what purpose they’re serving.” That’s a line that digital designers should take to heart.

“I sometimes don’t think that I really take photographs so much as I frame things that I see,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with the residue of something else. Something that’s been burned or abraded, something’s been scratched up; there’s a light reflecting off of something else, and there ends up being a pattern. It looks something like a painting a lot of the time.”

More than 12,000 people follow Mr. Frere-Jones on Twitter. These messages as well as his blog posts, which can rise to the level of poetry, are often cryptic. “I like the idea of it not having a utility,” he said.

For his part, Mr. Frere-Jones argues that “there is room in the world for a beautiful high-resolution photo of a tree, and there is also room in the world for photographs of beef-flavored Gummi bears.”


Amen.

Contextual ads are not the answer:
Another thought I've been ruminating on is the idea of how we might expect a website to be fundamentally unique to each of us. When you consider that, it sets in motion some interesting questions: What was I expecting? Why? What do I want? What am I doing here? There are no simple answers, and everyone’s answers will differ, but I know what I don’t want – I don’t want to be interrupted by advertisements.

This creates a dilemma for marketers. When you’re not welcome what are you to do? The answer has been contextual ads, ads that are served up to me whenever I visit a particular website, as if this is somehow better and more acceptable. The problem is that the cookie monster, the ghost in the machine that follows my every click, serves up ads based on those clicks or my browsing history. Another problem then – those visits say nothing about who I am, nor are they necessarily contextually aligned with my browsing habits. I am curious and inquisitive and I’m given to surfing the web for hours on end. I can be equal parts thrilled and appalled, awed or disgusted, amused or sad but “they” wouldn’t know that. I can sort of subvert those algorithms and own my own “context.”

Context, as defined, is the interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs, which leads me to believe that online advertising and those contextual ad systems have an even bigger problem – even I don’t know what made me.

What is your story?
As Steven Pinker, Harvard College professor of psychology at Harvard University and the author of “The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature” puts it in his essay My Genome, My Self, after mulling what on earth it was that made him become a cognitive psychologist who studies language, then finding that he couldn’t answer the question: “The very fact that I had to think so hard brought home what scholars of autobiography and memoir have long recognized. None of us know what made us what we are, and when we have to say something, we make up a good story.”

How then can web companies, who have absolutely no access to our physical selves, possibly “know us” when we don’t even “know ourselves..,” when we make up our own “stories”?

The good news is that the web is our story-place; people-powered and built for sharing, for connecting, for idly drifting, for transparency or concealment, where we can create and upload the things we make more than we want to download “stuff” from brands.. Where do you share your “story”?

You can share it "everywhere," you can read the story of others "everywhere," you can visit almost 270 million websites currently, but then there's the Paradox of Choice, a condition that can lead to indecision and anxiety. In that 2004 book, American psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that eliminating consumer choices can greatly reduce anxiety for shoppers.

Here's an extract from a recent article by John Tierney titled Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?

When there were fewer decisions, there was less decision fatigue. Today we feel overwhelmed because there are so many choices. Your body may have dutifully reported to work on time, but your mind can escape at any instant. A typical computer user looks at more than three dozen Web sites a day and gets fatigued by the continual decision making — whether to keep working on a project, check out TMZ, follow a link to YouTube or buy something on Amazon. You can do enough damage in a 10-minute online shopping spree to wreck your budget for the rest of the year.


I could argue that one of the benefits of reducing the need to be constantly making choices through web interactivity might be that it would lead to better attention spans, because as Sally Hogshead points out in her recent TedX talk, our average attention span has now shrunk to a mighty 9 seconds. Down from 20 minutes a few generations ago. The web appears to be making us dumber.

So in conclusion I have to admit there are no easy answers. Brands will continue to demand Engagement, Likes, Fans, Shares, "upload your stuff to our sites," download this that and the other..etc, and yet, as attention spans push toward the lower bound, (zero seconds anyone?) we may well end up in a weird online version of the current economic liquidity trap, with nowhere to go. Too much choice may lead to stasis or the abandonment of brand sites by the very people brands want to reach to market to - look at the history of MySpace for instance, better yet here's a history of America Online that goes to prove that social brands don't last forever on the web.

And finally..

A human filter may always be the answer:
In his essay, Facebook and the Epiphanator: An end to endings?, Paul Ford wraps things up with this:

"We'll still need professionals to organize the events of the world into narratives, and our story-craving brains will still need the narrative hooks, the cold opens, the dramatic climaxes, and that all-important "■" to help us make sense of the great glut of recent history that is dumped over us every morning. No matter what comes along streams, feeds, and walls, we will still have need of an ending."

For now I'm just going to sever my ties to Facebook.

Links:
Russell Davies - I meant to say The Internet With Things
Vint Cerf - Facebook Could Be The Next AOL or IBM
danah boyd - Streams of content, limited attention
Paul Ford - Facebook and the Epiphanator: An end to endings?
Zeynep Tufekci - Why Twitter’s Oral Culture Irritates Bill Keller (and why this is an important issue)
Me - Facebook Likes Are Not Engaging
Farhad Manjoo - Facebook's terrible plan to get us to share everything we do on the Web
John Tierney - Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?
NY Times - Amazon Has High Hopes For Its iPad Competitor
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Postscript:

What you'll see below are some thoughts I had re an initial stab at kicking off this essay. My friend David Ewald helped me not only cut out some bloat, but helped me streamline my thoughts. I thought I'd include them here as these thoughts are not entirely outside the sphere of what I'm trying to say above.

And in a sign that technology keeps moving in leaps and bounds and how the history of the web is marked in decades not centuries, just today (9/26/11) I read this in an article - "The classic lock-in company was AOL in the early years of the Web: Subscribers dialed in to its site and then never left. It made AOL rich and powerful until the rest of the Internet became more enticing and subscribers left. AOL never recovered."

The Cutting Room Floor:

(note to self) Is it a ‘bad’ advertising problem? Do we really want to be made aware of ‘stuff’ or search it out. Is there a shift now away from advertising? Should we by now be post-advertising on the web? There must be better ways..
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Lately I’ve found myself wondering if brands will ever really find their foothold on the web. Sure, there are some great examples of brands getting it right and using the platform with panache to tell us their brand story, and yet there are more failed attempts then there are true wins, and if you wish to browse the web without being constantly dogged into performing an ‘action’ or being confronted by a website spawned from awful digital strategy, then I’d say those failures litter the web adding to the problem of information overload.
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There are currently just under 300 million websites on the Internet (that number includes registered domains which may not be actual websites) and roughly two billion people accessing those sites. The challenge for web designers and UI/UX experts is that each person viewing a site is, whether they know it or not, expecting a unique user experience. In other words, what I like, you very well may dislike. So when brands say that their site has been designed to provide an “intuitive user experience,” what the site’s designers really mean is that they hope they are presenting to you the viewer, the correct user tools that you have already learned to use instinctively when visiting other websites. (You’ll see this challenge in action if you visit Amazon.com, Apple.com, Craigslist.org and eBay.com one after the other.)

That’s often not the case especially as brands wrestle with the mobile platform and its Apps. It boils down to this – if I have to learn how to use your website or app then it’s a UX/UI failure. I might also add, that if you are asking me to ‘interact’ with your brand you might want to consider my time and the effort that is required to do that. In my time-constrained world using Instagram and uploading video or pictures to my Flickr and YouTube accounts is one thing, being asked to do the same thing on a brand site is entirely another. Just saying.

Again, to simplify – digital designers and strategists have to consider what is the value to me, or anyone else, of those actions?

Thanks for taking your time to read this. Dave Allen.

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