Twitter’s Design And The Deadly Sin Of Task Modification

Over at Slate, David Auerbach has an excellent analysis of how the interface of a social networking tool–in this case, Twitter–can severely degrade the discourse it is supposed to to be facilitating:

Twitter’s founders initially formulated it as a broadcast tool to publish announcements to your friends and to the world, and to that extent it works fine. But once dialogue is taking place, Twitter becomes a cocktail party where everyone has a megaphone. Twitter lets you shout in public—so imagine everyone trying to shout conversations with one another in a public space….on Twitter, anyone who might take offense is likely to overhear….its design stresses conflict and impedes consensus. Once five or 10 people who disagree with you descend, it is very difficult to keep the original conversation going, since Twitter’s threading of conversations is nightmarish. Not only do you lose tweet space as a conversation gains more members, but as tweets branch off with different combinations of people, it can be impossible for any one person to see the entire conversation.

Auerbach then goes on to provide a clear example of how, for online discussion, the venerable Internet Relay Channel remains a vastly superior space and notes:

IRC…offers everything for conversation that Twitter doesn’t: topic-based chat rooms that you can drop in and out of, a real-time roster of participants, and a single complete stream of conversation…..On Twitter, the line between discussion and harassment is slippery. As soon as people overhear something they don’t like, they can drop in. If a lot of people hear something they don’t like, you will get swamped, and since you are always alone on Twitter…it can be discomfiting if even one of those people is less than friendly. Moreover, even if your critics have the most impeccable manners, it’s easy to become defensive and even scared if a dozen people simultaneously and independently disagree with you.

He concludes:

Twitter is a verbal minefield that encourages harassment while discouraging productive conversation.

More than two decades ago, when I first began studying online discourse in the context of computer mediated conferencing systems (in particular, EIES), I took a class in user interface design with my then academic adviser, Murray Turoff. One of the central commandments of interface design for the systems we worked on was quite simple: the interface should roughly map on to the cognitive style of the user. That is, if you are used to communicating or problem solving in a particular way, one which ‘works for you’, which enables you to achieve your substantive aims, then the online system’s interface should approximate it as closely as possible. You should not have to change the way you communicate or solve problems in order to accommodate your system’s idiosyncrasies; it should be the other way around. Otherwise the system is guilty of the sin of task modification. (Remember the drunk searching for his car keys under the lamppost rather than the parking lot where he dropped them, because ‘the light’s better here’?)

A classic example: old school command line mailers used to ask you to enter a recipient’s address in the cc: field before you began composing an email, and then moved you on to the actual writing of the text. Once you were done writing, you could not change the address fields to add more recipients list – whether in the to: or in the cc: field. Now, we do not write and communicate like this; very often, we will think of who should receive our communiques once we have written them. Its content–dynamically generated by us–can lead us to reconsider who should receive it: ‘This might be of interest to X too.’ The email clients that soon replaced the command line mailers added this functionality – you can add recipients to your message before, after, and during the composition of a message. They better approximate and accommodate their users’ styles.

Twitter is guilty of task modification. It forces us to change the way we communicate–even if we are in public–simply to accommodate its design features. Auerbach is right: Twitter is broken.

Note: Of course, individuals have vastly differing styles of communication and work so an ideal interface would be tailorable by each user. More on that later.

Online Conversational Spaces: The Vocal and the Previously Silenced

Comments on Internet discussion forums have been the subject of much analysis ever since electronic conversational spaces first made their appearance back in the 1970s. Pioneering scholars of ‘computerized conferencing systems’ like Murray Turoff and Starr Roxanne Hiltz–who conducted most of their empirical studies on the Electronic Information Exchange System–noted that several features of these systems made possible not just the rich and vigorous discussion that was their hallmark, but also much of the hostile, aggressive and abusive behavior that was its distressing counterpart.

The ‘anonymity that these systems provided was crucial. The ‘anonymity’ was not just the kind that was engendered by the provision of the ‘Anonymous’ handle for writing online. Rather, the ‘anonymity’ of a computerized conferencing also included the variant created by the simple distancing between two identifiable users; a named participant from Macon, Georgia, is for all practical purposes, anonymous to me. This ‘speaking from keyboard to monitor’ made it possible for users to shirk conventional notions of face-to-face interaction in favor of several variants of verbal confrontation. 

