Disconnected

Designing for intimacy: Beyond today’s social apps.

This month, I’m going on Facebook. You’re not invited.

I guess each of those sentences demands an explanation.

You’re Just Going on Facebook Now?

That’s right. Up until now, I don’t Facebook. I don’t Twitter. I don’t text. I only got my first cell phone two years ago and I almost never carry it on my person. This isn’t due to an aversion to 21st-century communication technology. I also don’t email much, don’t make many phone calls, and don’t write letters on dead trees with quill pen. So what does that say about me?

Okay, it says I don’t have a whole lot of friends. But that’s actually my point. A few close friendships matter more to me than scores of superficial ones. My relatively infrequent use of communications devices concerns not so much modern technology as it concerns relationships, and the quality they have. As amazing as all these technologies are, they are all a poor substitute for being in-person with a close friend. While a phone call is better than nothing, it’s not enough better to make me want to use it all that much. As for any text-based communication system, they seem barely better than nothing. I’m just at the threshold now of trying Facebook, while remaining skeptical. Modern communications technologies allow us to send more information to more people more frequently than ever before, but that’s not what I’m after.

What Do You Mean I’m not Invited?

What I’m after is intimacy, a certain quality of communication, not quantity. So-called social technologies, like Facebook and Twitter, and blogs, for that matter, are set up for indiscriminate bulk communication. Not that there’s anything wrong with sending bulk communication to everyone you know. I’ve been doing it myself annually for years via dead trees in the form of the dreaded holiday newsletter. It strikes me as odd that people I know seem to write and read holiday newsletters somewhat begrudgingly, accepting with resignation that the demands of life preclude personal holiday letters to each recipient. And yet there seems to be much more enthusiasm for social apps. What is Facebook but a holiday newsletter chopped up and distributed throughout the year?

Personally, I enjoy both creating and receiving holiday newsletters. They are a fun and effective for staying in contact with the 100-plus friends and family members on our list. However, such bulk communication can’t be as intimate as being with only one or two of them at a time. Those 100-plus people represent wide ranges in closeness and varieties of relationships. Each close relationship has unique factors, but only common denominators can be included in a collective communication such as a holiday newsletter. Intimacy means being yourself with someone else. Let’s face it: you can’t do that with just anyone.

And so it is with the likes of Facebook and Twitter, at least as they’re intended to be used. I don’t feel a need to transfer my upcoming holiday newsletter to a wall on the web. Instead, I step into Facebook tentatively because I know I’m looking for connection rather than contact, and I’m not so sure I can get that with Facebook. As I experiment with it to see if it is possible, I’ll have to resist its by-design tendency to pull me towards quantity communication, and that means firstly limiting the number of friends on my network. I’ve three right now. I’m not expecting to increase that anytime soon.

The Problems in Hi-Tech

Email, cell phones, texting, instant messaging, blogs, Skype, Facebook, Twitter: In less than twenty years technology has greatly expanded our capacity and options for personal communication. Where the personal computer originally meant a human alone with a machine, now the machine is primarily a way of contacting other users. We should be living in the Age of Intimacy. But do we feel any closer to those we love? Or is there something about the design of these technologies that by accident or intent has subverted this potential and left us no better off than when we started? Do they actually interfere with intimacy? I can think of several reasons why that may be the case.

Limited Social Bandwidth

Yeah, I’ve a lot of gall complaining about the bandwidth of modern telecommunications when it’s been doubling every couple years. Yet with multiple megabits arriving at our doors, it’s still a long way from level necessary to replace being together in person. A sense of closeness to people comes from more than the words we exchange with them. There is also:

  • Spontaneous emotional content. A sense of closeness comes from our tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures, and body language, which is lost in most translations into megabits.
  • Immediacy of reactions. Closeness is also fostered by duplex communication where we get immediate or even overlapping feedback in our exchanges, seeing and hearing how a listener responds as we are communicating.
  • Undemanding presence. Finally, closeness is fostered by not exchanging words, but rather by simply being together. Part of being yourself around someone is not feeling pressure to continuously communicate and entertain that person. Simply doing what you naturally do around someone else both makes you feel more genuine and makes the person you’re with feel she or he is seeing the genuine you.

