Lobsters, pandas, and Jane Jacobs

An insightful and catchy post in July by iFindKarma made the case that Google can’t get “social” because their model of behavior is utilitarian. Facebook succeeds because their model of behavior is social and fun.

This is intriguing, and on some level really disturbing. Google provides a service that meets users needs as “pandas” independent, self-directed individuals, slowly foraging content on the worldwide web, and leaving links and messages behind. The content people create provide a shared memory, and shared material for more creation. Facebook provides a service that attracts people with many opportunities to interact and have fun with their friends. “Facebook is a lobster trap and your friends are the bait… Every time a friend shares a status, a link, a like, a comment, or a photo, Facebook has more bait to lure me back.”

The article highlights ways that Facebook’s implementation builds on the addictive properties of small, repeated doses of social pleasure.

“Whenever I return to Facebook I am barraged with information about many friends, to encourage me to stick around and click around. Every time I react with a like or comment, or put a piece of content in, I’m serving as Facebook bait myself. Facebook keeps our friends as hostages, so although we can check out of Hotel Facebook any time we like, we can never leave. So we linger. And we lurk. And we luxuriate. The illogical extreme of content-as-bait are the Facebook games where the content is virtual bullshit.”

What’s missing? Facebook’s model is all in the present and the near future – there is no memory to speak of, and interactions are optimized to be short and transient. Unlike a blog, which has a record of ideas and discussions over time, findable by search and date and category, Facebook exchanges scroll into oblivion after a few hours. Interchanges are short and disconnected. People and groups wanting patterns of interactions that continue over time can use Facebook with other tools and modes; merely on its own, Facebook fosters “slacktivism” not activism.

By contrast, Google’s concept of “information” as generated and consumed by individuals is separated from the reality that information is created in social contexts, by sets of people with shared understandings, in conversations that develop ideas. As an example of the poverty of Google’s implementation of social capability, think of the comments section on YouTube. Without affordances that foster constructive behavior (identity, reputation, social context), the comments are useless and un-fun. For video sharing, search, and advertising, Youtube is great.

Facebook fosters the short-term pleasures of interaction without longer-term satisfactions of conversation and collaboration. Google facilitates peer creation on a massive scale, but has lacked the savvy to make things social and meaningful as well as fun. Facebook is social; Google conveys information and memory; these two things should go together, but they are separate. Facebook’s model of human behavior is immature because it is shallow. Google’s model of human behavior is immature because it is individualistic.

It doesn’t need to be this way. What if the social infrastructure used APIs and standards that allowed
* streams to be recorded, remembered, and remixed, with a variety of tools for a variety of purposes
* connections between real-time streams and longer-running activities, so actions can build over time
* social networks to be connected to existing social contexts, in a way that didn’t put one vendor in charge of all the data

Then we would be able to combine the immediate, interactive, and fun aspects of Facebook, with the useful, creative aspects of Google.

Why does it matter? Why care? Why try and illustrate alternate possibilities?

Sociology/anthropology show that identity and culture vary tremendously, and there are interactions between the artifacts of culture and the behaviors around the artifacts. Social infrastructure that is designed to re-enforce immature behavior affects our lives on a daily basis for the worse.

But again, if people like Facebook as it is, why complain? People are choosing Facebook freely. It’s a capitalist society. Facebook is providing a free, ad-supported service that is appealing to hundreds of millions of customers.

But Facebook is not an ordinary kind of product. It is more like a home than an appliance. Facebook is where we present ourselves to others, where we hold conversations that defines us in engaging with family and friends. Similes are always approximate, and there are a variety of flaws with the “space metaphor”, most notably that we are sharing time, not just “place.” But there are important parallels to the design of the physical environments in which we interact. There are good reasons to care about the quality of life in the places – digital as well as physical – where we spend our time. There is a long and influential tradition of criticism and advocacy about the physical built environment where people live and socialize.

Many people defend suburban sprawl because of consumer free choice, too. Many people choose to live in the suburbs because they prefer single-family homes and homogeneous communities. (The suburban settlement pattern itself was shaped by the ideas of Sir Ebenezer Howard and the Garden City movement he founded.)

But suburban sprawl turned out to have side effects that nobody likes. People need to get in a car and drive long distances to see anyone outside the nuclear family, or to do the smallest errand. People spend hours a day commuting. People who drive all the time instead of walking are fatter and less fit.

Jane Jacobs became an influential advocate for the benefits of city-like living patterns compared to classic suburbs – diversity, street life, local color and local culture, safety that comes from people in neighborhoods watching out for each other. Scholars including Kenneth Jackson in Crabgrass Frontier pointed out that the choices that many people made to live in sprawl were strongly encouraged by public infrastructure choices (better financing to build a new house than to rehab an old one; high investment in roads and low investment in transit).

Over time, these critics and advocates helped shape the choices that developers and residents could imagine, and the kinds of alternatives that are being built and that people have to choose from.

Now, the types of infrastructure choices for the physical built environment are in many ways different from the types of choices for the digital environment (proprietary apis vs. open content standards; centralized infrastructures vs. networked infrastructure; symmetrical vs. asymmetrical social networks, where and how to use explicit metrics in a digital world where actions are measurable.)

But these infrastructure choices themselves matter a lot. The ideas that shape the imaginable choices matter a lot. In today’s world, the social environment includes the digital in additional to the physical. This is why it is worth imagining and advocating for alternatives to today’s emerging social environment.

Disclosures

Personal: I read Jane Jacobs as a young adult. When I was 13, my family moved from a rowhouse in Philadelphia, where we would go out on the front stoop and chat with neighbors in the evenings, and the kids would play stickball in the alley, a couple of miles across the city line to a suburban neighborhood where it took more effort to socialize. Jacobs’ analysis of the benefits of urban sociality and the drawbacks of suburban separation resonated, and led me to think about the social implications of built environments.

Professional: in my job, I work on building social tools for organizations that connect the social stream together with searchable memory; that connect social membership with other contexts; and that connect the spontaneous, interactive social stream with long-running, coordinated processes. I not only believe this vision is possible, I work every to day make it possible in an organizational context.

20 thoughts on “Lobsters, pandas, and Jane Jacobs”

  1. "Facebook fosters the short-term pleasures of interaction without longer-term satisfactions of conversation and collaboration. Google facilitates peer creation on a massive scale, but has lacked the savvy to make things social and meaningful as well as fun. Facebook is social; Google conveys information and memory; these two things should go together, but they are separate. Facebook’s model of human behavior is immature because it is shallow. Google’s model of human behavior is immature because it is individualistic. It doesn’t need to be this way. What if the social infrastructure used APIs and standards that allowed * streams to be recorded, remembered, and remixed, with a variety of tools for a variety of purposes * connections between real-time streams and longer-running activities, so actions can build over time * social networks to be connected to existing social contexts, in a way that didn’t put one vendor in charge of all the data Then we would be able to combine the…

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