"Autistic Social Software" talk by danah boyd

One of the few blogs I try to keep up with is the Many-to-Many blog at Corante, because the work they’re doing involving studying community fascinates me. One of the posters there is danah boyd, who posted an interesting talk that she gave at a conference, noting that social software has many of the same tendencies of autism that are displayed by the programmers that write such software. She notes that social software not only allows, but often encourages, multiple personality disorder, as people are encouraged to make up different avatars to express different aspects of their personalities. As she says in exasperation, “Why on earth should we encourage people to perform a mental disorder in the digital world??”

One of the key points that she makes is that the programmers tend to have limited understanding of social roles themselves, and prefer social cues that are “programmatically and algorithmically processed and understood on simplistic categorizable levels”. They don’t have a feel for the full richness of social possibilities, and so it’s not surprising that the social software they write, like Friendster, Orkut, and LinkedIn, asks you to boil down your friends to a binary “Is John your friend – yes or no?”. As danah puts it, “It’s so simplistic that people are forced to engage as though they have autism, as though they must interact procedurally.”

Interesting talk. One of the thoughts I had after reading it was that many geeks might actually view the multiple personality aspect of social software as a feature, not a drawback, precisely because it lets them create new identities. Such people are often insecure with their real-world identity, and use worlds such as role-playing games, both on- and off-line, to experiment with new identities that have no “taint” of their real-world loserness. A similar case could be made for the simplistic view of friendships and social relationships. Until there are people involved in writing the code that take into account nuances like “I work with him, but I would never hang out with him outside of work” or “I’m friends with her in the context of the chorus we sing in”, social software will always be deficient.

One of the other good points that danah makes is that people will make software serve their needs. She takes the example of Friendster (“users saw it as a flexible artifact that they could repurpose to reflect their social practices.”). She proposes a Call to Action, “to make technology work in the context of people”. I really like her second one: “#2: Make a technology, throw it out to the public and see what catches on. Follow the people who use it. Understand them. Understand what they are doing and why and how the technology fits into their lives. Evolve to better meet the needs and desires of the people who love the technology.” This reflects my own biases, of course.

Oh, and she refers to a Douglas Adams piece, “How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet”, which is just fabulous. I particularly like this bit, describing how technology is adopted:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Since I just turned thirty myself, I’m a bit distressed by this viewpoint, but I have to admit it’s probably accurate. Alas. It’s all downhill from here.

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