Open Thinkering


Tag: social networks

Context collection, not context collapse

On holiday last week, I read How To Do Nothing: Resisting the attention economy by Jenny Odell. It’s an inspirational book, based on a blog post she published a few years ago; I should have read it when it first came out.

Part of the 'How to Do Nothing' book cover

I’m going to quote a fair few sections of it, out of order, to make a few points. First, it’s really good to see so many authors of non-fiction books I’ve read recently to say that they’re explicitly anti-capitalist.

My argument is obviously anticapitalist, especially concerning technologies that encourage a capitalist perception of time, place, self, and community. It is also environmental and historical: I propose that rerouting and deepening one’s attention to place will likely lead to awareness of one’s participation in history and in a more-than-human community. From either a social or ecological perspective, the ultimate goal of “doing nothing” is to wrest our focus from the attention economy and replant it in the public, physical realm.

Odell has in her crosshairs the ‘attention economy’ which largely is synonymous with centralised social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram. What I find interesting is the way she weaves her own story and sense of place around her philosophical and historical investigations of what it means to be human.

It’s important for me to link my critique of the attention economy to the promise of bioregional awareness because I believe that capitalism, colonialist thinking, loneliness, and an abusive stance toward the environment all coproduce one another. It’s also important because of the parallels between what the economy does to an ecological system and what the attention economy does to our attention. In both cases, there’s a tendency toward an aggressive monoculture, where those components that are seen as “not useful” and which cannot be appropriated (by loggers or by Facebook) are the first to go. Because it proceeds from a false understanding of life as atomized and optimizable, this view of usefulness fails to recognize the ecosystem as a living whole that in fact needs all of its parts to function.

Places, by definition, have context. You are in this place doing this thing. Social media feeds, on the other hand, suffer from what danah boyd calls ‘context collapse’: lots of things posted by different people one after another with no semblance of cohesion.

Like Odell, I spent many years on Twitter in particular, playing to the gallery and thinking in tweet-sized chunks. It does not lead to a flourishing life.

I think often about how much time and energy we use thinking up things to say that would go over well with a context-collapsed crowd—not to mention checking back on how that crowd is responding. This is its own form of “research,” and when I do it, it feels not only pathetic but like a waste of energy

While I’d argue that things were different in the very early days, nowadays spending a lot of time on centralised social media services is an exercise in thinking with the herd. Outliers are ostracised.

William Deresiewicz warns… in “Solitude and Leadership,” a speech to an audience of college students in 2010 [that by] spending too much time on social media and chained to the news cycle, he says, “[y]ou are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else.”

The apotheosis of this is shaping your ‘personal brand’ so that others have a fixed view of who you and what you offer. This is acquiescing to a capitalist frame of reference where value is extracted for the benefit of others.

Ultimately, I argue for a view of the self and of identity that is the opposite of the personal brand: an unstable, shapeshifting thing determined by interactions with others and with different kinds of places.

Odell suggests that we should disengage from such personal branding activities and instead engage in activities which she calls ‘resisting in place’.

To resist in place is to make oneself into a shape that cannot so easily be appropriated by a capitalist value system. To do this means refusing the frame of reference: in this case, a frame of reference in which value is determined by productivity, the strength of one’s career, and individual entrepreneurship. It means embracing and trying to inhabit somewhat fuzzier or blobbier ideas: of maintenance as productivity, of the importance of nonverbal communication, and of the mere experience of life as the highest goal. It means recognizing and celebrating a form of the self that changes over time, exceeds algorithmic description, and whose identity doesn’t always stop at the boundary of the individual.

So, instead of presenting oneself as a unified, unchanging ‘brand’ separate from others and the world, Odell suggests that we should recognise that we are unavoidably shaped by the interactions we have with others and the world.

What’s especially tragic about a mind that imagines itself as something separate, defensible, and capable of “efficiency” is not just that it results in a probably very boring (and bored) person; it’s that it’s based on a complete fallacy about the constitution of the self as something separate from others and from the world. Although I can understand it as the logical outcome of a very human craving for stability and categories, I also see this desire as, ironically, the intersection of many forces inside and outside this imagined “self”: fear of change, capitalist ideas of time and value, and an inability to accept mortality. It’s also about control, since if we recognize that what we experience as the self is completely bound to others, determined not by essential qualities but by relationships, then we must further relinquish the ideas of a controllable identity and of a neutral, apolitical existence (the mythology that attends gentrification). But whether we are the fluid product of our interactions with others is not our choice to make. The only choice is whether to recognize this reality or not.

One way of thinking about two different ways of interacting online is to differentiate between connectivity and sensitivity. One is about unambiguously spreading information, the other about encountering others.

Writing about the circulation of information, Berardi makes a distinction that’s especially helpful here, between what he calls connectivity and sensitivity. Connectivity is the rapid circulation of information among compatible units—an example would be an article racking up a bunch of shares very quickly and unthinkingly by like-minded people on Facebook. With connectivity, you either are or are not compatible. Red or blue: check the box. In this transmission of information, the units don’t change, nor does the information.

