When You Can't See Your Audience, but You Can See Your Social Life

Computer-mediated communication often makes visible and explicit many aspects of social interaction that are normally invisible or implicit.

Dominic's pics/Flickr

A recent This American Life episode was the radio broadcast of a live performance of the show that was beamed to theatrical audiences around the country. In honor of the fact that the show -- usually an exclusively auditory experience -- was being consumed visually as well, the theme of the show was "Invisible made visible." Host Ira Glass summed up the theme by saying:

To state the obvious, sometimes it is just a lot easier to see things. Clears a lot of things up. And today on our radio show, we have all kinds of stories of people trying to take things that are normally invisible to them and make them visible.

And, of course, he is right. People are capable of processing incredibly complex visual cues -- this gives us the ability to communicate at high bandwidth when we can use both auditory and visual means. Not to get too Marshall Mcluhan about it, but the medium that information is transmitted can have a significant impact on what implicit cues are transmitted, and on how we understand the context of a message.

In strange ways, we face this issue all the time when we interact online.

Computer-mediated communication often makes visible and explicit many aspects of social interaction that are normally invisible or implicit. At the same time other aspects of communicative interaction that we generally take for granted as being obvious or visible are made invisible. If you have ever found it hard to detect sarcasm while G-chatting with a friend, you have encountered this issue.

danah boyd observed in an early and prescient piece (PDF) on youth social networking that interaction on social networking sites is unique from more traditional forms of social interaction in four key ways, which we can be understand in terms of this invisible/visible framework:

Persistence: Normally social interaction is ephemeral. What I say to you in the park ceases to exist -- except as hearsay -- the moment after I have said it. Online, often, messages persist indefinitely on forums, your friend's timeline, or in an archived email thread. In this context, the history of a communication is visible where previously it was not.

Searchability: With such a glut of information, something being technically visible, meaning that it is possible to access it, is notably different from something being visible for practical purposes. Only when something is indexable and searchable can it really be visible.

Replicability: This feature of social networking increases visibility of previously invisible, ephemeral conversation. Not only do conversations persist indefinitely and are easy to find, but they can be easily copied and shared. Email archives can be leaked, as they famously were for HBGary; and cellphones can be hacked. Replicability enables virality, which magnifies visibility.

These three characteristics discussed by boyd, all add to the visibility of online communication in ways that alter context and scope. boyd's fourth dimension is explicitly about the invisible, and how the invisible can make interaction more visible.

invisible audiences: In traditional offline social interaction, the context and audience is obvious. I automatically know, without having to think about it, that a statement I make to my friends at Starbucks will be heard by those friends and the other patrons within earshot. In such situations, because the audience is visible, we implicitly tailor our statements to so that they are contextually appropriate; we all say different things, for example, to our bosses than to our family, friends, or significant others. In online interaction, the logic of this automatic feedback and tailoring is broken: online the audience can be invisible. Depending on privacy settings and platform, a whole scope of lurkers, acquaintances, or even private companies scraping data may be members of an invisible audience that extends far beyond the intended target of a communication.

The invisibility of our audiences makes it difficult to present multiple iterations of our identity to multiple audiences -- a practice we have long taken for granted. In a sense, the invisibility of our audiences makes the multiple facets of ourselves more visible.

Taking social interaction online makes it explicitly more visible to a wider range of people, which sometimes violates our pre-existing, vestigial, physical-world expectations. At the same time, however, many of the cues that make communication rich, deep and meaningful -- cues which are often obvious in face-to-face interaction -- are invisible online. Tone, body language, facial expressions and myriad other micro-signals, the visual and physical parts of interpersonal interaction, are inherently invisible online.

Randall Collins, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that interpersonal connection and mutual trust are established through a process he calls "interaction rituals." Interaction rituals (IRs) involve:

the rapid back-and-forth of micro-behaviors (voice tones and rhythms, bodily movements); focusing attention on the same thing and thereby recognizing mutual intersubjectivity; feeling the same emotion or mood. When these ingredients reach a sufficiently high level, they intensify through a system of feedbacks: emotions grow stronger; bodily gestures and voice patterns become closely coordinated, down to the level of micro-fractions of a second.

This intense micro-coordination requires the full bandwidth of interpersonal communication, and are, according to Collins, fairly dependent upon face-to-face interaction. In online communication many of these otherwise subconscious aspects of communication are invisible to us, and as a result, successful IRs are much more difficult to establish. Collins does not go so far as to say that IRs are impossible online, but he asserts that without the rich signaling that the visibility of face-to-face provides, the feelings of connectedness that IRs can provide are necessarily less intense and less immediate. One implication of the relative weakness of online IRs is that forming strong bonds online is likely to be a more gradual process than it might be offline; the immediate and visceral feeling of "clicking" with someone the first time you meet is made extremely difficult by the paucity of visual, physical and tonal signals in most computer mediated communication.

To some degree, the problem of shallow online communication, devoid of meaningful social context cues, can be addressed with elegant design. This is a process of making these invisible things visible again -- lets call it, for lack of a better term "re-visibilizing". Incorporating audio and video chat, rather than just low-bit text chat, into social networking is part of this process; it helps make tone, and facial expressions accessible . In chat clients for decades, for instance, there have been status indicators next to your friends screen names to show whether they are available, busy or inactive. This takes a fact of social context that would be obvious in a physical space like an office but is not obvious in a virtual space -- who is around -- visible and obvious once again.

A recent change to your Facebook messaging interface that you may or may not have noticed is another great exampling of this process of "re-visiblizing." Facebook message threads now display a "✓Seen by [Friend Name]" notice at the bottom of the message to confirm that your friend has received and viewed your message. In a face-to-face context, it is readily apparent if your conversation partner was listening; you can tell from their eye contact or facial expression that they heard you, even if they don't audibly respond. Not so online. Without a notice of the kind Facebook now provides, it is impossible to differentiate between your friend not getting your message and your friend simply choosing not to respond. However, by providing this information, Facebook has changed the logic of asynchronous online messaging. The lack of this cue was, in some ways, a feature not a bug. One of the key virtues of asynchronous messaging is that it allows a message recipient to choose to respond to something in their own time, when it is convenient and appropriate for them. Providing a sender with a notification that their message has been seen triggers a specific set of social expectations. When we can't assume "maybe just haven't seen it yet" we end up thinking "I know they saw it, why haven't they gotten back to me?" This creates pressure to respond more rapidly, and robs the receiver -- via social pressure -- of some of the agency the platform once afforded them.

The Facebook message seen notification aptly illustrates how changing the cues that are visible, changes the nature of the interaction. The information that is provided through a platform helps define the social norms and expectations that are triggered. None of this is to say that some cues are "good" and must be included and others are "bad" and should not. It is simply that making these different aspects visible or invisible is a serious design choice that needs to be engaged with in context of what purpose a platform intends to serve. In the physical world we take invisibility for granted, but that's no longer sensible online.