The current crop of social apps and technologies are a long way from transmitting those factors in closeness. On social network apps like Facebook, MySpace, and Friendster, you build your profile then invite your friends to see it, which seems odd since if they were really your friends, they would already know pretty much everything on your profile, so what exactly is the point?

Facebook’s Wall, where users can post updates about events in their lives for their friends, has the potential to be used to foster connections, turning Facebook from being a personal website into more of a limited-circulation blog or multi-media Twitter feed. However, the text-centered non-duplex transmissions of Facebook (and blogs, Twitter, instant messaging, and texting), have little spontaneous emotional content and immediacy of reactions. Cell phones and Skype are much better at this, but lack undemanding presence. When you call someone, you need to have something to talk about.

Multitude of Undifferentiated Contacts

Being yourself requires privacy, and intimacy requires personalized connections, where you communicate on the unique common factors you share with someone else. It isn’t intimate if everyone knows. However, social network apps like Facebook by their design tend to encourage building networks of undifferentiated contacts, effectively becoming only slightly less public than a blog. I click on my Friends link in Facebook and I’m first invited to find more contacts rather than check up on the friends I have now. The home page pushes adding more contacts by providing “suggestions” based on friends of friends. That may be good for Facebook’s business where the number of nodes equals the value of the network (to Facebook), but not for intimacy.

For the users, building your network is ultimately boring, and what’s left to do when you’re done? You can keep on adding friends, boosting your “friends” count, and turning Facebook into of popularity contest. You can continually update your profile, creating and re-creating your on-line identity. That may have a lot of appeal to teenagers, where popularity represents status and their identities have yet to fully form, but that has little to do with intimacy. Friend counts turn it into a competition rather than a community. Gathering “friends” as trophies is depersonalizing and degrading, undermining closeness which requires we value each other’s uniqueness. Erik Erikson teaches us that intimacy only comes after one has a stable identity -one needs something to share to be intimate. While social sites may be a helpful in exploring and forming an identity, if that’s what some users are using it for, then they’re not quite ready for intimacy.

Meanwhile, for the rest of us, the design of social sites in conjunction with our cultural expectations leaves us with little ability to control the privacy of our networks. It’s difficult to differentiate our contacts, meaning that the same content we send to our lover also goes to our parents, our children, our boss, and our rival. There is implicit pressure to accept a symmetrical relationship from anyone that asks, meaning our “friends” tend to include decidedly un-friends. In the big-blue-ceiling world, our social contacts form groups and hierarchies, but on Facebook everyone has equal capacity to promote or damage relations. On-line conflicts are the result. We rely on the mere disinterest of un-friends to prevent them from intruding -hoping they will simply not bother to look at what we’re saying. As our on-line networks grow, they tend to deteriorate until the only alternative is to flee, and start a new network at a new site. And thus Friendster faded in the US, replaced by My Space, which is being replaced by Facebook. I suspect that Facebook may survive because it’s lucky enough to arrive at a time that our culture figures out a socially acceptable way to handle unwanted friend requests (just ignore them).

However, with the popularity of social network sites like Facebook growing even among non-adolescents, it is evident that social sites are desired for something. We can build and maintain business contacts, or use them for self-marketing (professionally or socially), or to simply express ourselves to any audience that is interested enough to listen (much like a blog). But that is all we’re getting: an audience, not a confidant. That’s useful for guiding our self-presentation, but such image management implies we are not being ourselves.

Uncontrolled Access

While the likes of Facebook and Twitter are biased towards bulk broadcasts to a large undifferentiated audience, cell phones and texting are modern technologies designed for personal one-on-one communication, making them substantially more suited for intimacy. Their mobility also allows us to contact those we care about anywhere and anytime we want, which is also helpful for increasing the intimacy in our lives. When I’m traveling alone, I greatly value the ability to call my wife from my restaurant table or a quiet riverside to talk about the day (the long delay in my acquiring a cell phone was primarily due to me doing too little non-business traveling on my own -at most a few weeks per year -to justify a 12-month cell phone contract; for business travel, I’d check out a cell from the office pool).

