Note: this post on Social Object follows two previous ones, on The use of social objects as artefacts for identity management and on Social objects and the observer's paradox.
Sergeant Jalonen must have spent his childhood in a concrete sandbox
After I graduated from college, I completed mandatory military service in the Finnish Army. The year-long experience yielded intense experiences, lifelong friendships and lots of stories. One of them comes to mind: Jalonen and I were the first two soldiers from our company to be promoted to the rank of Sergeant. While I was promoted for technical skills in field operations, Jalonen was chosen because he was a strict disciplinarian, as tough as nails. So tough was he, that our company's soldiers concluded among themselves that he must have spent his childhood in a concrete sandbox!
Surroundings and situations affect your behavior
I never gave this story much thought except to joke about it with my friends. Aside from the humor, however, the suggestion is that a childhood spent playing in concrete sandbox will toughen you up. Were they too quick to judge? What part of Jalonen's personality is attributable to a difficult childhood, and what part is attributable to the situation of being in the army?
In "Blink," Malcolm Gladwell describes how people tend to over-emphasize personality-based explanations for behaviors and disregard situational ones (see fundamental attribution error). For instance, it's tempting to stereotype a work colleague by saying "she's tough negotiator." However, that same person may be seen differently by friends and family, who might describe the same person by aspects not necessarily shown at work: "fun-loving, caring, generous, etc." University of Oslo professor Ole Hanseth further explains,
You do not go about doing your business in a total vacuum but rather under the influence of a wide range of surrounding factors. The act you are carrying out and all of these influencing factors should be considered together. This is exactly what the term actor network accomplishes. An actor network, then, is the act linked together with all of its influencing factors (which again are linked), producing a network.
Can your physical surroundings act as an influencing factor on your behavior? Social Scientist Roger Barker extensively researched see Architectural Psychology and found that, quite obviously, "In a store, people assume their roles as customers; in school and church, proper behavior somehow already resides coded in the place".
The object-centered environment
A store and a wedding are social objects (because they're conversation starters and topics for people). They are also object-centered environments. You step into a situation that structures your behavior. Both physical structures like stores, churches and public parks and situational events like weddings, soccer games and flashmobs condition the participants' behavior to perform a certain objective collectively with like-minded others.
Work is a common form of social object as well as an object-centered environment. When you go to work, you "plug-in" to an environment where you then socialize with your colleagues and customers, because you work at the same place. If you telecommute, you're still "plugged in" to the work you do with your colleagues. For instance, traders around the world plug in to financial markets. Such environments are rich social objects, both positively and negatively. Think about the number of varied work-related conversations you've had over the years!
Moulding your environment
In Roger Barker's research, the places were clearly identified with a set location and purpose, like a hardware store, a high school, a denominational church or a financial market, like the Chicago Board of Trade (see Karin Knorr-Cetina's paper on "The Market as an Object of Attachment"). But what about when you perform a different activity in a location generally meant for something else? For example, a wedding may be performed nearly anywhere. In Hawaii, Florida and the many other coastal areas, weddings may be carried out on a beach. In this case, the wedding supersedes the beach-going activity and conditions the guests' behavior. The wedding ritual is generally standard within cultures, and everyone knows what to expect: gathering, union, blessing, and celebration. Other examples include a birthday party in a playground, public manifestations in city streets, flashmobs in a store, doing work inside a Starbuck's, TupperWare dinners in someone's living room, street soccer games, rock concerts inside Second Life, classical concerts inside a church and a BarCamp in a concert hall. Each of these activities bring people together around a shared object or objective, they include their own rituals, and they are performed in a certain way. The objective of the gathering supersedes the purpose of the location and the environment is molded to suit the gathering's purpose. Chairs are placed, tables are setup, goalposts are erected in a field, and so on (see "Placemaking, the way in which all human beings transform the places they find themselves into the places where they live").
Bernard Hunt, Managing Director of HTA Architects Ltd, talks about life in physical spaces:
The physical form of a place is only one side [of the coin]. The way life is lived in it, and the common purpose around which that life revolves, is the other. And from cave dwellers to loft livers human beings have always used places to achieve their common purpose .... Somehow things were easier when that purpose was protection against the elements, defence from attack and control of disease. Successful placemaking seemed to happen when what was built was in direct response to imperatives like defence and topography and also when it was done unselfconsciously by different people at different times.
Barry Smith, Department of Philosophy at the University of Buffalo, writes:
A physical-behavioural unit such as a religious meeting, a tennis championship or a sea battle is an intricate complex of times, places, actions, and things. Its constituents can include both man-made elements (buildings, streets, cricket fields, books, pianos, libraries, the bridges and engine-rooms of battleships) and also natural features (hills, lakes, waves, particular climatic features, patterns of light and sound). These features and elements may be further restricted to a highly specific combination of, say, a particular room in a particular building at a particular time with particular persons and particular objects distributed in a particular pattern. In general, however, it is a form of generic dependence which prevails in the realm of physical-behavioural units; a judge must hear and decide the case, but it need not be this judge; the capital city must be located somewhere, but it need not be located in this spot (and in time of war it may be relocated).
So whether the situation is dictated by the purpose of the location or the purpose of the gathering, you behave according to the appropriate culturally established rules you've learned. You have learned how to behave in a store and how to behave in a wedding. "I think this is an excellent question, but what concerns me is that we are not talking about communities here...we're talking community platforms. Important distinction."
What role for space in online community building?