Sensitivity, in contrast, involves a difficult, awkward, ambiguous encounter between two differently shaped bodies that are themselves ambiguous—and this meeting, this sensing, requires and takes place in time. Not only that, due to the effort of sensing, the two entities might come away from the encounter a bit different than they went in.


So connectivity is a share or, conversely, a trigger; sensitivity is an in-person conversation, whether pleasant or difficult, or both. Obviously, online platforms favor connectivity, not simply by virtue of being online, but also arguably for profit, since the difference between connectivity and sensitivity is time, and time is money. Again, too expensive.

As humans, we tend to only notice big changes; small things that drip-feed escape our notice. We don’t tend to think they’re particularly important. This is true of small changes to seasonal temperatures that over time constitute climate change, but also applies to changes in our behaviour.

An example of this comes from James Williams who, writing about ad blockers on the University of Oxford’s ‘Practical Ethics’ blog, explains what’s at stake: nothing less than our freedom. Odell paraphrases him as saying that what we see as merely irritating actually prevent us from flourishing.

We experience the externalities of the attention economy in little drips, so we tend to describe them with words of mild bemusement like “annoying” or “distracting.” But this is a grave misreading of their nature. In the short term, distractions can keep us from doing the things we want to do. In the longer term, however, they can accumulate and keep us from living the lives we want to live, or, even worse, undermine our capacities for reflection and self-regulation, making it harder, in the words of Harry Frankfurt, to “want what we want to want.” Thus there are deep ethical implications lurking here for freedom, wellbeing, and even the integrity of the self.

What we need to be doing, therefore, is to be seeking out spaces for context collection rather than context collapse. I like this way of framing things, as it’s both a philosophical and practical approach. I’ve already had discussions with the Bonfire team about ways in which posts can be displayed in ways that are neither algorithmic nor merely pile one contextless thing after another.

If, as I’ve argued, certain types of thought require certain types of spaces, then any attempt at “context collection” will have to deal not only with context collapse online, but with preserving public and open space, as well as the meeting public and open space, as well as the meeting places important to threatened cultures and communities.

This book has really made me question what I’ve been doing (and what I will be doing in the future) online. Not more of the same, that’s for sure.

Some thoughts on ‘home’ pages for individuals within communities (and social networks)


The work I do is at the intersection of learning, technology, and community. That’s taken lots of different shapes, from formal education, to working for a global non-profit like the Mozilla Foundation, to building a resource-sharing social network for educators with Moodle. More recently, though, I’ve been working with the Bonfire team, as well as collaborating with my WAO colleagues in helping out organisations like Participate and LocalGov Drupal.

One thing that seems to be a thread that runs through all of this work is how to engender a sense of belonging within a community. WAO use an Architecture of Participation approach which I’ve most recently written about many times to help with that. But there’s another angle I also want to explore, which I suppose sits more under the heading of ‘information architecture’.

Communities these days, even if they meet up in person regularly, are technologically-mediated. Take a sports team or a community choir, for example: they will interact at the very least through a chat app to keep everyone up-to-date with what’s going on. Then, at the other end of the spectrum, are communities where most of the people involved will probably never meet in person — an online gaming group, for example, or people who come together for a few short weeks to do an online course.

Usually, the people facilitating the community only consider the people they’re dealing with in the single dimension of that particular group or course. Most of us, however, are part of many different communities and, in addition, have direct message conversations with friends and colleagues to keep up with.

So we end up with the problem usually referred to as ‘information overload’ but I prefer to call notification literacy. As I say in the linked post, there are preventative measures and mitigating actions you can take as an individual to help ‘increase your notification literacy’. There are also ways of facilitating communities that can help, for example if the platform you’re using has threaded comments, insisting that people use instead of a confusing, undifferentiated stream of messages. You can also ensure you have a separate chat or channel just for important announcements.

However, there are UX decisions that can be made at a platform level which can help with this. I’ve already mentioned threads, which to my mind is absolutely basic — even chat apps like WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal should have these, I think. Going beyond this, it’s worth considering how to scaffold the attention of people returning to a social networking app after some time away. This might be just overnight while they were sleeping, or after several days, weeks, or months away, for various reasons.

Big Tech’s centralised, proprietary platforms deal with this through algorithmic timelines. That is to say, instead of a simple reverse chronological timeline with one update after another, they show you ‘things you may have missed’ and otherwise curate your experience for you. This is extremely effective at sucking people into spending more time on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. But it’s not a great way of preventing civilisational collapse due to us all having no short-term memory or attention.

This is why I’ve been thinking about what a healthy, sustainable, informative ‘home’ screen might be like for community-focused platforms such as LocalGov Drupal, Participate, and Bonfire. This is particularly germane for the latter two, as they are building platforms to allow people to create community spaces for learning and solidarity. I don’t think a ‘notifications’ tab is enough in this day and age to allow people to make sense of what’s going on; it involves too much context-switching and can absolutely destroy our attention.

I was particularly interested in Chris Aldrich’s observation that knowledge workers tend to talk in spatial terms about their work, especially if distracted.

