Like many people, lately I’ve been wondering about social media. And since I’ve been spending some time as a designer in China, Korea and the US over the past decade, and observing how social media has developed differently in these various environments, the thing that I’ve been wondering most about is: why do our social media platforms look the way they do? Are they really designed to foster connection? What would Facebook and Instagram look like if they were really designed purely to foster connections, dialogue, consensus and discussion; and what would it look like if monetization were not part of the equation?
The day after the 2016 election, I stumbled upon a spontaneous art installation consisting of thousands of Post-it notes stuck on the underground wall connecting the L and 1 subway lines at 14th Street. This “crowdsourced” wall (an art project initiated by Subway Therapy) — with every individual expression of dismay, hope, love, anger, sadness, empathy and more, yet projecting an overall gestalt of solidarity and peace — seemed to be the direct opposite of the polarization I’d been witnessing in Tweets and Facebook comment sections pre- and post-election. Many have commented that Facebook algorithms (driven by the need to drive “user engagement”) have contributed to increasingly polarized views and a decrease in healthy debate among the populace.
Looking at the Subway Therapy wall, I thought, “This is social media, too.” But maybe… it’s the distinct lack of typical Internet tools — the lack of filters, lack of organizing principle, inability to comment and the constant insistence on a macro/zoomed-out view — that contributes in some part to the tone of the resulting messages, which overall lean toward calls for consensus building? Since geography/location is the self-selector here (and that was a major dividing factor in the election) I wondered what the messages would be like if the wall were not in the NYC subway system, and not really in any urban area at all, but a virtual wall on the internet. Like a global Facebook wall for humanity, without any filters or algorithms.
Having never experienced any other kind of social media other than Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and the like, it’s a little hard to imagine an alternative to features that we’ve come to see as essential to our media consumption: search, like, upvote, follow, share, react, retweet, etc.
Yet it might be useful to consider that each of these features, presented to us as “user friendliness” by giving us search results that we agree with, filters and algorithms to screen out what we don’t agree with, one-click ways to react with LOL or outrage — each and every one of these features has passed the primary test of an initial creative brief: “Drive engagement,” “increase views and shares,” “sell advertising,” “monetize.” So, each of these UI features exists for these reasons foremost. World peace was not on the creative brief.
Let’s propose a hypothetical social media product, one where the CEO, CTO and CDO all get together and say to the product team, “The main and only goal for us is to attract users to understand one another.” (Crazy, IKR?) And since this is a thought experiment, let’s also go out on a limb and propose an imaginary alternate universe that this company exists in, one where monetization is not a concern because there are alternate methods to sustain an idea. Ok. What does this look like? A better wall, user un-friendly but human-friendly?
For my imaginary “Better Wall,” the top call-to-actions to the user are, in order of importance:
What is “listening”? For this hypothetical product, I think it means “reading to understand, while withholding judgement.” A critical part of listening — to anyone, in any context — is refraining from mentally forming your response while the other party is speaking. This is a common strategy that therapists encourage couples or groups to use when working through their problems. Although it sounds so simple, listening isn’t something that is easily employed in online discussions. By definition, commenting is not listening. Yet, how can users convey to others that they are listening without commenting? See Legendary Physicist David Bohm on the Paradox of Communication, the Crucial Difference Between Discussion and Dialogue, and What Is Keeping Us from Listening to One Another, by Maria Popova at brainpickings.org
In fact, promoting Listening among users goes hand-in-hand with Posting….
To give space for the user to Listen, my initial idea is that the Posting feature ought to be de-emphasized, a tiny blue button tucked in the upper right corner of the page, appearing only after a 10 second lag after page load. After the user seeks it out, the Posting UI should:
-encourage slightly longer posts. With a “250 word character limit,” the UI anchors the user’s input toward a higher number of words.
-encourage users to recognize and use constructive language when offering dissenting viewpoints. Using a randomly drawn sample text prompt to model positive nuanced language, appealing to availability bias (seeing those words typed out encourages people to resort to using similar phrasings themselves). See Say “I”, Not “You” at familyeducation.com and How to Argue With Your Partner at businessinsider.com
-discourage trolling (defined as name-calling, profanity, racism or harassment) by disallowing certain words or combinations of words “This combination of words is not allowed.” See Our Experiments Taught Us Why People Troll, by Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, Justin Cheng and Michael Bernstein
-not allowing people to post with too much ease (include some friction, require form to validate an “I am human” checkbox to slow down the posting/reacting process and prevent trigger-angry posts). See How Nextdoor Reduced Racist Comments by 75%, by Kashmir Hill
And… that’s it. Just the ability to Listen and Post. No content or location filters, no search, no sorting features, no ability to comment on posts. Users can save an image of any Post that they like — including their own — but Posts will not have permalinks. When users share a Post image to their social media circles, the link will always bring the new site visitors to the front page with its thousands upon thousands of little tiny squares, never to any individual Post. By not offering the standard “user-friendly” features of filtering, sorting, searching, liking, downvoting or commenting, we frustrate the very human tendency to impose a sense of order. If given the tools, human internet users tend to find and promote what they agree with and mentally banish what they don’t. But for this thought experiment, our first and main call-to-action is only to Listen.
As I mentally tinker with these ideas, I’ll definitely revisit and update this post in the future. Please let me know your thoughts in the comment form (!) below!
Should there be no organizing principle at all, then? There should only be one: time. Newer posts on top left, older posts on bottom right.
There’s a phenomenon called “overview effect” which according to Wikipedia is a “cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts and cosmonauts during spaceflight” referring to “the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life… National boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide people become less important, and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this “pale blue dot” become both obvious and imperative.”
But is there a way to induce people to experience this effect (or something close) without going up in a rocket? Can the way we visually organize information for viewers induce a cognitive shift? A renewed sense of scale and a reduction in self-importance?
When I considered the design problem of how large each sticky post ought to be, I remembered my initial feeling upon seeing the Subway Therapy wall. “Wow,” I thought. That’s a LOT of Post-its. A lot of people. A lot of feelings, thoughts, anger, sadness, hope, but most importantly, a lot of “Us.”
So about this hypothetical Better Wall… as more individuals Post, the size of each note ought to decrease. Eventually, posts should be so tiny so as to be unreadable without hovering to magnify. The gestalt perception of all the notes at once (even if you can’t see the details at first) communicates a different model of which ideas are important… one that is not defined by upvotes, downvotes, likes or other social media conventions. The idea that maybe our hope for a better wall and a better future begins not with “I,” but with “We”?