by: danah boyd
Two deeply embedded values in the world of technology development are
efficiency and reliability. Companies pride themselves in maximizing
efficiency and reliability and, for the most part, consumers agree. We
like when our search engines produce results quickly and reliably. Yet,
when it comes to social technologies, I suspect that efficiency and
reliability are not the ideal metrics.
Let's start with reliability. In some senses, we want our social
technologies to be reliable - we want to know that our phones will work
when we need them and that our email will get to us. While we want
perfect reliability for our own needs, we also want there to be
failures in the system so that we can blame technology when we don't
want to admit to our own weaknesses. In other words, we want plausible
deniability. We want to be able to blame our spam filters when we
failed to respond to an email that someone sent that we didn't feel
like answering. We want to blame cell phone reception when we've had
enough of a conversation and "accidentally" hang up. The more reliable
technology gets, the more we have to find new ways for blaming the
technology so that we don't have to do the socially rude thing. This is
one of the reasons that LinkedIn is painful. Instead of blaming the
technology, we have to blame our friends and colleagues when we don't
hear from the contacts we're trying to reach. YUCK.
So, what about efficiency? Think about Facebook Causes. Think about
how easy it is to efficiently spam everyone you know to join the Cause.
Hell, the technology will spam your friends even when you don't try.
Does this actually build social capital or convince your friends to
participate in that cause that you love? Probably not. Likewise, an
evite is less inviting than a personalized email trying to convince you
personally to come. This is also the case when it comes to trying to
convince your Congresspeople of something. Thanks to email, you can
efficiently spam your congresspeople with little effort. But that there
is the problem - with little effort. The more efficient a means
of communication is, the less it is valued. This is why politicians
take personal letter (particularly written ones) more seriously than
email or forms that people can quickly fill out. (Of course, if you
*really* want to be taken seriously, try sending your Congresswoman a
bouquet of flowers. Not only did that take effort, it actually cost
Social technologies that make things more efficient reduce the cost
of action. Yet, that cost is often an important signal. We want
communication to cost something because that cost signals that we value
the other person, that we value them enough to spare our time and
attention. Cost does not have to be about money. One of the things that
I've found to be consistently true with teens of rich and powerful
parents is that they'd give up many of the material goods in their
world to actually get some time and attention from their overly
scheduled parents. Time and attention are rare commodities in modern
life. Spending time with someone is a valuable signal that you care.
When I talk with teens about MySpace bulletins versus comments, they
consistently tell me that they value comments more than bulletins. Why?
Because "it takes effort" to write a comment. Bulletins are seen as too
easy and it's not surprising that teens have employed this medium to
beg their friends to spend time and write a comment on their page.
Teens' views on Facebook Apps reflect this same attitude. While they
think they're fun at first, they begin to loathe them after a while
because they're seen as spam that your friends send you. It's simply
too efficient to spam your friends, even if you can only send 10 a day.
In the physical world, architects and city planners often build
inefficiencies into the system for a reason. I remember a talk by
Manuel Castells where he spoke of forcing people to stand on line at
regular intervals in public places, even when the activity could be
made more efficient through technology. He viewed these kinds of
inefficiencies as critical to the well-being of society because they
provided a context for people to interact with strangers and, thus,
build connections that glued the city together. This worked especially
well when people could collectively complain about the people in charge
- it provided a reason for social solidarity. (Think about the social
solidarity built in NY when there's a brownout or a transit strike.)
Physical architects must constantly struggle with maximizing efficiency
versus providing room for inefficiencies because of the social good
that comes from them.
I have a sneaking suspicion that tech architects never even think
about the possibility of creating inefficiencies to enhance social
good, but I'm not sure. Since many of you mysterious readers are
passionate about social technology, let me ask you. What examples of intentional (or unintentional) inefficiencies do you see in social tech? How do users respond to these?