The Phenomenology Of Encounters With Notification Icons

It’s 630 AM or so; you’re awake, busy getting your cup of coffee ready. (Perhaps you’re up earlier like the truly virtuous or the overworked, which in our society comes to the same thing.) Your coffee made, you fire up your smartphone, laptop, tablet, or desktop, and settle down for the morning service at the altar.  Your eyes light up, your antennae tingle in pleasurable anticipation: Facebook’s blue top ribbon features a tiny red square–which squats over the globe like a ginormous social media network–with a number inscribed in it; single figures is good, double figures is better. You look at Twitter: the Liberty Bell–sorry, the notifications icon–bears the weight of a similar number. Yet again: single figures good, double figures better. You look at GMail: your heart races, for that distinctive bold lettering in your inbox is present, standing out in stark contrast from the pallid type below; and there is a number here too, in parentheses after ‘Inbox’: single figures good, double figures better.

That’s what happens on a good day. (On a really good day, Facebook will have three red circles for you.) On a bad day, the Facebook globe is heartbreakingly red-less and banal; Twitter’s Liberty Bell is mute; and GMail’s Inbox is not bold, not at all. You reel back from the screen(s) in disappointment; your mood crashes and burns; the world seems empty and uninviting and cold and dark. Impatience, frustration, anxiety come rushing in through the portals you have now left open, suffusing your being, residing there till dislodged by the right kind of sensory input from those same screens: the appropriate colors, typefaces, and numbers need to make an appearance to calm and sooth your restless self. We get to work; all the while keeping an eye open and an ear cocked: a number appears on a visible tab, and we switch contexts and screens to check, immediately. An envelope appears on the corner of our screens; mail is here; we must tear open that envelope. Sounds too, intrude; cheeps, dings, and rings issue from our machines to inform us that relief is here. The silence of our devices can be deafening.

Our mood rises and falls in sync.

As is evident, our interactions with the human-computer interfaces of our communications systems have a rich phenomenology: expectations, desires, hopes rush towards with colors and shapes and numbers; their encounters produce mood changes and affective responses. The clever designer shapes the iconography of the interface with care to produce these in the right way, to achieve the desired results: your interaction with the system must never be affectively neutral; it must have some emotional content. We are manipulated by these responses; we behave accordingly.

Machine learning experts speak of training the machines; let us not forget that our machines train us too. By the ‘face’ they present to us, by the sounds they make, by the ‘expressions’ visible on them. As we continue to interact with them, we become different people, changed much like we are by our encounters with other people, those other providers and provokers of emotional responses.

What My Facebook Like Means

Facebook users often express dissatisfaction over the limited range of options available to them for responding to posts made on their newsfeed by their ‘friends.’ (I wish there was a ‘dislike’ button! I wish I could like this a thousand times! I wish I could tell you how much I liked this!) My sympathies are with the complainers. My ‘Like’ button is terribly overworked; it does double, triple, quadruple duty; there isn’t enough granularity of expression in that atomic expression. It does not capture the range and variety of social interactions it facilitates.

This is what my Faceook ‘Like’ means:

I approve of the content of the link you have just provided. I disapprove of the content of the link you have just provided. This photograph is adorable. You said something funny. Just saying hi. Just saying bye. I am appalled. I am sorry for you. I hear you. You go girl. You go dude. Interesting; I’ll get back to you. Who cares; but you clearly do. A grunt. A guffaw. A chortle. A snicker. A snort. Thanks for the ‘Like’; here is yours.  Too Long; Didn’t Read; but here is a ‘Like’ anyway. Can I look forward to a ‘Like’ from you sometime soon? I have no idea what you are talking about but you clearly seem to be fishing for attention and this is the best I can do for the moment. Consider this a goodbye present; you will soon be dropped from my newsfeed. This was a rather transparent attempt to be clever and you do this way too often, but still, you are family, so here is a ‘Like’ for you. I haven’t dropped you from my newsfeed yet? Consider this a thank you for the ‘Like’ you sent me the other day. Just chiming in; everyone else is giving this a ‘Like.’  You ‘Liked’ my baby; I’ll ‘Like’ yours. Why wasn’t I invited to this dinner party? Why wasn’t I invited to this barbecue? You have friends besides me? Who is this person you are posing with? Our friendship has been reduced to the exchange of these electronic waves which people call ‘Like’ and which I am sending your way. I hope you will ‘Like’ some of the content I post; this is the third ‘Like’ I have given you in the past week. I hope my ‘Like’ will encourage you to keep posting this bizarre shit that has so many of us so entertained, if mystified. Your kid isn’t that cute, but you are an awfully sensitive person, so here is a ‘Like.’  Hi; haven’t seen you in a while; do you come here often? This could be the first of many ‘Likes’ if you play it right. Just trying to get you over the hundred mark here. Oh, it’s you again, telling us all how much you have accomplished while we struggle to get through the day; here is your gold star. Hi; you might not know me, but we just became friends on Facebook.

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.