Category Archives: goffman

Ignite Toronto: Designing for Social Selvess

For those of you who caught my Ignite TO presentation, here are the slides. For those of you who missed it, below is a text summary that goes with the slides.

I’d like to give thanks to my teacher and friend, Dr. Karen Anderson, whose scholarly work underpins many of the ideas in this presentation.

Slide 1:

This presentation about is the self, that it is a social phenomenon not a biological one. Most theories of the self don’t give us a social angle but only a biological one. This has an impact for technology design.

Slide 2:The self is an uniquely human phenomenon. It is the internal private reality of the consciousness. It is not anatomical or physiological. It is not a body.It is only meaningful in social situations.

Slide 3: So we have this internal, private reality, this consciousness. Biological paradigms to explain it are inadequate. Bodies are the containers of selves, not the actual self. Containers matter. But they are not the only thing that matters.

Slide 4: Victor, was a “feral child” found in France. He would not wear clothes. Or Use a bed. He farted. He did not have a social self, but a biological one.His body functioned; his self did not.

Slide 5: HAL 9000 has a self. He is socially competent. Aware of his inner reality. He imagined that Dave and Frank were plotting against him. Victor had no inner reality but HAL did.  HAL understood the social.

Slide 6: All too often we think of the self as a piece of hardware, or an emotion chip. Unfortunately, most of our ideas about the self are really about our hardware.

Slide 7: For example, Sigmund Freud. Freud thought biological experiences created the self. In the form of ego and the superego. We learn about our anus and develop a self, but this doesn’t explain Victor or HAL’s development.

Slide 8: Even psychologist Piaget put biology first. Piaget’s theory of child development relies on sensory experiences. Not social experiences. For Piaget, learning starts with a bodily interaction, not social interaction.

Slide 9: Yet socially successful human beings must master the meaning of symbols. Symbols have fine nuances, depending on the context. Hand gestures are anatomically similar but mean different things at different times, in different places.

Slide 10: Social interaction is built upon symbols, not biological impulses. We are aware of our internal realities by interpreting social symbols. The degree of force in a gesture matters. Who gives it matters.

Slide 11: We interpret symbols, not react to them. We are not Pavlovian dogs who salivate at the sound of a bell. We are not somatically driven beings, but socially driven beings. Our bodies have influence over us but they are not the self.

Slide 12: George Herbert Mead offers us a theory of a social self. The “I” is what Victor has: a purely instinctual consciousness. The “me” is created through social interaction. “I should sit on a chair; it’s more socially appropriate.”

Slide 13: The “generalized other” is when we realize there is a whole world out there. That we then internalize into our own private reality. We begin to imagine what “others” might say about our actions. Our self imagines what other selves think of it.

Slide 14: Often we design technology to be USABLE, not to be SOCIAL. We don’t enable social selves to use technology without an awkwardness, or embarrassment.

Slide 15:  Google Street View. This technology has created a few embarrassing moments. Google’s face blurring does not solve our embarrassment of interpreting this image. Street View is functional, not social.

Slide 16: Facebook continually fails to sense what selves need. This self posted a picture of himself smoking. Unfortunately, his mom recognized the room. This is embarrassing.

Slide 17: If we design for selves, not bodies, we think of everyone’s internal private realities. Bodies need ergonomics, usability, accessibility. Selves need to be shielded from embarrassment, awkward situations, and social breaches.

Slide 18: Technology designed for bodies is like an awkward dinner party. The technology we design should provide a consistent, social lubricant. We must design technology like we design great parties. Where the right people sit in the right seats.

Slide 19: Socially meaningful symbols must be present. This can be discovered through contextual inquiry, Selves also require the ability to control their presentation to others. And finally, the social “place” of technology must be clearly demarcated.

Slide 20: In the end, we design our world for selves. Technology designed for bodies just gets in the way. If technology is designed for bodies, selves change to meet the needs of technology.

I would prefer that have technology adapt to selves.

Thank you


The Importance of Symbols: doctors and their (dirty) lab coats

The New York Times reports that the American Medical Association is considering doing away with the venerable symbol of the physician: the lab coat. There’s a very good reason to get rid of lab coats: they’re dirty. But the symbol of the lab coat is far more important. The New York Times reports the empirical flaw in wearing lab coats:

The group’s Council on Science and Public Health is looking at the role clothing plays in transmitting bacteria and other microbes and is expected to announce its findings next year.

