MIT Media Lab
Thesis document [pdf]
Chapter 9: Conclusion
Social interaction is negotiated between people with structural rules supplied by the surrounding environment. Depending on one's personality, an individual may adjust their presentation to present what they deem to be most appropriate in the situation. The individual draws from the situational and interpersonal contextual cues surrounding them, as well as by perceiving the reactions of others. As a result of this negotiation, people only present a segment, or facet, of their identity. Through experience, individuals learn to associate particular facets of their identity with specific roles, environments or contexts. As such, one learns to present one's work facet in environments associated with work. In order to properly present oneself, an individual must be constantly aware of the environmental feedback that they are receiving and adjust accordingly.
Although overly simplified, people engage in such negotiations in everyday life. Through experience, people learn to manage different aspects of their identity, present themselves and read the presentations of others. They develop mental models for understanding the cues that exist in a social setting and learn how to utilize them to assess a situation. Awareness and control are integral aspects of negotiating social interactions.
Online, the rules change. Although people have developed nuanced structures for negotiating social situations, many of this must be altered as people move into a digital environment. The underlying architectural features of the digital world present new challenges for social interactions. Users must learn to present themselves through an agent rather than through their natural body. Additionally, while people are accustomed to reading contextual information in order to present themselves, digital contextual cues are not what is typically expected. As digital social interactions are comprised of archiveable bits, this information can be aggregated with ease. Searchable archives collapse situational context information, leaving the users vulnerable, as they cannot properly present themselves for a specific context without risking the information being collapsed with other presentations.
In order to negotiate the digital environment, people must adjust their behavior to accommodate for the architecture. To gain control over the possibility of collapsed contexts, users began creating multiple accounts and associating each with a role or facet of their identity. Using this mechanism, they localize context to the account and present it comfortably in any situation. This provides users with a temporary solution for acquiring control over their presentation. Yet, in order to maintain the separation between different accounts, the user cannot present any data that would allow these to collapse, such as an identifying name or email address. The architecture does not easily support such management; more recently, changes to the architecture of various websites and applications makes this separation even more challenging.
Although corporations such as Microsoft believe that people want aggregated data, they fail to recognize that people seek out separate accounts in order to properly adjust their social identity to the digital environment. As a designer, i believe that we should create systems that enable people to properly present themselves as they see fit. Rather than overriding the desire for control over context and faceted identities, i believe that we should design systems that offer better interfaces for managing this information. Thus, in this thesis, i have proposed a two-tiered approach to address this problem.
First, users must be given appropriate mechanisms for being aware of their presentation and that of those around them. Recognizing one's social presentation is far more challenging online, as people draw from a wider range of information. Yet, people want to have a sense of what information others have access to when they are constructing an image of the individual.
Secondly, users must have the ability to control the information that they are presenting. Social negotiation is about impression management, yet to manage impressions requires control over what data is presented and how. Identity management tools help users by providing them with a desired control over their presentation.
By empowering users through awareness and management, designers can enhance online social environments. Such tools enable users to adjust their presentations to be in line with the social environment. In turn, this develops a mechanism for social regulation; increased social regulation helps strengthen communities through shared responsibility. Many online social disasters result from communication failures, which are usually due to difficulty in perceiving and presenting oneself.
In this thesis, i have articulated how underlying architectural differences affect social interactions, first by discussing how people engage in the physical world and then addressing the confounds that emerge as this behavior moves online. I have offered a new approach to considering context in digital environments and addressed how people attempt to localize contexts by managing multiple accounts online. Stemming from my belief that designers should work to empower users, i have hypothesized that what users need includes tools for awareness and identity management. Addressing each type of tool specifically, i have analyzed current approaches and discussed what i believe should be developed. I have designed and/or constructed example prototypes and critiqued these systems and addressed the issues that they reveal.
I believe that empowering people to engage in meaningful and manageable social interactions is a worthy goal. To do so, i believe that systems must be built which address the social needs of all users. Thus, this thesis analyzes the issues that must be addressed by sociable designers. Additionally, in this thesis, i offer a set of potential approaches and critiques that help frame what must be done in future research. The hardest challenge that researchers in this area face is determining how to design interfaces that provide people with the necessary information. Although i have addressed some of the weaknesses in this area, i have only scratched the surface of what must be done. Thus, this thesis also serves as the initial steps and framework that i plan to use as i continue to develop and design systems intended to empower individuals.