XVIII.2 March + April 2011
Page: 15
Digital Citation

Bridging the gaps between HCI and social media

Joe McCarthy

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We are increasingly surrounded by, immersed in, and captivated by social media. This is hardly surprising, given that we are social creatures who naturally gravitate toward channels that enable us to connect with others. But what does the explosive growth of social media mean to those who study and practice the principles of human-computer interaction, and what does HCI have to contribute to this rapidly burgeoning collection of human activity streams?

Social media, in the context of this forum, consists of any website or service that enables users to create, modify, view, rate, or share digital objects of interest. These platforms for participation are proliferating and transforming at a rate that far exceeds the capabilities of traditional scientific study, not to mention our legal system and societal norms.

Some of my friends in the HCI community have criticized social media entrepreneurs for ignoring—or even violating—well-known, fundamental HCI principles. Conversely, some of my friends in the social media startup world have criticized HCI research and practices as being irrelevant to the scale of their systems and/or the pace of their evolution.

This forum represents an attempt to bridge these gaps and promote greater awareness of, if not appreciation for, what HCI has to offer social media, and what social media has to offer HCI.

I readily acknowledge that some people are already bridging these gaps, applying HCI principles to the design of social media systems, and/or investigating social media to uncover new HCI insights. I hope to convince some of these people to contribute to future forum articles.

I also recognize that to some extent the distinction between HCI and social media is somewhat artificial, given that many social media systems incorporate some HCI principles, and many HCI researchers and practitioners are incorporating social media into their work. These existing intersections will surface in contributions to this forum, but the primary focus will be along the edges, highlighting areas that could be, but are not yet, part of a more widely shared repertoire.

And there are lots of edges (and nodes) in the social graph. The network effects within—and across—social media streams represent one of the most significant shifts within the field of HCI. Some of its core principles, such as those involving predictability and reversibility, become particularly elusive when any given interaction can instantly propagate throughout the network...or the network of networks.

These issues loom even larger with the growing number of network bridges: Flickr photos appearing in Facebook status updates, Slidehare presentations appearing in LinkedIn feeds, Twitter posts appearing in aggregators like @ HateMyJobFeed or Foursquare check-ins appearing on Some of these internetwork effects may be seen as beneficial to an individual user, others less so, but the primary issue is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to fully predict or undo the effects of any action in social media.

Indeed, some social media entrepreneurs and commentators suggest a whole new paradigm is at work. Longtime Internet commentator Clay Shirky contrasts the "filter, then publish" approach of traditional broadcast media with the more laissez-faire "publish, then filter" practices that predominate in social media. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg suggests this paradigm may guide the design of social media tools as well, noting at the recent Web 2.0 Summit that "if you're building a product that people love, you can afford to make a lot of mistakes."

Even some stalwarts in the HCI community are acknowledging a paradigm shift. Don Norman, in his most recent interactions column, "Looking Back, Looking Forward," reflects on the gulf he had earlier identified between human-centered design and practice: "Great designers do not use HCD. And as a corollary, great designers have both great successes and great failures" [1]. His comment applies to a broader range of areas beyond social media, but I do believe that social media entrepreneurs have embraced this approach with particular zeal.

Interestingly, in the context of social media and interactions magazine, Norman also laments a lack of participation in or reaction from readers to many of his provocative pronouncements, and attributes this to the magazine's "failure to be [fully] open and accessible." The new editors of interactions assure me that contributions to this forum will be fully open and accessible, and we are working together to develop a new online strategy for interactions as a whole. I hope you will take advantage of this openness by posting your reactions in comments here or the social media streams of your choice.

Reflecting the conversational nature of social media, the format of future articles in this forum will more closely resemble a group panel discussion than an individual invited talk. This forum will run in every other issue of interactions, focusing on a single topic and presenting multiple perspectives, which a small panel of experts from both the HCI community and the social media entrepreneurial world will articulate. We hope readers will also share their perspectives on these topics, and/or their perspectives on others' perspectives.

Given the explosive growth of social media, it is impossible to enumerate all of the possible topics we might explore in this forum, but I will name a few areas that I believe are especially ripe for investigation.

back to top  Game Mechanics and Social Game Design

Many games are inherently social, and they have played a role throughout history in every media stream humans have used. The telegraph was being used for chess as early as 1844, and the first television game show, "Spelling Bee," aired in 1938. Computers have been used for games since A. S. Douglas created a graphical version of tic-tac-toe named OXO (or "Noughts and Oughts") for a computer as part of his Ph.D. thesis in 1952.

