Now is an opportunity to reimagine and rebuild online spaces through real world design, says researcher

Thanks to prolonged isolation, we now experience much of our lives online, but disinformation, polarization over the reality of the pandemic, and politics have led to a less than healthy virtual environment.

Deb Roy, a professor at MIT and the executive director of the MIT Media Lab, has many ideas about how to better design these spaces in order to mitigate their potentially harmful effects. His research aims to find ways to reimagine social networks, for better learning and meaningful dialogue.

Roy spoke with Spark host Nora Young about how to improve these online platforms by drawing on design features from the real world.

Here is part of their conversation.

From a design standpoint what kinds of things can be done to make these spaces more positive or more satisfying?

One of the things that I think is interesting to think about is, in your own experience, where have you had positive, healthy constructive exchanges or conversations and can you pinpoint what are contexts where you have positive constructive conversations or discourse? If you know, you’re going into a difficult or strange environment. Sometimes having someone that helps host the conversation or guide it in some way can make all the difference.

In our lab, we refer to facilitated dialogue as a kind of ancient social technology. Just having some simple agreements or rules of the game for how we’re going to proceed in a conversation can completely change the tone and whether you felt respected and you had a chance to speak and were you heard — all of these kinds of attributes that we see as indicators of a healthy exchange. 

There’s a bunch of little things that are missing in any of the platforms today. But could we design and build some functional equivalent to how you do it in a real space? There’s the concept of a talking piece, where there’s a basic rule that you need to hold the talking piece in order to have the floor. And it just moderates the turn taking and creates some pauses between one person to the next and changes the flow of a conversation. You could design such features and create such a tool for online.

There are experiments like that we’re starting to see as more and more life is being suddenly lived through remote interactions. If you just go through and catalogue different contexts, where there’s the kind of conversation or the kind of flow of information we wish there’s more of, I think there are ways to bring this over into these new spaces. There’s a fascinating study that was published in the ’70s by a group of architects — in a book called Pattern Language — on architectural designs and the question they asked was across different cultures and styles of architecture and design, are there certain design patterns that you find over and over in different contexts, which lead to human flourishing? 

One, which is relevant for thinking about social media networks as a space, is what they call the intimacy gradient. And they note that in any well designed home, there is a gradient from the most public parts of the home, like the yard and the front porch to the receiving rooms and the living room. And as you move through the gradient, you move to the kitchen and ultimately, to the bedrooms. Who is invited into which space depends on how much intimacy you have, how much you trust the person. 

I don’t see the intimacy gradient designed into digital spaces because they’re optimized for different purposes. They’re optimized to get as many people on and if you look at the history of social networks, we used to call them social networks and now we call them social media. Because there’s a business model tied to advertising that requires that people stay on the platform as long as possible, even when you’re done with meaningful exchanges with the people you know and the sources you want to follow. 

As you’re trying to design a platform with that as the goal, the intimacy gradient may not be an important design principle, but if it were, we would do things differently and we could create very different spaces. And I think we ought to.

It strikes me that technologists and designers have worked for decades to develop online spaces where people can connect, effectively over distance. And with the pandemic, we essentially have this live focus group of millions and millions of people using these platforms to connect in ways that they didn’t before. 

Do you think we’ve learned things in the last seven months about how people use and want to use these online spaces that can help us in the future?

We are learning through making lots of mistakes. From personal experience, events that we just take for granted, where it’s reasonable to expect several hundred people to set other things aside and spend two days together in a conference, we just tried to translate that over to a virtual space. And the idea that you’re going to spend 16 to 20 hours in front of your laptop on one endless series of video group calls is ridiculous and we now all know that, but three months ago, we didn’t. 

These online spaces have been decades in the making. But they’ve always complemented basic ways in which we work, play and learn together. Now those fundamentals have suddenly shifted. And this is where the kind of analogies to the 1918 pandemic break down because we have completely new options, new affordances — or many of us do. 

Translating some of the things that we used to do in person is kind of comical. It’s kind of like the early days of movies, where we just staged theatrical performances in front of a camera. The way that we are used to doing things in person, right now, is kind of like we’ve just pulled the remote camera in front of the scenes still designed for theater. 

Fingers crossed the COVID cloud shall lift, if not next year, in a couple of years, but I think the old ancient habits are getting broken. And we are in the learning phases of new ones that I think will be permanent. So there’ll be sort of this new hybrid future that we’re in the midst of constructing.

Are there any other examples of specific design flaws that should be addressed as we rethink and rebuild these spaces, not necessarily video conferencing, but even just our social media spaces?

I don’t even know if I’d call a lot of these things, design flaws. For certain purposes and certain functions, there are amazing tools that I’m not sure I’d changed at all. But for other things, it’s very difficult. I actually have been thinking a lot lately about kids. I’ve got kids. They’re 13 and 15 now, so of course, they’re digital natives and they’re on various platforms. 

And it’s kind of one interesting space to look at in terms of a group for whom a lot of these platforms and services are not designed or not optimized. They’re not even legally allowed to be on them — except they are. And so there you can find flaws pretty easily. 

In that context, I started thinking about the intimacy gradient. Although, that’s not just important for kids, it’s important for all of us. So it starts to reveal different kinds of design features that might be desirable. If I’m in a more versus less intimate space, what does that mean digitally? Well, who can see that I’m there? When I speak, who gets to hear what I’m saying? Can I take it back? 

All of these are questions around control and access. All these subtleties come from being in physical space, where you have a sense of how far sound travels and so forth. I haven’t seen good tools to match these kinds of design features of the real world. But that doesn’t mean we can’t design them, if we want them.

But what about the private tech companies in all of this? Is it even possible for these companies, which are driven by the need for hockey stick growth and user engagement and keeping people on their platforms for as long as possible to be responsible for creating healthy communities online?

There’s got to be market opportunities, if what you’re selling is something that’s good for people. So I wouldn’t rule that out. And in fact, I think a lot of commercial, for-profit entities do create things that are good for society. 

But there are limits to that. And I think a great question to ask is, well, we have the CBC, we have public media that are just structured differently, so where are the public social media options or the public social networks? Why isn’t there an equivalent? Well, maybe there should be. Maybe we should have many. 

In certain areas like health and education, there’s a heightened role for that. We can roll social media and mainstream media into even a larger for-profit media ecosystem, that plays a central role in determining people’s understanding of COVID-19 and the precautions and the behaviours they should take and when misinformation spreads, it costs lives. And when I then think about a public social media option, well, that might be quite relevant when it comes to getting health information across, that we should be optimizing for public health, it still has to be engaging. 

If you build a dry, boring experience, where you just get the facts on how you should wear that mask, it will probably not compete with any of the existing platforms, but to compete doesn’t mean it’s going to end up looking the same. And this might be the moment. With COVID and all the disruptions that are around us, I sense opportunity and people stretching their imagination and thinking about new possibilities.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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