designing (for) behavior and representations of activity

Adrian Chan has a nice response to Josh Porter’s post on hard-wired behavior. They are trying to understand why people collect followers on Twitter or engage in similar kinds of behavior using social networking sites, games, etc. Josh asks:

How would twitter change if you didn’t know how many followers you have?

Josh’s position is that humans are hardwired for collecting (amongst other things), a behavior that designers should embrace. It seems his conclusion then is that twitter would be quite different if it did not display how many followers you have.

So, back to behavior. Some behaviors that drive us nuts are core to the human experience:

  1. We want attention.
  2. We collect things.
  3. We want status.
  4. We are vain.
  5. We make judgments accordingly.

These behaviors aren’t going away anytime soon. So instead of decrying such behavior, we need to embrace it! We need to figure out how it fits within the context of what we’re building. Sometimes it won’t. But we can’t dismiss it. If we are really serious about designing great software then we have to at least give this type of behavior some thought, considering whether we should or whether we can damp it or amplify it.

Adrian’s response is that origins of human behavior are far to complex and varied to relay on the “hardwired” explanation.

Collecting is probably not the original or primary cause or motivation behind the follower behaviors seen on twitter. We may count things, but I don’t think that’s grounds to assume that we count people in the same way. Yes, we count the number of people, but that’s not quite the same. The number can represent and signify to others; our motives for signifying are not our motives for collecting.

I think it is probably more likely that the follower phenomenon on twitter can also be explained by means of interaction design. Twitter is a communication tool. Communication, as a system of action or interaction is contingent on the participation of another person. I can tweet, but I cannot do anything to make somebody else respond. This may be the single-most common reason that new users stop using twitter — they simply don’t get anything back. The only type of interaction that does work, independent of any other user’s attention, recognition, response (etc) is following.

I am going to put aside the question of why some people obsess over the number of friends/followers they have, though I tend to agree with Adrian that the reasons are varied and complex. What is at stake are the aspects of media that organize our activities. Starting with behaviors or activities, rather than relying on technology as an impetus for design, is a good thing. But looking for innate or universal behaviors is simply not enough because we are where we are. Meaning that our behaviors and activies are composed not only from what happens inside our heads, but also from the kinds of people and objects that we surround ourselves with.

Yes, FB and Twitter are communication tools but they are also representational devices. They represent to us what others have experienced and are thinking, primarily these people that we know in the real world. For many users online social networking is about real world connections. The pictures looked at, updates read, and the links followed are from people that they knew before Twitter or Facebook.  In other words Twitter and Facebook are functional mediums, they allow us to see what others have been up to and to represent to them what we have been doing. FB and Twitter are successful because they extend and make durable different kinds of interaction that people already engage in with non-digital media.

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