The most recent statistics reported by Nielsen show that the proportion of time U.S. Internet users spend engaged in online gaming rose to an average of 10 percent. With the growing popularity of smart phones and game consoles that can connect to the Internet, this is probably an underestimate; in any event, the amount of time people spend on games is sure to rise.

While games are nothing new, our understanding of their essential mechanics is evolving as they take new digital forms. Several years ago, Amy Jo Kim, social architect at Shuffle Brain, identified the key ingredients that make games fun, compelling, and even addictive: collecting, points, feedback, exchanges, and customization. She went on to show how many social media sites such as YouTube or Twitter can be viewed as games [2]. However, as the Web becomes saturated with more and more sites sprinkling points, badges, and other game mechanisms around like pixie dust, Kim has more recently been promoting a longer-term, life cycle perspective on game design as experience design. The best social games create social-engagement loops that provide a series of stages through which players can progress on an intrinsically motivated journey of ever-increasing skills, challenges, and rewarding experiences [3].

In addition to offering new insights for design, social games provide an opportunity to think about other aspects of HCI in new ways. Many HCI metrics are designed to measure productivity, efficiency, or effectiveness with respect to accomplishing well-defined—and often work-related—tasks. While many social games include "tasks" such as plowing a field, icing a rival, or slaying a dragon, the success of a game has more to do with the fun and engagement experienced by the player. Developing new metrics, or methods of analysis, that can help us understand player experience versus user experience may be a promising trajectory of inquiry, perhaps leading to a new subfield, player-game interaction (PGI).

back to top  Object-Centered Sociality

One of the most fascinating concepts I've encountered in the social media space is object-centered sociality. Jyri Engestrom, a serial social media entrepreneur, invoked this concept in a blog post contrasting the levels of fun that users might experience on LinkedIn versus Flickr [4]. The main difference, he contended (back in 2005, when LinkedIn didn't even allow user photos), was that Flickr photos constituted social objects—entities that served as anchors for conversations—whereas LinkedIn was, at the time, mostly about people and links. While gossiping about people is a common social practice, the professional orientation of LinkedIn was not conducive to gossip...or to much socializing at all.

Social media has evolved to encompass many other types of social objects—videos, music, events, television shows, restaurants, wines, and even credit card transactions. LinkedIn has also evolved, and now supports several types of social objects, including slide presentations, events, tweets, and links (which, in turn, support a broad variety of other social-object types).

Object-centered sociality, as initially outlined by sociologist Karin Knorr-Cetina, has two basic manifestations [5]. One is the idea of socializing about objects, which is the aspect elaborated and popularized by Engestrom and others. The other, which has received far less attention in the social media space, is socializing with objects, i.e., establishing a social relationship with an object.

Knorr-Cetina uses the example of how biologist Barbara McClintock, who won the Nobel Prize for her discovery of genetic transposition, would totally immerse herself in her study of plant chromosomes, developing a "deep emotional investment" with the chromosomes and imagining how they might see the world. This concept of socializing with objects themselves can be seen in some place-based social media applications, such as Foursquare, where one can become mayor of a place without having any kind of physical or digital interactions with others who check in there.

According to the ACM Digital Library, only 16 publications reference "object-centered sociality"—although there are more than 600 references to a related concept, "media equation" (which is more about emotional investments in computing objects than social media objects)—so this is an area that will receive more attention, at least in this forum.

back to top  Hybrid Social Media

Foursquare, mentioned above, is one of the more popular social media applications that bridge the gap between online and offline. Users check in with their GPS-enabled phones when they are in or near a point of interest in the physical world, such as a coffee shop or pub. There are a number of other place-based social media applications—Gowalla, Whrrl, and Loopt—and many existing social media platforms are now supporting users' associations with places, e.g., Facebook, Twitter and Yelp.

Recent announcements and speculation regarding the increasing incorporation of near-field communications (NFC) support in mobile phones suggests there will be more mechanisms and modes for making connections between the physical and digital worlds [6]. However, these technological connections may come at the cost of interpersonal connections. Comedian Stephen Colbert recently observed that "nothing brings people together like ignoring each other to stare at their phones."