Following interruptions by colleagues or phone calls at work, people may frequently ask themselves “where was I?” more frequently than “what was I doing?” This colloquialism isn’t surprising as our memories for visual items and location are much stronger than actions. Knowledge workers will look around at their environments for contextual clues for what they were doing and find them in piles of paper on their desks, tabs in their computer browser, or even documents (physical or virtual) on their desktops.

What are the contextual cues we can use in community spaces to help people understand what’s going on? I don’t think a mere notifications tab is going to cut it. Instead, I perhaps we need more advanced conversational visualisation tools such as Chartodon, and even the ability for people to colour-code and tag discussions.

There are plenty of issues with Slack for workplace chat, but one thing I find invaluable is the ability for it to remind me to be reminded about a message after a specified amount of time. It seems like such a simple thing for a social network or other community-focused platform to implement, but I haven’t seen it anywhere else.

Another thing, of course, that most chat apps have is a status icon showing whether that person is online. This has been around for decades, ever since the days of MSN and AOL Messengers, and probably before that. Knowing whether someone is (choosing to show that they’re) online can make a difference to how I reply, as well as the speed of my reply.

Ideally, to take a metaphor from WordPress, I want to separate out my ‘home’ page on a community platform from the the feed. So instead of logging-on and being presented with a firehose, instead I have something which I can immediately understand.

(I haven’t used a forum for years, and don’t even really use my Reddit account, but I seem to remember that when I logged into forums back in the day, there would be a ‘dashboard’ where I could see which threads had been updated and how many messages there were. I kind of miss that, I have to say.)

I’m very much thinking out loud in this post, which is why I haven’t included screenshots and mock-ups. However, perhaps it might be worth thinking further using some visual tools about how this could look. I’d like to get some other brains involved as well, so if you’re interested perhaps we could have a chat?

Some interesting findings from user research for the Zappa project (so far!)

Squirrels around a bonfire

One of the things about working openly is, fairly obviously, sharing your work as you go. This can be difficult for many reasons, not least because of the human tendency toward narrative, to completed stories with start, middle, and end.

The value of resisting this tendency and sitting in ambiguity for a while is that allows for slow hunches to form and serendipitous connections to be made. So it is with user research I’m doing as part of the Zappa project for the Bonfire team. We need time to talk to lots of different types of people who meet our criteria, and to spend some time reflecting on what they’ve told us.

As I wrote in my previous post about the project, we’d identified some of the following:

  • a list of people we can/should speak with
  • themes of which we should be aware/cognisant
  • groups of people we should talk with

Inevitably, since this initial work, we’ve come up with some obvious gaps in the people we should speak to (UX designers!). The people we’ve spoken with have recommended other people to contact as well as avenues of enquiry to follow. This is such an interesting topic that we need to be careful that the project doesn’t grow legs and run away with us…

10 interesting things people have told us so far

We haven’t started synthesising any of what our user research participants have said so far, but as we’re around halfway through the process of conducting interviews, I thought it might be worth sharing 10 interesting things they’ve told us. These are not any any particular order.

  • Countering misinformation is time-consuming — to fact-check articles takes time and by the time the result is published the majority of the people who were going to read it have done so anyway.
  • Chat apps — public social networks are blamed for not dealing with mis/disinformation but some of the most problematic stuff is being shared via messaging services such as WhatsApp and Telegram.
  • Difference between human and bot accounts — it’s possible to reason with a human being but impossible to do with a bot account.
  • Metaphor of adblock list — a way of reducing the burden of moderation on administrators and moderators* of a federated social network instance by creating a more systematised version of something like the #Fediblock hashtag.
  • Subscribing to moderator(s) — delegating moderation explicitly to another user, perhaps by automatically blocking/muting whatever they do.
  • Different categories of approaches — for example, reputational solutions that deal with trusted parties, technical solutions that prove something hasn’t been tampered with, and process-based solutions which make transparent the context in which the content was created and transmitted.
  • Visualising connections — visualising the social graph could make it easier to spot outlier accounts which may be less trusted than those that lots of your other contacts are connected to.
  • Fact-checking platforms can be problematic — they promote an assumption that there is a single ‘Truth’ and one version of events. They can be useful in some instances but also be used to present a distorted view of the world.
  • Frictionless design — by ‘decomplexifying’ the design of user interfaces we hide the system behind the tool and the trade-offs that have been made in creating it.
  • Disappearing content — content that no longer exists can be a problem for derivative works / articles / posts that reference and rely on it to make valid claims.

It’s been fascinating to see the different ways that people have approached our conversations, whether from a technical, design, political, scientific, or philosophical perspective (or, indeed, all five!)

Next steps

We’ve still got some people to talk with next week, but we are always looking to ensure a diverse range of user research participants with a decent geographical spread. As such, we could do with some help identifying people located in Asia (yes, the whole continent!) who might be interested in talking about their experiences, as well as people from minority and historically under-represented backgrounds in tech.

In addition, we could also do with talking with people who have suffered from mis/disinformation, any admins or moderators of federated social network instances, and UX designers who have a particular interest in mis/disinformation. You can get in touch via the comments below or at: [email protected]