digital rhetoric

designing ethical experiences

Yesterday my grad class began its discussion of Liza Potts’ Social Media in Disaster Response. It is an excellent and (sadly) timely book that examines how people work across a variety of social media platforms during periods of disaster. In particular, she looks at Hurricane Katrina, the London bombings in July 2005 and the Mumbai terrorist attacks in November 2008. Our current crisis is both slower and more durable, but nevertheless the ANT-inspired method she employs is useful for understanding what’s going on around us. In this book, Potts discusses “experience architecture.” You may be familiar with the term but if you’re not, it is related to user experience design, information design, interaction design and so on. That said, I’m not here so much to discuss Potts’ book as I am to follow through on the conversation we had coming out of it.

One of the topics Potts addresses is the process through which participants validate the information they encounter on social media. This is a concern that has only intensified since this book was published in 2014. It is a critical concern right now when it comes to health-related information, but even in the conversations around the resulting challenges from governmental responses to professional concerns like moving classes online we face the same immediate need. That is, for example, as faculty moving our classes online where do we find valid information, not only about narrowly technical matters but also about pedagogical practices and the professional-ethical concerns about what we should be doing.

For the rhetoricians in the room, how do we have a valid deliberative conversation?

As my class discussed last night, the web is rife with bad actors. I could offer a taxonomy here, but I’ll leave that for another day. One of the truisms here is that, in general, people behave worse online than in person. Having experience email flame wars in the mid-90s I can say that’s nothing new, but it does seem like we’ve figured out how to weaponize/capitalize that tendency.

Here’s what interests me, particularly from a Experience Architecture/UX design perspective… We might assert that “human nature” is such that going online just increases our collective proclivity to be destructive, obstreperous jackasses, and, short of sci-fi genetic therapy (or something equally invasive), there’s no solution. We might similarly design some top-down authoritarian solution, like China’s social credit system (whatever it turns out to be). These are attempts to impose limits on behavior through some kind of carrot/stick approach, some kind of extrinsic motivation.

But I was thinking that if we don’t ascribe to a notion of human nature but rather a human natureculture, then we have to begin to describe the actor networks and assemblages that construct us as particular kinds of actors, with particular capacities, on social media and online in general, and result in rhetorical acts that are potentially deadly in both the short and long term. If we pose the concern in those terms then we have an experience architecture problem: how do we design to encourage ethical actions and experiences?

Of course that begs the question about the characteristics of the ethical behavior we’re trying to encourage, but without getting into the realm of ideological differences, perhaps we might improve the ethical quality of our social media actions by building in some internal user deliberation.

Here’s a pretty horrible user experience version of this. When you try to share something, some kind of questionnaire comes up that takes you through a validation process of some kind. I mean that would really suck, but it would but some truth into social media advertising. I know, I know, “Our sales would plummet!”

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