This empirical finding shouldn’t be surprsing. We also know, for example, that male physician’s ties are wearable petri dishes. The verdict ought to be clear, therefore that we should get rid of lab coats. Not so fast, say physicians.

Getting rid of the lab coat is getting rid of one of the most important symbols of a physician’s identity. Dr. Richard Cohen told the New York Times how important that lab coat is:

“When a patient shares intimacies with you and you examine them in a manner that no one else does, you’d better look like a physician — not a guy who works at Starbuck’s.”

Here is the lesson for designers: empirical “fact” is not the whole story. What role any particular symbol plays in social life is just as critical. What’s fascinating about this story is that physicians are now trained in “evidence-based medicine,” meaning they are trained to diagnose and treat based on more “rigourous” science (I have my doubts about that rigour, but that’s another blog post).

Yet here is a clearly “scientific” reality about the danger of treating patients while wearing a bacteria-infested lab coat and/or tie, and physicians continue to wear them. For all their protestations of “evidence,” physicians too are social beings, embedded in a social world. They too must convey an identity, even if the symbols used for doing so compromise their ability to complete their stated vocational mission.

The symbol is powerful. Designers who base their decisions on so-called “evidence” ought to pay attention to other kinds of evidence, such as the enduring patterns of social interactions. We should pay attention to any enduring patterns of social behaviour but *especially* those which fly in the face of supposed “logic.”

Don’t think privacy, think identity

The digital availability of social information has lead many to think it’s a crisis of privacy. It is not; it is a crisis of identity management. Designers of online profiles should think about privacy as the management of identity, which can be an easily damaged piece of social information. Users who can control access to any “stigmatizing” social information have absolute privacy.

Social theorist Erving Goffman’s work on identity can help us design better and more private online profiles. What is “stigmatizing” social information? This is the tough part: it changes depending on who is involved. For example, a teardrop tattoo may provide status inside a prison, but on the face of a defendant in a court room, it is a stigma. Goffman points out that social actors conceal “stigma symbols” in some contexts, but these become “status symbols” in other contexts.

Designers of online profiles should recognize then that what is “embarrassing” changes depending on the context. There is simply no way to predict all the possible social contexts that any given person will find themselves in, so there is no way that a designer can accurately predict a “privacy breach” of digitally available information. Hence the confusion and hand-wringing over Beacon, Facebook’s privacy-busting advertising system. Instead, designers should create a framework for users to manage their identities.

How is identity management achieved? Designers should offer users the following:

  1. Concealment tools: users should be able to disguise or conceal any single piece of social information. This means that “my interests” should be singular items that can be turned on and off.
  2. Low-burden social network filtering: some social information only becomes embarrassing in particular social contexts. Designers must allow users to sort or filter their social contacts depending on how they know them. Make this interaction easier and low burden, and users will happily sort their friends from their family, their co-workers from their acquaintances.
  3. Reduce the ability to collate social information: Goffman points out that one of the main problems for stigmatized identities is what he calls “know-about-ness.” How much access do people have to the sum total of an individual’s social information? How readily accessible is all of that information? How easily collated is it? For example, if your golf buddies can find out that you like to cook, you take Japanese rock gardening classes AND you take tap dancing on Friday nights, the sum total of that information could be stigmatizing (but only while playing golf). Good designers would make that collation difficult.
  4. Allow quick, effortless and PERMANENT erasure: We are only now learning how embarrasing a decade’s worth of personal information can be. All too often, designers make it too difficult for users to easily delete their personal information. Make password retrieval easy. Do not require people to remember ancient email addresses. Provide 1-800 number access for “identity emergencies.” And finally, put users’ social information firmly in their own hands, not on your servers.

Why music on mobile phones is not music

The music industry is in a pickle. CD sales are falling, big-name artists are signing with touring companies. Independent artists are having a go on their own. The solution, the industry thinks, is to sell its music through mobile phones.

They are dead wrong. Here’s why.

