Designing for Social Norms?

Okay, so the reason this article is interesting to me is because even though it’s describing how people behave in social media…arenas? corrals? fishtanks? (what actually is the group word for this? ‘Platforms’ doesn’t really describe how people are all thrown in together) …the article is actually describing how any community comes together, and I think it’s particularly interesting to get into this after our democracy discussion of two weeks ago.

How do social norms develop?
Good UX (=user interface) designers know that they have the power to shape certain kinds of social practices by how they design systems. And engineers often fail to give UX folks credit for the important work that they do. But designing the system itself is only a fraction of the design challenge when thinking about what unfolds. Social norms aren’t designed into the system. They don’t emerge by telling people how they should behave. And they don’t necessarily follow market logic. Social norms emerge as people – dare we say “users” – work out how a technology makes sense and fits into their lives. Social norms take hold as people bring their own personal values and beliefs to a system and help frame how future users can understand the system. And just as “first impressions matter” for social interactions, I cannot underestimate the importance of early adopters. Early adopters configure the technology in critical ways and they play a central role in shaping the social norms that surround a particular system.
How a new social media system rolls out is of critical importance. Your understanding of a particular networked system will be heavily shaped by the people who introduce you to that system. When a system unfolds slowly, there’s room for the social norms to slowly bake, for people to work out what the norms should be. When a system unfolds quickly, there’s a whole lot of chaos in terms of social norms. Whenever a network system unfolds, there are inevitably competing norms that arise from people who are disconnected to one another. (I can’t tell you how much I loved watching Friendster when the gay men, Burners, and bloggers were oblivious to one another.) Yet, the faster things move, the faster those collisions occur, and the more confusing it is for the norms to settle.

The “real name” culture on Facebook didn’t unfold because of the “real name” policy. It unfolded because the norms were set by early adopters and most people saw that and reacted accordingly. Likewise, the handle culture on MySpace unfolded because people saw what others did and reproduced those norms. When social dynamics are allowed to unfold organically, social norms are a stronger regulatory force than any formalized policy. At that point, you can often formalize the dominant social norms without too much pushback, particularly if you leave wiggle room. Yet, when you start with a heavy-handed regulatory policy that is not driven by social norms – as Google Plus did – the backlash is intense.

People don’t like to be configured
People don’t like to be configured. They don’t like to be forcibly told how they should use a service. They don’t want to be told to behave like the designers intended them to be. Heavy-handed policies don’t make for good behavior; they make for pissed off users.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t design to encourage certain behaviors. Of course you should. The whole point of design is to help create an environment where people engage in the most fruitful and healthy way possible. But designing a system to encourage the growth of healthy social norms is fundamentally different than coming in and forcefully telling people how they must behave. No one likes being spanked, especially not a crowd of opinionated adults.

Development policy is due for a redesign based on a more realistic understanding of how human beings behave
Engineers, private firms, and marketers of all stripes have long paid attention to how people actually make decisions, to the role that the context and social preferences play in our decision-making, and to the use of mental shortcuts and mental models to filter and interpret information. The development community is beginning to do the same. We believe that a more realistic understanding of decision-making can inspire and guide researchers and practitioners who aim to tackle some of the most pressing development challenges.

A common approach to improving sanitation is to build subsidized toilets and give people a standard health message. But a more psychologically and socially sophisticated approach works with community members to map areas of open defecation. A facilitator places a sample of faeces on the floor next to a piece of food, such as a bowl of rice or a banana. Individuals already know that flies moved between faeces and food. But paying attention to that fact creates a lasting image that motivates new behaviour. In addition, some facilitators help communities organize a public declaration to stop open defecation. Through this, new health norms become a part of social identity and community members express disapproval for those who continue open defecation. A randomized impact evaluation in Madhya Pradesh showed that villages using a more psychologically sophisticated approach lowered open defecation rates substantially, compared to those who didn’t.

After individuals were exposed to women leaders through reserved seats in gram panchayats in West Bengal, villagers viewed female leaders more favourably, compared to villages without reservations for women leaders. Girls in those villages also increased their aspirations, the gender gap in adolescent education was erased, and girls spent less time on household chores. This example points to the importance of role models in lifting aspirations. Leadership, as well entertainment education, can inspire people to take charge of their own lives.

Female sex workers often face considerable stigma and exclusion. A programme in Kolkata built self-esteem and a sense of personal agency through weekly social discussions. After just eight weeks, women who participated in the programme were more likely to choose a future-oriented savings product and to have visited a doctor, even though the training programme included no specific mention of health issues. Similarly, one study found that microfinance clients who meet weekly rather than monthly with their repayment groups had much more informal social contact with others in the group even two years after the loan cycle ended, and were three times less likely to default on their second loans. Social motivation is a powerful lever that can be used in policy design more often.

You can’t get to a healthy community through force
Companies that build systems that people use have power. But they have to be very very very careful about how they assert that power. It’s really easy to come in and try to configure the user through force. It’s a lot harder to work diligently to design and build the ecosystem in which healthy norms emerge. Yet, the latter is of critical importance to the creation of a healthy community. Cuz you can’t get to a healthy community through force.

What regulates human systems?
In his seminal book “Code”, Larry Lessig argued that social systems are regulated by four forces: 1) the market; 2) the law; 3) social norms; and 4) architecture or code
Few people think about the power of social norms. In fact, social norms are usually only thought of as a regulatory process when things go terribly wrong. And then they’re out of control and reactionary and confusing to everyone around.

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