However, that constant availability is a double-edge sword, easily eroding intimacy as much as creating it. It means moments of intimacy being interrupted by receiving digital communications from others, including those we’re not all that intimate with. More insidiously, mobile communications technologies tempt us to direct attention away from those we are currently with to seek out others. We might be somewhat intimate now, but the cell phone on our belt constantly whispers that perhaps there’s something better just a few button-presses away. Maybe we better check to see.

The always available electronic communications devices can distract us from in-person dialog until it’s absurd. In one case, an acquaintance of mine drove her teenage son to meet his girlfriend at the movies. In the parking lot, the son wouldn’t get out of the car, being engrossed in texting. The mother needed to get home quickly but she was on a conference call on her cell and so couldn’t talk to her son to see what was holding things up (was the girlfriend texting to say she was late or canceling?). It was twenty minutes before (a) the mother could tear herself away from the cell long enough to talk to her son sitting right next to her, (b) find out that her son was in fact texting his girlfriend on some trivial matter when he was going to see her shortly anyway, and (c) that all this time the girlfriend was a mere 50 yards away in the theatre lobby –he was so into texting her that he hadn’t gotten around to asking where she was. It’s one thing when electronic communications are a poor substitute for being in-person with someone, but here they were interfering with being in-person.

The vast volume of available social communications has saturated the time we have available for intimacy, spreading us thin. We can spend substantial time just checking our email, Facebook pages, and cell phone text and voice messages. We can be pulled from one relationship to another, perhaps involving ourselves psychologically or socially in matters not that important to us. Bouncing around from contact to contact, we never spend enough uninterrupted time with one to build a deep connection. This is a problem with how we use our technology as much as it is with the technology itself, but perhaps there are ways to design the technology to reduce their constant pull away from what we’re experiencing now to the mere promise of something else.

Trust in the Medium

The problem of privacy extends beyond the network of contacts we create on a social site to include the site itself and those who run it. There appears to be a conflict between the user keeping his or her content and relationships private, and the site operator’s need to extract something of commercial value from that same content and relationships. Simply put, I don’t trust Facebook, and the short history of social sites suggests that no user should. They deliberately obfuscate the level of privacy, repeatedly. They quietly default to minimal privacy repeatedly. They trick users into providing access to private accounts then impersonate the users (apparently, it’s perfectly legal for a corporation to steal identities). They attempt to wedge themselves into our personal correspondence.

Some seem confident that user surveillance and rebellion will prevent such abuses of privacy. However, the historic efforts to exploit our friendships seem so laughably ham-fisted that I suspect The Man is simply climbing the learning curve of this new technology, and will eventually become smarter and more powerful than the average user. I don’t think we should underestimate the resources and creativity of very clever people with very big budgets working in marketing.

How Did This Happen?

Maybe the makers of social sites weren’t trying to support intimacy. They’ve certainly been successful without it, in the sense that they’ve recruited plenty of sign-ups, so perhaps they deliberately disregarded intimacy as unnecessary from a business perspective. However, I also wonder if the prospect of intimacy never occurred to them, or if it had, they wouldn’t know how approach it. Could it be that the techno-geeks that create these sites don’t get it? There is something, dare I say, a bit nerdy about displaying friend-counts or number of followers in social apps, as if quantifying friendship should somehow be important to users.

The site designers apparently assumed that users would prefer to broadcast to a large undifferentiated audience, otherwise they wouldn’t have made it the default communication mode and wouldn’t have tried (wrongly) to make it more convenient for users. Broadcast can have practical uses for getting information or advice (perhaps even supplanting Google), or more direct assistance in a problem (e.g., get a ride to New York City), and maybe that’s what the site designers thought was going on. However, regarding friendship as being mostly about practical support also smacks of nerdiness.

