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Social Networks: Stop Designing Out The Fun

Today in the news we find that Google is [adding lame, privacy-defeating “social networking” features to popular apps without user consent][1]. This comes on the heels of [Facebook’s Beacon trainwreck][2], which was preceded by a [similar Facebook privacy trainwreck][3]. [1]: http://slashdot.org/~Felipe+Hoffa/journal/191246 [2]: http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2007/12/11/facebooks_optou.html [3]: http://www.danah.org/papers/FacebookAndPrivacy.html

There are many lessons to learn from these incidents: That users really do care about privacy as soon as you start abusing their data; that web users [DO NOT WANT][4] to have the same persistent, verifiable – and easily traced – ID attached to all their online actions; that my innate distrust of Gmail is not as paranoid as I once thought. [4]: http://icanhascheezburger.com/2007/09/09/do-not-want-7/

But let’s focus on a fundamental problem: Social networking is one of the most significant developments on the web today, and our leading app designers apparently have no clue about how socializing works and why we humans work so hard at it.

Stop Designing the Neutron Bomb

It would be trivial to design a better interface than DOOM if the goal was to kill the bad guys as quickly as possible: give me a 2D map of the area with icons for enemy troops and let me drop bombs on them by clicking the icons. Presto: game over in a few seconds and the good guys win every time. That’s the design you want if you are the Pentagon, but it makes for a boring game. <a http://www.useit.com/alertbox/981115.html”>Jakob Nielsen</a>

Facebook and Google – and, one fears, a bunch of current and future startups – operate on the assumption that sharing links with your friends is a tedious chore. Telling your friends about your most recent purchases is a chore. Figuring out which addresses in your book correspond to your best friends is a chore. So they try to automate these chores away: In the spirit of Jakob Nielsen’s high-efficiency first-person shooter, they build one big flat list of all your friends and offer you an elegant one-button interface: SOCIALIZE.

Hello? People use social networks because they are fun. Tweaking your Friend list is fun. Personally choosing the links to be sent to your friends is fun. Choosing when and how to poke people is fun. Flirting is fun! Deciding which of your friends should be introduced to each other is a source of social anxiety, but it is also fun.

Feel free to automate the cleaning of my laundry and the removal of my trash. I don’t really enjoy those things. But stop thinking of my social life and my public persona as tasks that I want to outsource, instead of as hobbies that define my personality.

Fun is Deadly Serious

Perhaps I should stop writing right now. Once you’ve told people to stop designing out the fun, is there any more to say?

Maybe. The problem with fun is that many people don’t respect it. They think it’s frivolous, and trivial, and arbitrary. Because people share links “just for fun”, designers feel free to quietly, unilaterally change the way that shared links work. “Why are you taking Google Reader so seriously?”, they say. “Lighten up and share your data!”

These designers are insane. Fun is serious business. Just look at how animals have fun: Cats think that stalking fast-moving objects is fun, dogs think that herding and chasing are fun, gerbils think that burrowing and chewing are fun, and parrots think that – believe it or not – social networking is fun. For animals, fun is associated with the practice of vital survival skills.

Humans work the same way. Reproduction? Fun. Looking at babies, especially your own? Fun. Hunting, watching birds, playing Half-Life? It’s fun, and it’s also a way to practice the stalking skills that you’d use for hunting game or fighting wars. Chess? Strategic training for warfare. (Just ask any well-educated kid from the Middle Ages.) Gardening? Practice for farming. Stamp collecting and Pokemon? You’re practicing taxonomy, exercising the parts of your brain that evolved to remember which things you can eat, which things can eat you, which are poisonous, which are likely to be found under trees in July.

Social networking is one of the most fun things of all, because it’s a survival skill that humans are heavily invested in. We’re designed for it. Human language itself is a social networking tool.

Some fun activities are no longer vital for survival: We’ve invested lots of time, energy, and money to ensure that I can eat without knowing how to tell one plant from another, defend myself without knowing how to shoot, and stay warm without flint and tinder. Social networking is not in this category. Social networking may be more important now than ever before in human history. Many historical humans had very little interaction with strangers. They didn’t marry anyone that their parents didn’t already know, and their friends lived within a ten-minute walk. (Of course, even these people had a social network that was too complicated for a computer to manage.)

Modern social networks are very complicated. We travel a lot. We move through many different social groups during our lives. We have multiple overlapping circles of friends. We have technical friends, gaming friends, friends from work, friends from school, friendly customers, friendly teachers, friends we aspire to marry, friends with benefits, platonic friends. We have friends who we met once at a conference in 2006, friends who we went to college with but don’t see more than once every three years, and friends who we used to see every day but who just moved to Idaho. We have relatives, who may or may not be our friends. We have the relatives of friends, and the friends of relatives. We have fundamentalist Christian friends and polyamorous anarchist friends.

Incidentally, we also have enemies.

Mismanaging your social interactions can have terrible consequences. It can cost you your reputation, your spouse, your children, your inheritance, your job, your career, your freedom, and your sanity. If you make the wrong friend, and that friend turns into a stalker, it can cost you your life.

So:

  • Personally micromanaging your social network is fun.

  • The reason it’s fun is that humans are designed for it. This, in turn, is because it’s a vitally important personal skill that determines your income and your happiness. This is especially true in the 21st century.

  • Nobody is going to entrust their social network to a computer, not ever. Computers have not spent millions of years evolving their social skills. Computers are stupid. You have not solved the strong AI problem. If, by chance, you do invent a computer that is smarter than a human, nobody will trust that, either.

  • Build tools that empower people to make better decisions, not tools that try to make decisions for them.