Edo "Amin" Elan

Accountability is No Game

In Social Networks on March 1, 2012 at 6:40 am

Alice's rabbitLeap, a new iPhone app, enables people to challenge each other to accomplish self-pledged projects – for example, a diet (see article on Cnet). The app challenges you to “compete with your friends and show the world you’re a winner”.

Comparing ourselves to friends resonates with us., just like it resonates with kittens and puppies, who naturally compete for available food and attention – even over the malnourished bodies of our siblings. No offense, but this is hardwired and often feels fun. But if the drive to compete is so natural, why do we need our iPhone to generate a peer arena to compete in? Why are not already feeling that we are already in that arena day in, day out?

Let us look at what drove, and still drives us to complete tasks such as “clean your room/inbox”.  We did and still respond to those tasks because they are demands made by senior members of our family or team. Such tasks carry a penalty if unattended. The core of “being social”‘s is not being nice or entertaining – it’s managing those social obligations. We were taught to be social by people we were accountable to. Often, those same people taught us that being nice and entertaining was the slacker’s strategy and won’t get us off the hook.

Adult tasks could be seen as an agreement, an obligation to someone. This is self-evident in tasks such as arriving punctually to a meeting. Haven’t we all felt at one time like the rabbit in Alice’s wonderland,  have we not muttered to ourselves as we hurried to a meeting, ‘Oh! The Duchess! Oh! won’t she be savage if I’ve kept her waiting!’. The rabbit didn’t need an iPhone app.

A task is created when we promise to bring the milk – an obligation so common it serves as the title of a to-do app, conveying the dread people feel about the consequences of violating even seemingly minor agreements with partner.

To illustrate my point, think about gamifying a challenge such as “I will remember everything I promised my spouse this week”. If we do, friends give us stars. Will this work? No, it would be threatening and would not add much to our motivation. But if, like 45% of US citizens  we do not have a spouse, Leap could help us create an artificial social penalty. Remember “Virtual Girlfriend” apps? Perhaps Leap could develop into a dark “Virtual Girlfriend”, perhaps “Virtual Nagging Girlfriend” (matched, of course , by Bitchin’ Boyfriend, the male version – though women are more social, and already have more social assets to lose than men, with or without any app).

Task management is inherently social and transactional in nature. Calendars could be viewed as an Accountability Management tool, ideally to be designed around people, their agreements and their obligations. I’m not talking about User Centered Design, but about Social Design, or Social Interaction Design. Designers could design for and around this complex human activity, we design calendars, email inboxes and calendars. We could design for concrete social interactions / stories, supporting meaningful social functions, instead of designing for some generic “collaboration”, a concept that belongs in corporate board meetings, not on the interaction designer’s desk.

I could go on and on, but I’m late! She’ll be savage.

A More Social Gmail

In Email, Social Networks on January 1, 2012 at 6:26 am

With little hoopla, Google just added a social feature to Gmail.

Launching Google+ in June, 2011 was a bold move for Google. Among the less obvious reasons: Circles, a central Google+ component, competes with components of other contact management systems Google maintains (Gmail Contacts and Google Contacts).

My product manager self was wondering what’s the plan for the three Google contact management systems. It’s a tough one. Mandatory upgrades, voluntary migration and re-integration, all pose technical, product and corporate challenges. Migrating millions of Gmail users is a project from hell. It might hurt Gmail users and dilute the value of Google+.

Google+ Circles in GmailMy bet is that because the social wave is here to stay, redesigning older email platforms around innovative social interaction concepts is inevitable. On Dec. 2009, I wrote “Hopefully, Google’s strategy considers meshing Wave and Gmail“. Google Wave’s team leader, Lars Rasmussen, has since joined Facebook, but others led Google into the so-called Emerald Sea. Now, on December 2011, Google takes another step in the social direction by making Circles appear as a sort of “smart labels” in Gmail (see Google blog).

Using social circles as email filters is more than an enhancement – it’s a path to correcting a traditional weakness of email in general. The weakness being that originally and inherently, email is a one-to-one thing, detached from social groups.

This statement often meets with puzzlement. But surely, engineers say, you can email a group of people? This is true, but hardly relevant. Precisely because we can email several people at once, we read more emails than we write. Email is primarily a reading activity, so it’s more important to read those emails we need. We decide which emails to read first based on social context. We need to read those emails we have made an obligation to read. This is why we need to read them in the order of obligation. This is the stuff that actual social relations are made of.