Repeatedly social app creators seem to think users are looking to hook up with strangers, rather than cultivate the relationships they already have. Marketing graphics for such sites suggest that hot members of the opposite sex are out there ready to contact you if you only had the right technology to reach them, a bizarre notion that could be straight from the characters in The Big Bang Theory.

Faithfully transferring human social relations to the digital realm is subtle and difficult and it has caused plenty of out-right failures. Whenever introducing a technology with a social dimension, you need to carefully study the social environment to assess the impact of design on human interaction. My impression of the current crop of social apps is that the weak support of intimacy was less a deliberate design choice than a failure to give it due consideration.

Design Solutions

Fixing What is Broken

Social Bandwidth. Supporting audio and video would help transmission of spontaneous emotional content. For more immediacy, you can aim for more seamless transition from text-based transactions to real-time audio and video. For example, once it’s clear that a conversation is starting via texting, a control can be provided to connect by phone to continue the dialog with whoever is participating.

The Undifferentiated Multitude. Social sites should make it easy to build and manage rings of privacy, separating acquaintances from friends from intimates. It also needs to be easy to build separate networks, such as one for friends and one for families. That’s how real-world social networks work. Sites should be designed to work best with each person belonging to multiple groups rather than being optimized for broadcasts to a single group. Maybe the whole idea of personal pages should be downplayed because it inevitably focuses on “me” rather than “we.” Instead, users of a group should find it easy to create and use private joint pages. Membership in these group pages should be by invitation only, and their existence should not be displayed in search results or on profile pages even to friends, thus reducing social pressure to include individuals you rather not include for a specific group. With group-based pages, the purpose of the personal page is to allow the owner to monitor multiple group pages, not to serve as a repository of personal information and updates about oneself. Content should be organized at the top level by relationship rather than individual.

Uncontrolled Access. Improved usability and centralized monitoring of our social contacts would cut down on time spent fiddling with social apps rather than socializing. With each user belonging to multiple explicit groups, it becomes possible to prioritize contacts that are pushed to users, allowing them to better manage their time. We also need to focus on achieving the right balance of providing immediacy while avoiding interruptions. Possibly we can provide a means for users to signal their current level of availability to the groups they belong to.

Trust in the Medium. Privacy statements are not enough since they can change at any time. Privacy needs to be built in permanently. Maybe this can be done through technology by encrypting content on social sites by default, but I can already hear national security agencies around the world freaking out about that possibility. Alternatively, we should seek a legal mechanism to protect privacy. Maybe laws can be passed where users have the right to sue site owners for any use of user data if the site displays certain standardized trust-encouraging privacy language such as ”Fully User Owned and Controlled Content.” Beyond that, we need to reduce the incentive to exploit user relationships. It may be web heresy, but perhaps users should pay for use of social sites, not unlike already done for cell phones and texting, so site owners feel less need to sell our friendships to advertisers.

The Missing Piece of Intimacy

There are three ways electronic communications technology can support intimacy. First of all, the technology can be used to plan or coordinate future in-person experiences. Certainly email, cell-phoning, texting, and Twittering have been used to arrange get-togethers, although their support for that function could be improved. Facebook and its ilk don’t seem to offer much for that purpose, except possibly maintaining general awareness of where your friends are and when they’ll be available.

Secondly, technology can be used to exchange content about past experiences, either shared or not. This seems to be what Twitter and Facebook are primarily aiming for, however poorly. Users can tell (or show with pictures or links) what has happened to them.

