Shirky on Flaming and the Design of Social Software

[Cross-posted to my professional blog, The Farm]

Clay Shirky has a great

article titled Group as User:

Flaming and the Design of Social Software

in which he says that one of the misconceptions of designers of social

software is that they see the “user” of a piece of social software is

not a collection of individuals, but a group:

When we hear the word “software,” most of us think of things like

Word, Powerpoint, or Photoshop, tools for individual users. These

tools treat the computer as a box, a self-contained environment in

which the user does things. Much of the current literature and

practice of software design — feature requirements, UI design,

usability testing — targets the individual user, functioning in


And yet, when we poll users about what they actually do with their

computers, some form of social interaction always tops the list —

conversation, collaboration, playing games, and so on. The practice of

software design is shot through with computer-as-box assumptions,

while our actual behavior is closer to computer-as-door, treating the

device as an entrance to a social space.

We have grown quite adept at designing interfaces and interactions

between computers and machines, but our social tools — the software

the users actually use most often — remain badly misfit to their


Social interactions are far more complex and unpredictable than

human/computer interaction, and that unpredictability defeats classic

user-centric design. As a result, tools used daily by tens of millions

are either ignored as design challenges, or treated as if the only

possible site of improvement is the user-to-tool interface.

The design gap between

computer-as-box and computer-as-door

persists because of a diminished conception of the user. The user of a

piece of social software is not just a collection of individuals, but

a group. Individual users take on roles that only make sense in

groups: leader, follower, peacemaker, process nazi, and so on. There

are also behaviors that can only occur in groups, from consensus

building to social climbing. And yet, despite these obvious

differences between personal and social behaviors, we have very little

design practice that treats the group as an entity to be designed for.

A related entry: Joel on Social


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