In a discussion thread in Jeremiah Owyang's Community Strategists group in Facebook, Jonathan Trenn mentions:
This begs the question: to what extent is the platform an integral part of the community? To what extent does the platform foster or condition community behavior? Offline, a basketball court may be an integral part of a local community, just like a bingo hall, church, community center, grocery store, etc. If you take away such spaces, you would expect the community to change, because you would restrict the different areas and reasons for people to find each other and interact based on their shared interests. Does this same dynamic play online? To what degree does the architecture, features and tools of the community spaces you provide foster or restrict community interaction? (see Karin Knorr-Cetina's work on "The Market as an Object of Attachment" is worth further reading for the notions of "wants and lacks", "attachment" and "embeddedness" in community.)
"I think this is an excellent question, but what concerns me is that we are not talking about communities here...we're talking community platforms. Important distinction."
The way the online space is designed has wide ranging implications for community interaction. "Social Design" decisions include whether to allow people to create a profile page, upload a picture, write a bio, tag their content, add bookmarks on content and people, comment on others' creations, add friends, determine privacy settings, invite friends, publish to other platforms, create and moderate groups, browse profiles and content, "pivot" from one page to another, have personalized URLs, receive email notifications of activity, vote and rate content, engage in phatic communication, receive a mini-feed of friends' activity after login, classify friends, participate in public forums, and so on. These design decisions affect space, because each of these actions and activities have a placeholder on the website.
Unlike a media like TV, magazines and other traditional media, social media is highly participatory and created through the active contribution and collaboration of people interacting with each other. Each design decision and how it is expressed on the website, leads to far-reaching implications for the community. And if these decisions are not made and certain features are not provided, the community will find a way to either adapt their space or to find other spaces where they may engage in conversation and activity.
Back to Jalonen's concrete sandbox
To tell you the truth, military service is not such a pleasant experience. There are thousands of constraints on space, time and privacy. Your identity is formed daily in front of others through your behavior and actions. Heroics are performed and tiny hacks are found to break the rigidity. We found a way to build friendships and community, regardless of the hardships. Overall, however, relatively few cherish the environment enough to want to make a career of it. It is not so much that Jalonen's youth was spent in a concrete sandbox, but that the army situation itself was a figurative concrete sandbox.
Are your service's users stuck in a concrete sandbox? How do your website's features foster or hinder identity formation, personal expression, profile discovery, and community interaction between people? Can the community appropriate and form the space to fit their needs? How might different cultures appropriate the same website?
This post highlights the importance of design decisions in online community building. Answering these and similar questions with an eye to community-building, and before the first trace is drawn, determines to a large extent the community-building and word-of-mouth potential of your web service.
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I thought you were going somewhere else with this piece. It's obvious that, if your goal is to increase the size and engagement of your online community, you need to be mindful of certain social design principles. And it's valuable to enumerate those.
But I was expecting something different. How do you select which features are most appropriate for your site?
Backing up the premise a bit: a store isn't a school isn't a church and the fundamental attribution error. I read an implied critique of social networking sites there.
Social sites want to be places where people can express their identities: be themselves. Everyone is different, so these sites try to be everything to everyone. They are the store, the school, and the church all rolled into one. And the hodge-podge of information in my profile is attributed falsely to my personality rather than to my performance in these separate contexts.
Social sites should foster avatar formation instead of identity formation. Instead of helping people "be themselves", they should help people "perform well" in a particular context.
So what are the steps to selecting an appropriate feature set for your social site? First, define your context. If you're a virtual beach, are you used for weddings or beach volleyball?
Second, implement the social tools that allow users to perform best in that context. For example, in my virtual wedding profile I would need a picture of me in a nice suit and a description of how I'm related to the wedding party. In my virtual volleyball profile - a description of my win-loss record and my team affiliation.
The consequence of doing this incorrectly is that you'll end up like MyFacebookSpace: wedding photos and volleyball widgets all cluttering up the same profile page, none of which work very well and all of which provide a very confusing impression of my personality.
Returning to your example, I'd rather have a good concrete sandbox than another identity profile. It would be interesting to have a place where I can act like a tough-as-nails hardass. The feature set would be better, the niche ad-revenue would be higher, and I can play without having to worry about what my family or coworkers would think. If I'm so inclined, I can declare this as part of my identity by putting a concrete sandbox widget in my identity profile that users can use to drill down into that aspect of my personality, but I wouldn't have to.
Using social design just for the sake of improving community in general is not enough. The hard part is choosing which features are most appropriate for your particular site. From the first half of this post I gather that social design should be driven primarily by the object in your "object-centered environment". Once you've defined an interesting social context, then it should be easier to figure out which features would best support a community around it. Gathering inspiration from actual spaces, like a beach, would be a good start.
Posted by: Ed | Mar 18, 2008 1:43:55 PM
Social design is tough because it encompasses so much, including the concrete box the designer comes from.
I've always strived to be an individual, but to conform to the norms that make it possible to communicate and relate to others. Those two forces are at odds, The dedicated non-conformist is a social outcast (or is it that he's most predictable.)
Hard work. but oh so important.
Thank you for taking it on. Reading it was work, but worth the effort and thought.
Posted by: Warren Whitlock | Mar 25, 2008 6:16:23 AM
Fluid, adaptable design retains users, because users demand the ability to have fluidity of identity, functionality and interaction--or else they will take advantage of the Greater Fluidity and move on. Concrete sandboxes will only attract and retain concrete lovers because there are sandboxes constructed of all sorts of different materials and scales just around the corner. They won't have a chance to affect consumers.
We behave with "wedding manners" because the social costs of not conforming are viewed as big to us. Increasingly environments will only be object-centered if their value is quickly discernible as being huge.
Posted by: Deb | Apr 9, 2008 9:35:15 PM
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