Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Great Good Place Book Discussion Part 4: Viewing the Internet as a Third Place

This is the fourth installment of a book discussion about Ray Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place. Every Tuesday in June, this blog will feature a guest post examining some aspect of the book. This guest post was written by Xianhang Zhang, a social designer who blogs on design issues here. You can join the conversation in the blog comments, or on the Museum 2.0 Facebook discussion board here.

Even from the beginnings of the Internet, one of the largely unacknowledged uses very much resembled the type of third place interactions Oldenberg talks about in The Great Good Place. While "social" is a buzzword that has become nauseatingly overused today, the internet was social to the core from its very beginning. From early Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) & Usenet, to the more modern blogs, forums & social networks, increasing numbers of people are relying on the internet for the types of third place interactions they're unable to get in real life.

As I read Oldenberg's book, I found the passages that explained the lack of appreciation in the US for the importance of third places to be especially resonant. Despite the 50 year legacy of online community building and an obvious yearning for people to connect in a meaningful way via the Internet, surprisingly few "great good places" exist. The rest succumb to some combination of apathy, spammers, sock puppets, flame wars & clueless idiots. In fact, it often seems that the social tools we use are actively hostile to the type of community-building activities that help support a third place. This is not an accident.

For about 4 years now, I've been working to understand how we can make our social tools better. It started, while searching around for a topic for my PhD thesis, I turned my attention to social software as a result of this excellent article by Clay Shirky entitled Group as User. I highly recommend that all of you read his essay in it's entirety but I want to pull out three quotes which left me dizzy:

"Flame wars are not surprising; they are one of the most reliable features of mailing list practice. If you assume a piece of software is for what it does, rather than what its designer's stated goals were, then mailing list software is, among other things, a tool for creating and sustaining heated argument."

"You couldn't go through the code of the Mailman mailing list tool, say, and find the comment that reads "The next subroutine ensures that misunderstandings between users will be amplified, leading to name-calling and vitriol." Yet the software, when adopted, will frequently produce just that outcome. "

"In thirty years, the principal engineering work on mailing lists has been on the administrative experience -- the Mailman tool now offers a mailing list administrator nearly a hundred configurable options, many with multiple choices. However, the social experience of a mailing list over those three decades has hardly changed at all. "
My training was in Interaction Design and a design training gives you a very specific way of looking at the world. You start to realize that all the human artifacts in the world are designed and, what's more, most of them are designed poorly. Every frustration, every annoyance, every imperfection in the world--you become acutely aware of them and start figuring out how you would fix them if you had designed it.

When I was reading Clay Shirky's essay, the thoughts running through my head were that Mailman was bad, it had problems, I should think about how to fix it. And yet... nothing at all in my training in Interaction Design gave me any insight into how to fix social problems that occur as a result of the software. After a lot of investigation, I found out that, not only did I not know how to fix it, nobody really knew how to fix it. Social software was becoming some of the most important software we were using in our everyday lives at that point and yet nobody really understood what made them good or how to make them better. This was a deeply scary thought for me.

Oldenburg's book is important because it managed to put into words what many people only knew as a gut feeling or intuition. It dissected out this one important aspect of our public spaces and said "look, a pub is not just an economic institution for exchanging alcohol for cash, it also serves a vital social function." What's more, he demonstrated how certain social spaces either helped or hindered this social function and provided a framework to understand why certain pubs are great good places and others, lifeless drecks.

What this allowed, finally, was precise and generalizable conversation and learning. Before this, bartenders and coffee shop owners around the globe may have felt and understood the exact same things, but it could only be passed down in a personal, individualized fashion, via a kind of apprenticeship model. It was by articulating it that Oldenberg allowed a common platform of understanding through which others could develop, debate and refine these concepts.

It is this understanding and perspective which is currently missing from much of the online world. The tools that you use today are still largely built by technologists who come at the problem from a technology perspective. It's like a bar owner who obsesses over installing the latest, most advanced beer storage system rather than focusing on supporting the conversation which is why people really came. Any social elements of the system occur by accident, largely as a side effect.

Even more troubling, one the rare occasions that such tools do manage to get "struck by lightening" and achieve phenomenal success, the lack of understanding often causes the creators to mess around with precisely the factors that were so successful in the first place. Reading Oldenburg's book, I was struck by one particular passage (pg. 125):
Frank Dobie developed an abiding fondness for the clean little Anchor Pub in Cambridge. Reflecting upon the probable fate of such a place at home, he wrote: "If they operated such an establishment in America, they'd make a barrel of money. They'd enlarge it to take care of more and more customers and keep on enlarging it until it grew as big as Madison Square Garden, or else became a standardized unit in a chain. Long before either stage, however, it would have lost the character that makes the snug little public houses and inns of England veritable 'islands of the blest.'"
If this reminds you of a certain controversy that's been happening around a certain very large social network, you're not the only one.

If you accept Oldenburg's thesis, then the lack of appreciation we have in America for the importance of the third place has lead to countless social ills which we are only slowly remedying. Similarly, such pathologies also manifest themselves online and have caused the internet to be a radically worse place for social interaction than it has the potential to be.

The first step to fixing this is awareness that we have a problem. The next step, I believe, is to establish a practice around Social Design which can inform the design of social software in the same way that Interaction Design informs the design of interfaces.

This is the task I've been working on ever since I first read that Clay Shirky essay. Such a task is non-trivial and will require the contribution of thousands of people, approaching the problem from many different perspectives. But if we use Oldenburg's stories as a cautionary tale, it's a task I believe is highly worth doing if we are to preserve that Great Good Placeness and allow it to flourish on the Internet.

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