Hybrid social media holds the promise of connecting people more easily and/or effectively with the people, places, and things around them in physical spaces. Of course, building bridges from the online to the offline may also leave people more physically vulnerable to unfriendly advances.

back to top  Privacy-Benefit Trade-offs

Privacy has been a significant concern for many researchers and practitioners in the HCI community, and a mounting concern for some who are active in the social media space. In the past, many HCI studies have elicited responses to proposed software features and settings that involve privacy by prompting users with hypothetical scenarios. Given the scale and scope—especially when network effects are considered—of many social media applications—especially when their publicly available application programming interfaces (APIs) are considered—it is increasingly challenging to comprehensively characterize what might be visible to whom, not to mention where, when, or for how long.

Facebook, the world's largest social media platform, has been under fire for its unanticipated and unwanted privacy implications as part of its ever-evolving terms of service, especially with respect to the availability of personal data [7]. Zuckerberg's aforementioned willingness to make mistakes notwithstanding, developing effective interfaces for helping users understand and navigate the bewildering privacy settings for social media services is an important area to which HCI may be able to provide useful guidelines.

Another dimension of Zuckerberg's comment is the explicit acknowledgment of the implicit cost-benefit analysis that many users make when facing changes to terms of use with popular social media services. While 30,000-plus people pledged to delete their Facebook accounts on May 31, 2010 ("Quit Facebook Day") in protest over the most recent privacy changes, they represent less than 0.01 percent of the Facebook user population. Unfortunately, we will never know how many actually deleted their accounts or how many of them later rejoined the site. We do know that the number of unique visitors to Facebook site increased during the following month [8].

All of this is not intended to suggest that privacy is not or should not be an important consideration in HCI and social media. However, it does suggest that we may want to expand our consideration of relevant factors, and to incorporate insights from other fields that have not traditionally played a key role in HCI, for example, behavioral economics.

back to top  Health 2.0

The best description I've seen of Health 2.0 was in a slide deck entitled "Patient 2.0" by Regina Holliday, in which she defined e-patients as "engaged, empowered, equipped, and expert" [9]. The Health 2.0 movement is broader than social media, as it involves many stakeholders, such as government and insurance industry bureaucracies, who have yet to embrace social media (to put it charitably).

But the potential for truly participatory medicine—with platforms promoting interactions among e-patients and healthcare providers—represents one of the most exciting application areas of social media. It's perhaps best exemplified by, which allows people suffering from an array of diseases to share information about their symptoms, treatments, and outcomes with other similarly afflicted patients.

back to top  Moving Forward

These categories are not intended as comprehensive or even clearly demarcated. Some of the most interesting areas incorporate two or more of them, for example, social games that are based on physical locations and activities (e.g., through mobile augmented reality or game consoles like Wii or Xbox 360 + Kinect), or the ways in which the social objects in Health 2.0 often include life-threatening or life-saving aspects not typically present in other forms of object-centered sociality. And, of course, new categories are sure to emerge as social media continues to evolve.

As this forum unfolds, I hope you find the articles informative and provocative. You may not agree with everything that is written here, but I hope we will at least entice you to think about HCI and social media in new ways. Ideally, the articles themselves will prove to be engaging social objects, worthy of comment and critique, so that this forum will exemplify social media in both form and content.

I welcome your input about topics to explore and/or people to explore them, as well as feedback on the ways in which we might better approach these explorations.

back to top  References

1. Norman, D. Looking back, looking forward. interactions 17, 6 (2010).

2. Kim, A.J. Putting the fun in functional. Presentation;

3. Kim, A.J. Gamification Workshop 2010. Presentation;

4. Engestrom, J. Why some social network services work and others don't – Or, the case for object-centered sociality. April 13, 2005;

5. Knorr-Cetina, K. Sociality with objects: Social relations in postsocial knowledge societies, Theory, Culture and Society 14, 4 (1997), 1–30.

6. Evans, J. I have seen the future, and it looks a lot like bump (without the bump). TechCrunch. Nov. 20, 2010;

7. McKeon, M. The Evolution of Privacy on Facebook; Hotz, A. Privacy: Six years of controversy [infographic]. Mashable. August 25, 2010;

Gates, G. Facebook privacy: A bewildering tangle of options. New York Times; May 12, 2010;

8. Siegler, M.G. Remember when we were all supposed to quit Facebook? TechCrunch. July 14, 2010;

9. Holliday, R. Patient 2.0. June 11, 2010;

back to top  Author

Joe McCarthy is a lecturer at the University of Washington, Tacoma's Institute of Technology. His research spans ubiquitous computing, human-computer interaction, and computer-supported cooperative work.

back to top  Footnotes


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