Social Media, Performance & Design

unpublished, 2011


The book that opened my eyes to the essence of contemporary design and its discourses in the early 1980s is entitled “Design is Invisible.”1 In its introduction design historian Lucius Burckhardt explains, among other things, that the night is not a natural phenomenon caused by the sun disappearing behind the horizon, but an entirely manmade institution “consisting of opening hours and closing hours, tariffs, public transportation schedules, habits, and street lights.”

The insight that the way we frame things essentially organizes the way we experience them leads Burckhardt to contemplate the idea of ‘sozio-design,’ the kind of design that “reasons solutions to problems in terms of a mutually adapted change in behavioral roles and objects.” In order to fathom what’s at stake here, Burckhardt gives an example: in Germany, in the late 1970s, the Federal Mail conducted a rationalization program which demanded of each addressee to place a mailbox, designed and distributed by the Federal Mail, at the road side in stead of in the front door. This way the mailman would save miles in delivering his payload, even if in cities the distance between street and doors was often a matter of mere meters. In rural parts of the country, however, where most houses have long driveways, this meant that the residents were cut off from one of their main sources of information. There, the mailman used to not only deliver the mail at the door, but also the messages and gossip he had picked up at previous doors of the scattered farms and houses. For the farmers, the design of the combination of mailbox and placement regulation meant that the service deteriorated instead of being improved. Burckhardt characterizes objects such as the road-side mailbox as ‘böse’, malign, because they disintegrate social fabrics, because they sever connections between people.

Malign objects are things that unilaterally impose behavior without critical consideration to the mostly invisible institutional and social frameworks that determine their use. Still, these frameworks direct design processes and thus their possible outcomes. The reverse, as we saw, is true too: via the behavior programmed into their design, objects direct the contexts within which they can be used. Mostly, this behavioral program is derived from the commissioner’s framework, as was the case with the mailbox that mirrored the institutional demands of the Federal Mail – not the communicative effects of its agent, the mailman. But design has the potential to change the behavior of users beyond the standard frameworks. This is especially so with current online media, which have provoked sometimes quite radical changes in how people communicate, work and live – in short, how they behave socially. As media designer Willem Veldhoven stated in 2000 at a conference on ‘monomedia:’ “Whenever we design a website for the city we're living in, we redesign our community and our politics. Each e-commerce site is a redesign of trade. Each intranet we roll out is a redesign of labor."2

Which brings me to a heated debate around today’s new so-called social media. To summarize, there are those who see them as böse, malign media because, just as the German mailbox did, they replace real-life, face-to-face contact with a mechanical interface that keeps people at a distance from each other. Advocates, on the other hand, say social media bring people together and enhance social interaction on a scale never seen before. Now let’s have an ‘institutional look’ at the debate. The institutional framework we call social interaction, or social communication, has for millennia been firmly grounded in the idea of action inter (between) physically present persons. They would shake hands, talk and gesture and look each other in the face, they would see, hear, touch, smell each other and their idea of having met someone, of appreciating the other’s personality, would be assessed based on the combination of these impressions. Interaction meant presence. From this perspective – which is still deeply engrained in our social cultures, in our psychology and in our behavior – interaction through machines is seen as, well, mechanical. Basically, it’s considered as inhuman as machines are.

So the question with social media is whether we see them as mechanical prostheses for a lack of physical contact, or even as malign instruments of alienation, or consider them as a new way of “understanding the world and acting in it”, as Hardt and Negri suggested.3 When one takes an age-old institution as point of departure for the design of new tools and media, assuming that the institution as we know it may not be affected, one is bound to come up with malign objects. Burckhardt’s böse mailbox was malign because it was designed with a narrow and static institutional context in mind, the bureaucratic organization that wanted to maximize payload delivery per mailman per mile covered, i.e. minimize mailman-miles. It was designed thinking about objects transported, instead of service delivered. Following Burckhardt’s argument, what the German Federal Mail should have done instead is design a service that would facilitate delivery of mail and local gossip through the same interface, while still minimizing mailman-miles. They should have designed Facebook.