In addition to helping users plan get-togethers and share past experiences, there is a third way of supporting intimacy that appears to be missing from nearly all technological forays into social relations, and that’s using the technology to be a shared experience. Years ago, I was in Seattle visiting a couple friends and we went to the then-new Experience Music Project, a museum for popular music. To show that they run a state-of-the-art museum, the Experience Music personnel distributed to us hi-tech personal audio devices. These devices featured headphones, a portable CD-ROM drive (that’s how old it was), and a handheld keypad. The idea was you walk around the galleries, punch in numbers posted next to exhibits, and hear an audio recording related to the exhibits. Functionally, they worked fine, but the design failed to take into account the social environment of the museum. They were isolating. With earphones on, I only hear lectures, and only I hear the lectures. My friends may or may not have heard the same lecture, but even if they did, it wasn’t at the same time as me, so I couldn’t comment to them on what was being said and expect them to understand. I didn’t feel free to say anything to them anyway: I might interrupt something they were listening too. The result is that we were at a museum together but far apart.

Apparently, it didn’t occur to the designers that visiting a museum is firstly a social experience. It doesn’t take a whole lot of ethnography to figure that out. Just stand at the entrance for 10 minutes. Almost no one goes to a museum alone. People go with friends, family, out-of-town visitors, and current or potential lovers.

Why? At its best a visit to a museum is educational, delightful, inspiring, even moving. You grow from it, leaving the museum a little more informed or with a little different perspective. We naturally seek to share emotional experiences with another. It provides a feeling of connection. That’s why we take dates to a good movie or nice dinner or to a museum: to have an experience to share. Nothing provides greater intimacy than growing together, sharing in both the struggles and the successes. That’s why our best friends come from high school or college or boot camp. That’s how a museum can make a human relationship a bit deeper.

But the Experience Music audio devices undercut that. I didn’t know if my friends were experiencing the same thing or not. They had headphones on. Within 15 minutes, I had turned in the audio device. (Not to bash the museum too much; while the audio devices isolated you from your friends, the museum’s studio rooms, where you and your friends can play enhance musical instruments together, were a kick-assed sharing experience).

The problem wasn’t advanced technology itself, but it’s design. Everything would change if users could patch their friends into the same audio device with Bluetooth so they could all hear the same thing. That change in design would have altered the experience from isolated to inclusive. With my friends and me effectively creating our own private experience, intimacy would’ve been enhanced.

Creating Joint Experiences

Intimacy is more than what I say and you say; it’ also about what we are when we are together. Such intimacy can come from nearly any joint activity, not just well-planned activities like visiting a museum, but also such mundane things as watching a football game, or preparing dinner, or driving to a destination together. Current social apps and technologies don’t lend themselves to just hanging out together.

Communications technology, especially mobile technology, can enhance intimacy by making it easy to tie a friend into our current activities. Cell phones almost allow this. This summer, while camping alone in Idaho, I called my wife after emerging from a bracing dip in the Clearwater River. As I’m walking from the bank telling her I wish I had packed biodegradable soap, a dog nosed a kickball up to me and looked at me expectantly. “And now a border collie is inviting me to play soccer,” I said to my wife. She laughed. The dog’s owner, 30 feet away, laughed. I gave the ball a light kick, the dog took off after it, and I laughed. It was a little magical moment I could share with my wife thanks to cellular technology. However, to this day, I don’t know if she understood that I meant literally a border collie had invited me to play soccer.

Using the cell phone’s camera may have enhanced the sharing of the experience, but fumbling with the phone to take a picture of the dog would’ve destroyed the moment (in my case, the camera lens was damaged, so it wouldn’t have worked anyway). As it is, holding the phone to my ear was itself a distraction from my interaction with the environment. It’s a good thing the dog wasn’t inviting me to shoot pool.

Mobile communications need to be easier to use and less obtrusive if they’re truly going to be used to connect friends with our activities. Users need to be able to spontaneously elevate the social bandwidth, going from text to voice to photo to video exchange, without worrying about head-down time. Or worrying about the calling plan charge structure, for that matter. Certainly I expect to pay for my communications, but I don’t need to be thinking, “how much is this going to cost me?” every time I snap a picture. Flat-rate unlimited connections may be the way to go. Users should be able to set up a connection to a friend and then just go about their business.

