This is a work–in–progress account of my first quarter of working on my Master of Design thesis at the University of Washington. This is a project about online conversation. Specifically, this is a project about making comment threads, not only more meaningful, but more joyful as well. Put simply, this is a project about making social media fun again.
What are comment threads?
Comment threads are digital, micro-town hall meetings in which anyone can voice an opinion, argue with strangers, or just yell into the void. Specifically, comment threads are features of digital media that “are designed as one column of responses organized in a vertical, or cascading, manner”. Comment sections, and threaded comments in particular, are features that drive user engagement, which might account for these entities populating an increasing number of platforms — think, New York Times Cooking. With largely unmoderated, libertarian forums come the promise of meaningful social interactions, but due to several factors, including low barriers to entry these conversations often flounder in meaningless and hostile banter.
Why can comment threads disappoint?
When anonymous strangers encounter one another via social media, even the most benign corners of the internet can play host to the darkest side of human nature. Comments are no exception. Reading through comment threads, one can viscerally encounter pre–Civil War levels of American political polarization, the lowest level of digital civility since such a metric has been measured, and the fact that online hate speech is on the rise. In short, comment threads often just… suck.
There are a number of factors at play here. Social media users can fall prey to the online disinhibition effect, causing the emotional temperature of online communication to be much higher than that of it’s in-person counterpart. This kind of environment is at least in part responsible for normal people becoming trolls. It would be fair to reason that these are unfortunate externalities of a more connected world, but research has shown that the platforms themselves have been found accountable for toxic communication.
But why do we keep using them?
So, yes — comment threads, and social media more generally, are often a space populated by bad actors spreading bad vibes. But if comment threads were all downside, it would be hard to imagine them being as common as they presently are. The ubiquity of comment threads means that users can connect with others in a way that simply does not exist in the digital realm. Interpersonal interactions occur incencently online and can range from thoughtful and meaningful to spontaneous and genuinely hilarious. Comment threads offer practical relationship advice, innocent and hilarious gaffes, and a space for inspiring others.
Comment threads don’t need to suck. This project is an exploration of how design might highlight and enhance what makes them both more meaningful and more fun.
The goal of this thesis is to create designed objects that encourage a sense of meaning in comment threads. Reductively, this project is about persuading users to behave prosocially online. Recognizing that behavior modification is a foundational (but not explicit) part of the current social media ecosystem — speaking to individuals with primary knowledge of this space helped me reach a few key insights that informed my making process. Although these meetings were off the record, every designer touched on the idea that users rarely respond well to heavy handed interventions.
This is not a novel idea. As part of my literature review, I read Thaler and Suntiens’s Nudge, a book that explores exactly how to modify behavior without doing so heavy handedly. This text unpacks the idea of a nudge or “any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing […] incentives”.
The ideas I have been crafting utilize the ethos of nudging (Thaler and Sunstien might refer to them as libertarianly–paternalistic) while embodying a sense of personality, levity and humor. Building for meaningful comment threads is the core of the project. However, the explicit outcome of meaning will manifest epiphenomenally, resulting from more joyful and fun comments — it will be a positive externality. My hypothesis is that if people are using comment threads for the joy they might provide, meaning will inevitably ride on top of the experience.
The way in which I will improve the quality of the comment thread ecosystem is by crafting “design interventions”, or small-scale design solutions (see below). When finished, these interventions will exist as platform agnostic design recommendations for social media firms. The final shape of these interventions is still yet to be determined — they might live as high-fidelity prototypes or perhaps they can be built out and live on the internet. That is still to be determined.
My methodology for ideating the interventions has varied — some were random ideas that had lived in the back of my mind for months, while others were manufactured by way of intentional processes. My favroite methodolgy has been, what I refer to as, “ideating on purpose”. This method entails selecting for a certain combination of factors that contribute to meaningful discussion, creating designs informed by findings. The factors themselves were found through my primary research, which included a survey of various comment threads. This review led me to reason that a meaningful conversation is characterized by a dynamic combination of four factors: nuance, logic, civility and a process–orientation. You can see these factors at work in my ideas below.
Nth degree responses.
Rather than responding to whole comments or posts, what if users could react to the minutiae of a post? The driving force of this idea would be the clarity and intrigue that comes when precision is brought to conversation.
Lots and lots of emojis.
Emojis seem underutilized online. What if they became focal elements instead? By shifting a social platform to shift the way in which emojis are used — towards something closer to the model implemented by Slack, for example — more nuance could be added to a fundamental feature of social media.
The fun(?) swear jar.
Crude language is inevitable and can heat things up quickly. What if language became gamified, making courtesy a desired outcome? Rather than being overly paternalistic, this idea intentionally allows individuals to be subversive and creative. Maybe they dodge the rules by playing tricks on the system, which is kind of the point. At first glance, threads would appear more civil, which is incredibly important in it’s own right.
Put the baby in the corner.
Almost everyone has posted something they later regretted. This idea takes the immediacy out of the posting process. Individuals are able to take some time to think before the post actually goes live, decreasing the chance of hostile interactions.
I’m excited to continue ideating and building ideas. During the winter quarter, I hope to create (and test!) high fidelity prototypes of three complimentary ideas.
Have any comments? Please share your thoughts! I’d be happy to engage with you in a meaningful comment thread below! ;)