Mobile phone users don’t use music in the same way that music listeners do. Music listeners — whether at home or on the go with their iPod — are listening to what the artist has created. Even “digital” forms of the music are still relatively analogue because the listener cannot slice and dice the music into a new mashup. The best she can do is skip a track (which she has done since the times of vinyl).

Music on mobile phones has both “listening” and impression management behaviors. Mobile phone users use music more often to present a version of themselves to the public world than they do to actually “listen.”

Music on mobile phones has truly become what Nicholas Negroponte calls “co-mingling bits.” Mobile phone operators have already sliced and diced the music into snippets for its users to use in various ways. The ringtone is one version. The “ringback,” which a caller hears when he’s waiting for his friend to answer her phone, is another version.

Now mobile phone users can download all sorts of “co-mingling bits” off the Web. Some of these bits happen to be musical. Some of them are unrecognizable from what the artist originally intended.

This kind of behavior is not listening to music; it is impression management. What is the effect, for example, when your friend hears Paranoid while he waits for you to pick up the phone? What is the effect if it were I Can Hear You Breathe?

Music companies think  this new form of music consumption can save the industry. They hope that album sales will be replaced with mobile phone downloads of full tracks. They are wrong.

Consider the following numbers from eMarketer.

Full track downloads as percentage of ringback and ringtone downloads:
2006: 23%
2007: 33%
2008: 47%

While the share is growing, it is certainly not replacing album sales. Artists should recognize that mobile phone music is not “music” but the public adornment of their art. And music companies should recognize that mobile phones will not save a bloated and dying industry.

The Brand as A Self: Web Design as Impression Management

Brands have few opportunities to come alive, and the Web is one of those opportunities. Make sure the brand gives off the right impression. Researchers have found that a company’s Web site particularly shapes how a person views that company’s innovation and concern for its customers. In other words, the Web site is even more important in “giving off” the right impression.

Brands introduce themselves to people much in the same way that people introduce themselves to people. And just like for humans, brands often “give off” more information than they explicitly mean to provide. This is especially true for Web sites: the brand online is the same as a “self,” and must manage its impression just as people do.

We have all experienced this: you meet someone and develop an immediate sense of what they’re about. You have figured out that this person works in, say, finance, and he has money and children and likes nautical sports. You also find him curt, arrogant and a bit full of himself. Is it something he said specifically? No, not specifically. He did snap at the waitress. And he did mention something about a regatta. He also casually tossed his credit card down when the bill came, rudely brushing aside protestations from the most senior person at the table.

One of my favourite theorists, Erving Goffman, tells us there is an impression you GIVE, and then there is the impression you GIVE OFF. “Selves,” as Goffman puts it, engage in impression management using subtle symbolic signals.

Designers often implicitly think of their particular product — whether it be a kitchen product or a print ad — as something that “gives off” an impression. But this is much more important for immersive experiences like Web sites. A company’s Web site in particular is an immersive experience that gives off countless symbolic cues.

Some observers call this phenomenon “cross channel synchronicity,” or simply just “user experience.” The Web site is key to “giving off” the right impression for a company and its brand because it is the living embodiment of that company.

How should graphic and interaction designers create their products? Keep in mind the following:

  • The brand is a “self” on the Web. This is a great opportunity but designers also run the risk of “giving off” the wrong impression immediately through interactions that suggest a stand-offish, arrogant, or selfish brand.
  • Brand-critical interactions must be done right: I have had many clients who appear unconcerned about appear small interaction problems of their Web site. But if these interactions revolve around mission-critical symbols of your business, make sure they’re done right. If your brand identity if “fun,” ensure that interactions are full of fun, not hard work. If your brand identity is “trustworthy,” over-communicate that message in interactions.
  • Provide the expected “props”: In an earlier post, I showed how individuals use symbolic cues, or “props” to manage impressions. Doctors use stethoscopes, for example, despite the fact that fewer than 40% of them know how to use them properly, mostly because patients EXPECT them to carry them. Web site designers should remember what users expect in terms of “props.” Does your brand really need AJAX? Are visitors surprised to find their is no flash element? Are visitors expecting form fields to have in-line editing?

What Designers Can Learn From Facebook’s Beacon: the collision of “fronts”

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, 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.