Social computing consumerism

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Social computing is the future of interaction, explains Michael Bernstein, and he has a point. Leveraging the work of others rather than recreating it is the way civilizations are built. But that is not the whole story. There are instances when leveraging the work of others is the right thing to do, but there are also many situations where it is undesirable for moral, aesthetic, and practical reasons. The moral side is obvious — the undesirability of appropriating others’ work without their permission isn’t that controversial — but the aesthetic and practical aspects of reusing others’ content bear some additional scrutiny.

Self-expression, is (or should be!) personal by definition. Art differs from craft in that it reinvents and reinterprets, rather than refines and rehashes. If we all use the same tools (e.g., Sketch2Photo that Michael mentions) to generate our images, we do not achieve individual expression. If we use the same recommendation systems, we will not find anything unique. If we limit our creativity to recombination, we tread the same paths over and over. We are craftsmen but not artists.

Of course there is nothing wrong with being a craftsman! But it should be an informed decision that sends us down that path rather than exploring on our own to discover new vistas, new opportunities, new means of expression.

What about the practical? The practical argument to avoiding excessive reliance on social computing is also based on discovery, on the discovery of knowledge. In many disciplines, being the first to make a certain inference, to connect the previously unconnected, to discover something can be quite valuable. Yet if we all rely on re-finding that which was already found by others in our “community,” we foreclose on (or at least limit considerably) the ability to create knowledge.

This does not mean that we are better off working alone, begrudging others scraps of information we uncover. Far from it! As we’ve argued in the past, working together to find information can be more effective and more efficient than working independently. But the key difference — the difference between social search and collaborative search, for example — is that we create knowledge when we seek it together rather than when we simply pass it on to each other.

Social computing is indeed a part of the future of interaction, but it should not be the whole of it. When designing social aspects of systems, we should look carefully at the aspects that increase efficiency when shared versus aspects that send us down the same rutted lanes traveled by the millions that preceded us. Rather than seeing the online world as a supermarket shelf full of canned goods, we should consider designing experiences that are closer to a farmers’ market offering distinctive, one-of-a kind produce. Interaction should not be about consumption, but about creativity.

1 Comment

  1. Nice! Two reactions:
    1) Check out the Mother of All Funk Chords video. That is definitely art. The crowd has has extended the vocabulary of the artist, not provided a regression to the mean. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tprMEs-zfQA
    2) Your point about a lack of discovery is well taken. But I don’t think it will be a practical concern in many cases. One of the things we learned from our Collabio work is that in order to get the long-tail (novel, discovery-oriented) data, we just needed to ask after the common information. When people aim for the mean and miss, they generate the tail. Also, there will always be an internal motivation for many users to strike out on their own. In the specific case of information discovery, we can actually target these individuals (like we do in the upcoming FeedMe CHI paper) to expedite sharing this expertise with the crowd.

    Looking forward to continued brainstorms and machinations.

    Wait, did I say machinations? I meant research.

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