The blogosphere (and even the regular old newspaper-sphere) is alight with stories of Facebook’s online advertising flop, Beacon. What can designers learn from this flop? It’s not about privacy; it’s about the presentation of self. People have different “selves” for different places — virtual or otherwise — and designs must be consistent with these variety of selves.
Boing Boing’s Cory Doctorow posted an interesting story on InformationWeek that predicted the decline of Facebook because of its own success. He predicts that the more people that are one Facebook, the more confusing it is. Your “creepy coworkers,” your boss, and your friends you met at Burning Man are all in the same “place,” making it confusing, embarrassing and difficult for everyone.
What Doctorow is really describing is sociologist Erving Goffman’s notion of “the front.” Using the theatre as a metaphor Goffman argued that we actually “perform” multiple selves. Each place we go has a “front” that we learn to incorporate. A front has a wardrobe, a setting, a decor, make-up, a script and stage direction. We have a “front stage self” that we perform for everyone to see, a “back stage self” for only our closest intimates to see, and a “core self,” which is deeply private.
A doctor, for example, has a front that includes an office, a lab coat, a stethoscope and medical jargon. This is her “front stage” self. But when she’s talking to her best friend, she may use a “back stage self,” being less formal, not wearing a lab coat, or using less formal language. Her “core” self is secretly wishing she were a full-time marathoner, but she tells no one that.
Facebook’s Beacon didn’t work because it forces people to use multiple fronts AT THE SAME TIME. If I tag a recipe from Epicurious.com, but I broadcast that fact to friends that perceive me to be a party girl, I have a collision of fronts. If my boss demands to be my friend, I have a collision of fronts. If I rent The Notebook on Netflix, and my friends think I am a Goth, I have a collision of fronts.
Facebook’s Beacon forces its users to combine multiple selves. Goffman considers the collision of fronts to be a source of embarrassment or shame. Take, for example, the hilarious “Meeting in a Swimming Pool” gag on Just for Laughs. Swimmers have their swimming front (including a bathing suit, casual demeanour) and forced into a meeting, with its serious demeanour and fully clothed attendants. This is embarrassing.
Facebook has done the same thing by forcing its users to expose their selves to different fronts simultaneously. It is embarrassing, even shameful.
What Designers Can Learn From Facebook’s Beacon
- Discover your users’ fronts: If you are designing a product or a virtual place, ask your potential users what they consider the character of this “place” to be. Is is a formal place? Is it a casual atmosphere? What kinds of “props” are expected here? What would be an embarrassing topic of conversation or incident?
- Design using the theatre metaphor: Make the product consistent with that place, as if you were writing a play. Ensure that what you design is part of a script that users understand or expect.
- Pay attention to embarrassment: If your users mention shame or embarrassment in any way, gently press them about it. Discover the character of the “collision of fronts” that is the source of that embarrassment, and, above all, avoid forcing users to feel embarrassment.
Update: The New York Times is reporting that Facebook’s lawyers have not succeeded in having documents about its founder Zuckerman removed from an online magazine. These documents are “embarrassing.”
Update (12/19/07): Mashable is reporting that FB is now allowing people to “group” their friends, but they haven’t quite mastered the collision of fronts problem.