Technology use could also become the joint activity to share with friends. On-line games already do this, although the frantic pace in most games pulls too much attention from your friends to the game itself. It needs to be more than parallel-play let’s-shoot-all-the-zombies-we-can. To enhance intimacy, such games should encourage greater communication and coordination among the players. It would also help if you fed video of each player as they played -not just their avatar, but the real person -so the users can see how their friends react to the game. Yes, that takes away screen space for your amazing game graphics, but the whole idea is to be more than a game.

Just as museums, movies, spectator sports, and other recreational activities in the physical world tend to be shared with friends, their on-line equivalents could also support real-time sharing. YouTube and Hulu should make it easy to arrange joint simultaneous viewing of videos, complete with video or at least audio feeds of your friends as they watch. It would’ve been really cool if I could have watched the Volvo Ocean Race in-port races with my cousin in Michigan, an accomplished sailor who I’m rarely in contact with these days. Someday retailers are going to realize that shopping is a major recreational social experience for many people. Friends meet up on weekends and vacation and then go shopping. Ecommerce sites could rake in butt-loads of money by making it easy for friends to browse together.

Future Intimacy

I suppose when they invented writing 5000 years ago, there were those that complained how it was isolating. Now you wouldn’t have face-to-face conversations, they probably complained. Instead, one can leave a message to another and never hear a reply. It introduced asymmetry in human communications.

But we adapted: we still have intimate relationships, and reading became a source of human enrichment and social interaction; we’ve book clubs and love letters. The written word and the drawn images allow us to form relations with others who are dead now. Until the advent of audio recordings in the 20th century, there was no other way to do that. We are better for it. The same with newer technologies. We just have to figure out how we’re going to do it both as designers and as users. It will take conscious effort. As a designer, it’s only a question of whether you want to be part of the solution or not.

Now, if you excuse me, I’m off to see some friends.

Summary Checklist

Problem: Supporting intimacy more in social apps.

Potential Solutions:

  • Study the social environment of your users and understand what they are after.
  • Provide more real-time high-bandwidth media, such as voice and video.
  • Minimize the effort in using the applications.
    • Centralized and simplify the monitoring of contacts.
    • Support prioritization of contacts.
    • Make it easy to slide up to higher social bandwidth when users want it.
  • Support multiple small-group networks of varying levels of closeness.
  • Make groups private or otherwise avoid the awkwardness of refusing requests to join a group.
  • Organize content by group rather than by individual.
  • Support signaling of availability for contact.
  • Build in privacy through laws or encryption.
  • Use a business model that doesn’t rely on exploiting your users’ relationships or content.
  • Provide experiences that your users can share together.
  • No “friend” counts.

Update, May 2010

I’ve completed my experiment with Facebook and declared it a success. The experiment, not Facebook. I have determined that Facebook is definitely not for me, and I’ve terminated my updates to it. Twice in the short period I’ve been with Facebook, they’ve attempted to push me to make more information public, suggesting a pattern that’s not going away. I don’t want to be constantly fighting Facebook, remaining ever vigilant for their tricks, and wasting a lot of time figuring out how to keep things private, assuming that remains possible.  Participation in Facebook is something I needed to decide now before I got too invested in it.

What we need is the Wordpress of social apps. An open-source non-commercial app that a user can install on any server and link to similar apps of invited and consenting other users on other servers to form private digital connections. Let me know if something like this comes around. Meanwhile, I’m back to phones and email.

One Response to “Disconnected”

  1. Mike Bachman says:

    After using FACEBOOK for a year now.. The biggest hole I see is the need to be able to make smaller groups.. You can make lists, but it doesn’t limit what your full list of frineds see, only what you see…

    I like the idea of recording more video.

    To me, the pictures, “water cooler” conversations around current events and the ablity to share links, u-tube and things you find on the internet with your group is the nice thing.

    I believe people too often use it like Twitter, which I hate.. people share everything.. “I just got up and brushed my teeth” “My dog went out side today”.. WHO CARES..

    The other thing I hate are the stupid quizzes and games.. just dumb.

    Used properly, I think Facebook is a good idea… but the user interface STINKS!!!