"As we move from the era of computing into the era of the Internet, we no longer need to worry about computer-human interaction." Joel Spolsky told a group of programmers at Google last month. "What we do have to think about [in the era of social networking] is human to human interaction," he said. And according to Spolsky, to do that, you have to think as an anthropologist does.
I finally had a look in on Eat, Pray, Love, the memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert that sold 4 milllions copies in paperback and this summer became a movie starring Julia Roberts. (I know I am late to this, but, as an anthropologist who studies contemporary culture, I'm trying to keep up with everything.) Three things struck me.
In my work as a cognitive anthropologist I study how the mind works, how people "make meaning," how people form attachments to things (brands), and how people make decisions. Decisions like how to select what to invest in, whether stocks or mates; why and under what conditions, people prefer Coke over Pepsi (or vice versa), Charmin over Cottonelle; why a person believes in one God over another. In that search I have inadvertently uncovered something about viva la difference: WOMEN CYCLE, MEN CONSUMMATE.
Imagine walking up to an ATM — you insert your card and begin to check your balance before you put in the amount of cash you want to withdraw from the machine. As you do this, a small crowd of people begins to form around you peering over your shoulder. Some are friends, some family, some are casual acquaintances and some you don't even know. Uncomfortable situation? Absolutely. While ATMs are in public settings, they are meant to be private interactions. If someone — even someone you know began to involve themselves with your financial activity you would get annoyed.
Depending on how you see it, social software is either all the rage or so 2008. You know the stuff: Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Foursquare.... There's no talking about the web these days without it—that's for sure—but social software tools are quickly becoming an integral part of the way we run our day-to-day lives. It's not just in the consumer space, either. Companies and large organizations are catching on to the benefits of social networking and improved collaboration tools. They want their intranets to be more like Facebook. They want to use crowdsourcing to leverage employee perspectives and wikis to help people help themselves. They want Twitter for the organization, (or at least they think they do).
Twitter is a phenomenon unto itself. Which is why, in the study of Social Media, Digital Anthropology and Sociology prevails. Technology indeed facilitates interaction while also introducing us to nuances that transcend the parameters governing natural conversations and asynchronous dialogue into new forms of conversational threads and networks. Twitter is among those networks actively studied by many (myself included) as it seemingly defies the laws of natural flow and engagement. The foundation that makes Twitter work is also the very essence that should prevent it from working at all. In Social Media, psychology and the study of the mind now also plays a role in understanding the context to those affecting and affected by online behavior.
A Yale lab assistant is impulsively strangled, allegedly by a co-worker. A young man leaving work near the main New York City post office accidentally bumps into a passerby and is stabbed to death. A congressman shouts from the floor, insulting us all. Kanye West steals a microphone at the MTV Video Music Awards. What's up? As a culture, we are losing the ability to speak, to reason, to talk things out. We are losing "words." TV, email and eBusiness have given us a lot, but they engender a context that bleeds us of the normal interplay and untidy elegance of language. Too many conversations are routinely foreshortened as a result of our mediated, digitized world. And without words and their rightful context, all that remains is action. Extreme action. Think reality TV. Think talk radio. Think Capitol Hill. Not to mention what happens on our own street corners and in our dining rooms.
Organizations are tenuous phenomena; they can fall apart at any time. To navigate the landscape of organizational culture interaction designers need a set of practical tools, language & knowledge drawn from the world of cultural anthropology. It’s happened to all of us. We walk into what we think is a Web redesign project, only to find we have unwittingly ignited the fires of WW III in our client’s organization. What begins as a simple design project descends – quickly – into an intra-organizational battle, with the unprepared interaction designer caught in the crossfire. What is it about design projects that seem to attract such power struggles? Contrary to what you might think, being stuck in the middle of an internecine battle is actually an opportunity to effect meaningful change on your client’s organization.
For reasons known only to the pop-culture gods, IKEA -- the Swedish retailer of cheap, lingonberry-flavored furniture and other shinola -- has suddenly become a ubiquitous presence in the ether. Example: in August, when the 2010 IKEA catalog came out, people went utterly bonkers because the designers had changed the print font from the familiar Futura to Verdana -- an esoteric difference, to be sure. The story rocketed to No. 2 on CNN.com's most-read list, according to Mona Astra Liss, IKEA's director of public relations. But for the passing of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the story might have gone to No. 1.