The design of Facebook is a perfect example of sozio-design in Burckhardt’s terms: a design that adapts an object (the Facebook platform) to changing behavior, and vice-versa, a design that changes behavior by adapting to shifts in social interactions. Social design is currently at the heart of almost every design commission. Brand experience has become the central focus of product development, and the best way to embed brands into the social fabric of today’s mediated society is by presenting them as persons in a social network. Nike has a few dozen Facebook pages with millions of ‘friends.’ These millions are not – it needs to be stressed in this context – people who have been coerced into receiving Nike’s messages, as would be the case with traditional advertising, nor web statistics of page views, but individuals who have actively published that they ‘like’ the brand. People who are talking back through their mailboxes. With more than half a billion virtual addresses, from corporate headquarters to individual homes, Facebook has become a virtual mirror of the developed world at large. And, together with a host of other social media, it is becoming more and more embedded in the real world, to the point where the distinction between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ is fast becoming obsolete.

A good real-world example of how this integration of worlds functions socially is the recent experience of the Queensland Police Service (QPS) and its constituency, the four and a half million citizens of the Australian State. Queensland was hit by serious flooding during late December 2010 and early January 2011 and a large area was declared disaster zone. Two of the main concerns for authorities in such cases are to get trustworthy information out as directly as possible, and to be seen as active and transparent communicators. The QPS in Brisbane met this challenge by cleverly combining two wide-spread social media, Twitter and Facebook. Tweets from “@QPSmedia” provided a minute-to-minute update on the situation and were soon picked up by a growing crowd of followers who spread the news further. @QPSmedia tweets reached 35 million impressions (the number of times they were seen by Twitter users) by February, and all of them linked back to QPS’s Facebook page, which now has over 170,000 followers. QPS’s Twitter following grew explosively from 2000 around Christmas 2010 to around 12,000 early February 2011. Analyzing QPS related Twitter traffic, Australian social media strategist Michael Green found that the vast majority consisted of re-tweets. This means that the Queensland police have found a hugely effective way to reach the population they serve, and that the population obviously trusts their messages and engages with them.4 Through their re-tweets, the 12,000 followers of @QPSmedia effectively became volunteer information agents, helping the police to disseminate news, warnings, emergency information and links to where help is needed or can be found. QPS’s ‘Cyclone info’ Facebook page collects a wealth of links to meteorological information, inundation and evacuation maps, and information on road conditions, disaster relief and news sources. Their wall and photo albums also carry lighter stuff; anecdotes of saved pets, hilarious little stories and images collected by local police officers touring the state, and commentaries of citizens talking back, adding to the information and solving problems locally. The page is a perfect illustration of how new social media revive or scale up old social interactions, for in the virtual world of Facebook and Twitter the relationship between QPS and the four and a half million citizens of Queensland looks strikingly like the way a small town sheriff would interact with the local folks in the real world: informally, congenially and certain that the news he tells the people he meets while strolling down Main Street will spread like wildfire throughout the town.

In this case, the linkage between online media and real-world problems can be considered ‘benign.’ In the traditional media of public information in such situations – radio and TV broadcasts, printed bulletins, press conferences – the authorities are unilaterally addressing the population. What is interesting about the interaction in the example above is that the combination of tweets and Facebook messages is fundamentally multilateral. The success of the mediation hinges on the active participation of the recipients of the information, who in the process change into collaborative dispatchers. Of course, this only works if authorities and citizens share the same interest. In recent public uprisings in the Middle East and Northern Africa this was obviously not the case, and a rather different dynamics characterized the proceedings there. In Iran, Tunisia, Egypt and other countries following suit, social media were and are used to disseminate information amongst protesters, and to a dramatically growing mass of sympathizers. And also in these cases, it was shown that the new social media can greatly enhance the process towards reaching a critical mass for such protests to become really effective – or dangerous for the powers that be. These powers, on the other hand, use the same media to monitor the opposition and counter their movements or try and prevent access to their source of communication altogether. The nervousness with which unpopular regimes curtail internet access of their subjects in times of crisis betrays a lack of confidence that even a massive advantage in means of force does not appear to alleviate.