And just as important as the anonymity was the asynchronous nature of the communication: you didn’t have to respond immediately to a point like you had to in face-to-face conversation. You could wait, draft your reply, think it over, polish it, make it as hard-hitting as possible, and then post it; you were not going to get cut-off by your interlocutor and you had the time to compose your thoughts and then offer a response. For every user that was embarrassed by a too-hasty reply, there was one who took the time to compose a devastating rejoinder, composed at leisure, its rhetorical edges sharpened to a cutting point.

Online spaces for conversation removed many of the handicaps of physical discussion spaces; perhaps you were not a confident conversationalist in offline, physical spaces but online you could be a veritable ninja. Your stuttering was no longer a handicap; you could not be out-shouted; the raised eyebrow, the smirk, the grimace, in short, the entire arsenal of off-putting body-language was not available to those who sought to resist your argumentation. What mattered in an online space was, interestingly enough, your writing. Conversely, perhaps you were a bully offline, but online if you didn’t have an argument, you could be taken apart rather easily. An interesting leveling of the field was made visible; indeed, the most salutary effect of the online space was the voices that could now be heard, that used to be swamped offline, but now found a medium suited to them.   

Soon, aggressive, bristling personas who composed wrote intensely forensic arguments and who were not shy of using sarcasm, irony and invective and sundry other rhetorical devices made their appearance in online ‘conferences.’ They were accompanied by those who sought only to abuse, who freed of the fear of the social sanction that was immediately visible in a physical space, lashed out in every manner imaginable.

It is this latter group that invented a new species of online bullying and hectoring and that is now commonly associated with the degradation of online discourse. But it should not be forgotten that the online space also gave voices to many that were previously silenced.

Social Networks and Loneliness

As a graduate student in the late 1980s, I discovered, in quick succession, email, computerized conferencing, and Usenet newsgroups.  My usage of the last two especially–and later, the Internet Relay Chat–would often prompt me to say, facetiously, that I would have finished my graduate studies quicker had I stayed off the ‘Net more. That lame attempt at humor masked what was a considerably more depressing reality: staying online in the ‘social spaces’ the early ‘Net provided was often the only way to deal with the loneliness that is an inevitable part of the graduate student’s life. The emailing quite quickly generated frantic, incessant checking for the latest dispatches from my far-flung partners in correspondence; the conferencing–on the pioneering EIES–led to a full immersion in the world of conference discussions, messaging, live chatting; Usenet newsgroup interactions developed into engagement with, and entanglement in, long-running, fantastically convoluted disputes of many different shadings; IRC sessions generated a cluster of online ‘friends’ who could be relied upon to engage in long conversations at any time of the day or night.

All of this meant you could be distracted from classes and reading assignments. But that wasn’t all of it obviously; an often denuded offline social life was given heft by the online variant. There is something curiously ironic about the need for ‘filling up’ that is implicit in that statement: my daily life felt hectic at the best of times. Classes, assignments, campus employment, all seemed to occupy my time quite adequately; I fell all too easily into that classic all-American habit of talking loudly about how busy I was.

And yet, tucked away in the hustle and bustle were little singularities of emptiness, moments when the crowded campus would appear deserted, when every human being visible seemed surrounded by an invisible protective sheen that repelled all approaches. Into these gaps, thoughts of lands and peoples left behind all too easily intruded; into those interstices flooded in an awareness of a very peculiar distance–not easily characterized–from all that seemed so physically proximal. (That mention of ‘lands and peoples’ notes, of course, what was significantly different about my experience; I was voluntarily displaced, an international student.) These turned what could, and should, have been solitude, into just plain loneliness.

Those early days of refuge-seeking in the electronic and virtual spaces made available by the social networking tools of the time left their mark on me. They turned an already easily-distracted person into an often decohered mess of  competing impulses and emotions: a low-grade anxiety and impatience being among the most prominent of these. (I have often waxed plaintive on these pages about the distraction I suffer from; no cure seems forthcoming.)

As is perhaps evident, I don’t remember those days with any great fondness: to this day, bizarrely enough for a professor, I am made uneasy, not ecstatic, by the sight of students working late in libraries or laboratories, peering at computer terminals (as opposed to books, I suppose). And every Facebook or Twitter status that is an all-too poorly disguised plea for companionship generates an acute sympathetic response.

The times, I am told, are a-changin. But some things remain just the same.