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The (Anti)Social Net by Elizabeth Churchill

. wandereye

I am a sucker for people who cite Durkheim, Barnes, et al. They seem to have deep knowledge of this stuff we call "social networking":

"social network" was coined in the 1950s by John Barnes, a British anthropologist, inspired by the work of Elizabeth Bott and her kinship studies... These early social network researchers were primarily and fundamentally concerned with people and the social management of relationships and connections... these pioneers were not satisfied with the elegance of the model alone. They understood there was something to be said for looking at people as people, not simply as gates or nodes or conduits to other people.

I fall victim to stuff like DIGG Labs and other forms of visualizing affinities. Working with Karen Holtzblatt and Hugh Beyer at Incontext showed me deeper ways of visualization AFTER primary and immersive observations of human beings in context. It seems they are very much aware of the inversion of how we tend to go about conceptualizing "social experiences" on the internet. Churchill continues:

they were interested in understanding people, and less invested in the belief they could engineer behavior

While working for Incontext, I struggled to come to terms with the fact that it is nearly impossible to change human behavior, especially through a graphical user interface, no matter how novel the approach is. The reason for this, especially in business, is due to the "affinities" in place within large and small organizations that create patterns and processes resulting in "social norms". To disrupt these things is to welcome chaos and welcome failure. Churchill writes:

human beings take a while to develop social norms that enable and preserve their social connections; having a sudden disruption issued from afar and rippled through the system in a flash can be seriously damaging and can take time to repair.

One of the fundamental practices outlined in the book "Rapid Contextual Design" and core to the process Incontext offers is the idea of "affinity mapping". This is not a simple "mind map" of relationships. This is a very complex construction of data synthesis which leads to explicit understanding of the processes, the norms, the motivations, the intents of the people who create a structure.

it is necessary to study both the object itself and the systems of knowledge that produced the object.

When she speaks of the "object" I think of "artifacts" and the mental models we use to define requirements, to benchmark progress or return on investment. Through total immersion within the contexts of people's lives, one gains a thorough and unique understanding of situations and emotional states that influence behavior and inform design decisions. The opposite of this is:

the way of thinking that lead to these errors, were ones that privileged simplified ideas and simplistic business imperatives over any concern for or understanding of human social engagement. 

When tasked with thinking about "social shopping" for example, it is an imperative to think about the wider picture of life, how technology currently fits into people's daily existence as opposed to the all-to-familiar "wouldn't it be awesome if?"

a "social" steeped in a deeper understanding of what the technology is and how it fits into people's everyday lives... there needs to be a concomitant shift in the way in which design decisions are elaborated and business decisions are made.

This is where heated debates about primary and secondary research (their value therein), HCI vs. human-centered come into play. Human beings inherently need and crave structure. Without it, we tend to go nuts. But rigorously applied arbitrary structure is a form of annoyance, if not oppression. Secondary research abstraction of individuals into quantifiable targets and segments is only as valuable as the insights primary research can supply to validate assumptions. If there is a disconnect between the two, you often witness stuff that, in a nutshell, is "irrelevant". Again, you can only work with an existing behavior and structure and it is very hard to change either. Regardless, most of us have no business from an ethics standpoint or professional/academic background standpoint evaluating and synthesizing these kinds of "data" streams. Churchill writes:

Geeks, computer scientists, and mathematicians who love networks are not good people to assess your social-networking products.

Why? Because we operate simultaneously in user and evaluator mode. John Dewey, in his "Critique of Abstraction: The Intellectual Life as a Tool," makes the distinction between primary and secondary experience. Primary experience is a subjective relationship to external objects that are sensory—emotive, psychological, physical—but not reflected upon. They are experienced... Secondary experience is a rational process in every sense possible.

Churchill continues, articulating what many of us feel but are unable to, citing Jonathan Grudin's 1994 paper "Groupware and Social Dynamics":

Social networking sites have focused on networks and individuals. When it comes to interacting and having relationships, people don't think in terms of the sum total of connections and inter-connections they have, they think of the individuals they know and the groups they belong to. People and groups are different from nodes and networks. 
Thus, humans are dynamic, contextually tied to their identities within the moments they find themselves in. There is no rigid or deterministic or predictable structure, a "bucket" we can fit into. I guess in that sense we're finding that static concepts like targets and segments need to be much more flexible or dynamic. Which has lead us to the age of systems and platforms and software as a responsive service.

I whole-heartily thank and admire this Elizabeth Churchill (dinner on me if you're in Chicago ever).


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The (Anti)Social Net by Elizabeth Churchill

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