Try this: I, a consultant, need to daily view email messages from my clients. The main Gmail tool that helps me do that is search. I can type and search for each of my clients’ email addresses, one by one – not too practical for a daily task. Another option is to use an advanced “filter”. I can group my clients into a “Clients” label, then view the label. Not a biggie – if you’re comfortable with regular expressions; and if you’re willing to modify an OR [...] OR [...] OR [...] statement each time you win a client, or lose one.

(I actually do all that, on a regular basis. For me, it’s worth the trouble. But I wouldn’t bet on my system to be embraced by consumers and beat Facebook.)

This is where the new Gmail integration breathes new meaning into both Circles and Gmail. Using Circles as dynamic labels, one can make sure one sees first things first. Arranging your Circles by the relation of contacts to your life segments, you naturally create Circles for projects or life areas. You’ll never again miss an important email, and it’ll work much more predictably that the so-Google “Important” filter.

Using Circles as Gmail labels is still far from perfect, but it illustrates the idea that email messages* are primarily made of social interactions. The social relations producing them and emanating from them are their most important aspects.

(*The same goes for calendar events and todo tasks, and that’s material for another post. )

You Call This Extended?

In Social Networks on October 1, 2011 at 10:49 am

Facebook just extended the list of family relation types – actually, doubled it. Users can now select any of 32 relations to other users.

When attributing family relations first became possible on Dec 5, 2010 (see post), it was limited to 16 direct blood relations. We now have 32 relation types, or 33 if you count the double inclusion of a “partner” (bug or feature?).

The newly added relations are those that are created by marriage, but are not “relaciones de sangre” – e.g.  husband, wife, and various in-laws.

Why is Facebook expanding the available types? This might give a clue.

The Case of the Man with Two Mothers

A mother I know was recently surprised to discover her son’s Facebook profile had two mothers listed. One was herself, the other – the mother of her son’s wife. It appears that her daughter-in-law’s mother wanted to express inclusion towards the profile owner, but didn’t have an appropriate option. The closest to son-in-law was son – and what son-in-law in his right mind would refuse a request from one’s mother-in-law?

That a woman in her 50’s, who is not a Facebook power user, would insist on naming in-law relations, illustrates the variety and urgency of needs Facebook has on its plate since it brought the “Family” cat out of the bag.

The Case of the Distant Relative

But relations can be more distant than son-in-law. How distant is distant? I was recently invited to a girl’s Bar Mitzva (the female form is actually Bat Mitzva, celebrated at 12, often cutified by the almost-nearly-teens to Bat Mitzvush). My connection to the Bat Mitzva girl: she is daughter of sister of husband of daughter of my sister.

That’s a five-step, non-blood relation. Pretty distant, you say? Well, it might be distant for you, but perhaps one treasures five-degrees-apart relations more if one’s family, like mine, was cut in half by a holocaust.

The kid’s mother now wants to designate our relation in Facebook – but she can’t.  Too distant to indicate as family as per the current version.

To me, this isn’t a trivial technicality. Although her family lives abroad, in Europe, the Bat Mitzva event took place in Israel at significant effort and cost. It was worth it, because there’s a “roots”  sense to celebrating a Jewish rite of passage in Israel, among family. So, you can see why seeing a distant uncle from Israel, who went to your Bar Mitzva, on your mom’s wall, can mean a thing or two. it can help you recall your own roots that are partly in the Old Country. This is how many call their homelands, and the emotional charge is nothing like “my Mom lives in Idaho”.

Coming from the Middle East, I wonder whether my brethen (in the extended sense)  are happy with the Facebook family relationship types. Are 32 types enough to describe a family? a tribe? a hamula – a clan thatoften extends beyond lineage? an ahl? What about other world kinship systems and “all our relations“?

And what would Dunbar do?

PS – My latest Facebook friend calls me in RL “uncle” – but it’s the wider, African tribe sense. In fact, he’s but the son of brother of an ex-girlfriend, to whose wedding I went last week. And this December, I’m looking forward to a visit from a friend, the first wife of the deceased (second) partner of my ex-wife. We live on different continents, yet we’re both members of a closed Facebook group we call The Tribe, a reflection of a real-world group spanning three continents and including 30 people who date back many years. But don’t get me wrong – we’re just friends.

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