Studying Discourse Online is Studying Designed Experience

Young people participating in fan fiction forums are learning English as a second language. People arguing about Preist tallents in the World of Warcraft forms are participating in informal science learning and reasoning. Hip hop discourse in online forums can help us engineer financial literacy into learning environments. Folks participating in forums for RPG Maker are learning to take and give criticism. Everywhere you look researchers are studying discourse online, but we don’t necessarily know that much about how that discourse is shaped by the people that build and administrate the software that enables that discourse. As I’ve mentioned, this is the subject for a research project I am working on, I wanted to take a moment to share a few early examples and ideas I have on how this might be working.

Discourse on the Web is a Result of Designed Experience

For starters, discussions on the web are the result of designed experience, you shouldn’t study them without taking into account the functionality of the software that enables them. The designers and administrators of those spaces have set them up to enable particular kinds of communication and to ensure that other kinds of interaction do not occur.

For example, here is how Derek Powazek explained the role of software tools in Design for Community: the art of connecting real people in virtual places:

This is all about power. Giving your users tools to communicate is giving them the power. But we’re not talking about all the tools they could possibly want. We’re talking about carefully crafted experiences, conservatively proportioned for maximum impact. ( Powazek, xxii)

So How Do Forum Designers and Administrators Shape Discourse?

So, what do the folks who manage, run, and build web forums think about their end users? Further, how do their theories about the goals, motivations, and desires of those users shape the way that they enable them to interact with each other. One of the places I am looking for answers to these questions is in guidebooks for web forum administrators. I should give a more full rundown of what books I am looking at, but I thought it would be fun to share some of the kinds of examples I have found of how the books are talking about users and the resulting implications for design that they suggest. I am still just at the beginning of this research project, but I wanted to share some of these examples for comment. The following are a few preliminary examples. I will share more examples as they show up, but wanted to put these out there for anyone to react to.

Explicit Public Rules

The most obvious way that community managers influence the content which people share on these sites is through enforcing explicit rules. Practically all of the books in this genre I have read so far explain the importance of having and enforcing these kinds of explicit rules. Here Patrick O’Keefe explains the importance of rules:

Respect is the cornerstone of a good environment. You create a respectful community by requiring that everyone treat everyone else with the respect they deserve. You do this by having written policies and by actively enforcing those policies. (O’Keefe, 219)

Using Design to Filter Who Participates

In  primary lessons for design is to “bury the post button.” He suggests the more effort that is required to get to the point where someone can post a comment will result in higher quality discussion.

Why would this be? because, in this case, the multiple clicks it takes to read the whole story are actually acting as a great screening mechanism. Users who are looking for trouble or aren’t really engaged in your content will be put off by the distance. They’ll drift away. But the users who are engaged by the content and interested in the results of the conversation will stick with it.(53)

In Community Building Secret Strategies for Successful Online Communities on the Web Amy Jo Kim gives very similar advice:

“What you want to do is create appropriate hurdles for member contributions, particularly those that extend the public space within your community…It’s up to you to figure out the restrictions that best meet the needs of your members and support the kind of community you are trying to create. (Kim, 71)

Aside from any explicit rules designers of these community spaces are using design as a filter. It is a kind of soft power that shapes the way that we interact with each other online and anyone studying interactions online should think about how the design of the space might be acting as filter

Tricking users and distorting reality

Explaining that “Creativity never hurts when you’re trying to get major league idiots off your community.” O’Keefe provides a few creative ideas.

Sometimes referred to as global ignore, you can incorporate a function that lets the banned user log in but then makes this user go unseen to all users of your community. The banned user cannot receive private messages, and if he tries to send them, they don’t reach the intended users. He can still make his posts, but only he ( and maybe you and your staff) can see the posts– no one else. Basically, in his eyes, the site works as is intended. He will just think that everyone is ignoring him and go away. (O’Keefe, 215)

In this case, an administrator can let a user think they are participating in the conversation when no one else can see what they are saying. Worse than being silenced, the user still thinks they are part of the conversation.

In short, the designed experience of web community spaces is not something that can be read in any straightforward fashion. At the very least, to say something about a community you need to understand the explicit guidelines and rules. But beyond this, without understanding the intentions and tactics of developers and administrators it is going to be difficult to know how exactly they are implicitly shaping the structure and nature of the discourse. It’s my intention to try and work through this relationship between designers, administrators and users in my project.

What are some other examples of ways designers and administrators shape discourse online?

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