This anxiety may well be justified, for networks, and by extension social media, are as media theorist Geert Lovink states, by their very structure undermining authority and hierarchical decision-making; “they deconstruct power and representation.”5 This makes them very well-suited for open-ended social processes based on a shared objective – of which the QPS story is an example –, but not for reaching unilaterally directed end products. In other words, social media are not very good tools for design, at least when we understand design in the traditional, modernist, teleological sense. The kind of design that translates problems into discrete objects, and understands objects as realized solutions – Burckhardt's mailbox is a typical example. In traditional design methodology, ‘control’ is a central concept. In order to realize his vision, the designer needs to control the resources and processes that lead to the final product. Control relies on knowledge of the processes involved and power over their proceedings. Now in networks, control – if any – lies in the hands of those who designed the infrastructure and those who administer it. Those who use it only control their own contribution. From the user’s point of view, there is no control over whatever may result from the social interactions they are taking part in on such platforms. We can see how the making of the infrastructures, their software architecture, their interaction design, their user interfaces, their communication protocols can be called design in the conventional sense, but can such platforms become themselves tools for design?

Perhaps, instead of trying to fit the new social media into a traditional notion of what design is about, we should rethink the notion of design itself. How can design be a collaborative, vagarious, open-ended process and still lead to viable solutions to real problems? Instead of the old key concept of control, the idea of direction surfaces. Direction as in directing a theatre play or a movie. Instead of looking at social media as potential tools for design as a discipline, we should look at them as potential stages for design as activity – as performance. A designer/artist who has worked extensively with this notion is Luna Maurer, with her colleagues of Conditional Design. Maurer sees her core design activity as setting rules that others can work with, as staging a play that others perform. No-one actually controls the outcome of these rules; no-one – including the designer of the rules – can say “I designed this piece.” But everyone who participated can proudly state they co-produced the effect. Design as an open-ended process is by now a well established practice in open-source environments, where networks of collaborators work on products that have a general direction, but no fixed outcome. Mostly, such collaborative endeavors occur in software development, or in more or less experimental contexts such as Luna Maurer’s work. But we can see in these experiments and productions the outlines of what collaborative design could be or become in a broader field. Consider the example of the Queensland Police Service as the design of an impromptu collaborative information network, and we see the roles of directors, performers and participating audience on a shared stage, working together, not towards a product but from a common interest. The process is the product – and it solves real needs.

To paraphrase art historian Giulio Carlo Argan,6 the idea of design does not reside in individual objects anymore, but in the organization of the social environment. More and more it becomes clear how such statements, which sounded rather vague and sweeping in the early 1980s, prefigured today’s practices of design and communication culture. Just as unilateral politics appear to be obsolete, unilateral design has become counter-productive, or malign. Now that online media and social platforms have become, in the terms with which Marshall McLuhan described the new electronic media in the early 1960s, extensions, not of the brain but of society at large, we need to assess their role in collaborative processes, and in design. A primary understanding should be that the ‘social’ in ‘social media’ is performative, and the staging of such media as platforms for design should facilitate participants to act their part in a way that is rewarding for each of them individually. The interaction between participants needs direction, but also freedom of interpretation. In other words, as Maurer stresses, there needs to be a fine balance between the limitations that focus the project and the room for improvisation that keeps the outcome open and the participants happy. For collaborative does not mean collective. As several researchers have shown, online social networks are fundamentally voluntary, they are ‘society light.’7 This means, as Lovink has argued, that an essential aspect of such networks is that people can opt-out when they loose interest or feel undervalued, which is much harder to do in traditional social institutions such as work. Designing with social networks entails, to recall Willem Veldhoven, the redesign of design as work. And, come to think of it, if the result of such collaborative voluntary design efforts is not a product but a process, it also calls for a redesign of what a (marketable) product is or can be. The good thing is, it can be anything. The design challenge, then, is in which direction you want ‘anything’ to go, and within which social framework you want it to function?



1 Helmuth Gsöllpointner (ed): Design ist unsichtbar. Löcker, Vienna 1981

2 Max Bruinsma, Chris Keulemans: The new Culture? Groene Amsterdammer, August 2000.

3 Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri: Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York 2004

4 On the notion of trust in online media, see: Caroline Nevejan, Presence and the Design of Trust. PhD. Dissertation, University of Amsterdam, 2007.

5 Geert Lovink: The Principle of Notworking, Concepts in Critical Internet Culture, Amsterdam 2004, p.8

6 Giulio Carlo Argan on “every-day aesthetics”, in: Helmuth Gsöllpointner (ed): Design ist unsichtbar. Löcker, Vienna 1981, p.193

7 Duyvendak, J. W. en M. Hurenkamp (red.) Kiezen voor de kudde. Van Gennep: Amsterdam 2004. See also: Lovink, 2004

Unpublished text, originally written for Droog Design, February 2011


max bruinsma