Design for Social Norms or Social Change?

Social change or social norm?

Designing for how people live is part of good design practice, but what about designing for the way people could be? What does it mean to design for social norms and what role does design have in changing them?

Media scholar and youth researcher danah boyd recently wrote on the need for designers to consider social norms as part of their media creations. The post received a lot of attention in the mediasphere and came on the heels of another interesting post by Keith Sawyer on Chinese social norms and the Tiger Mom phenomenon (that I also wrote on a while back). Returning to boyd’s argument, she makes the case that designers don’t dictate the behaviour of people in the systems they create, the people tthemselves do:

Social norms aren’t designed into the system. They don’t emerge by telling people how they should behave. And they don’t necessarily follow market logic. Social norms emerge as people – dare we say “users” – work out how a technology makes sense and fits into their lives. Social norms take hold as people bring their own personal values and beliefs to a system and help frame how future users can understand the system. And just as “first impressions matter” for social interactions, I cannot underestimate the importance of early adopters. Early adopters configure the technology in critical ways and they play a central role in shaping the social norms that surround a particular system.

What boyd is arguing (using my words and concepts from complexity science) is that emergence and path dependency shape design’s manifestation in the social realm. In technology-oriented systems, the ‘early adopters’ are the ones who set the stage for how the next wave of users interact with the system and boyd points to examples from Friendster about how attempts to control its community helped drive people away from the site (ultimately leading to its demise).

People don’t like to be configured. They don’t like to be forcibly told how they should use a service. They don’t want to be told to behave like the designers intended them to be. Heavy-handed policies don’t make for good behavior; they make for pissed off users.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t design to encourage certain behaviors. Of course you should. The whole point of design is to help create an environment where people engage in the most fruitful and healthy way possible. But designing a system to encourage the growth of healthy social norms is fundamentally different than coming in and forcefully telling people how they must behave. No one likes being spanked, especially not a crowd of opinionated adults.

The focus here is more on social media and online spaces, but the argument could be made for the same thing in social design. But unlike information technology, which favours a very particular group of people, social design has the potential to intentionally engage specific populations. Using boyd’s argument, one might assert that much of the technology we use from Foursquare to Instagram to the iPhone itself is shaped by the under-40 set of educated, middle class, largely white male hipster knowledge workers as they are typically the earliest visible adopters for such technologies (even if that is changing) .

In this model those with the most power, privilege and social capital at the outset greatly determine what comes next. This might be OK for technology, but is highly problematic for social justice and social inequities. A health promoting social design has the potential to change this by seeding that early adoption cycle with different people with potentially different values to shape outcomes not defined by a narrow set of social groups.

Keith Sawyer’s article points to the social norming around Chinese parenting (as defined through Amy Chua’s Tiger Mom) and how it clashes with a particular type of parenting model that dominates in the United States and our ideas of creativity. In describing his reaction to a recent review of Chua’s book and its contents, Sawyer points to the unease it creates in him when comparing norms and what it means for creativity and innovation:

I ought to be lined up with all of the horrified American parents who hate this book. But I just can’t side with them on this one. Creativity is hard work, and you don’t get creativity without paying your dues. No one magically learns how to play piano or violin (I’m reminded of the old joke: “Do you play the violin?” “I don’t know, I haven’t tried it yet.”) And as Amy Chua points out, there’s nothing like the joy that comes from being able to do something well, knowing that you earned it with hours, months, and years of hard work. As a child, I took piano lessons for eight years, and now thirty years later it’s a major source of joy in my life.

Chua’s parenting is an issue because it doesn’t fit with the dominant social norms, just as the self-esteem-at-all-cost approach that Sawyer rightly exposes as problematic in its own right would be in China.

These are designed systems. Just as we create path dependencies for one set of values, so too can we do the same for others and with other people. The focus on the outcomes of systems rather than their design is problematic if we want change. Starting with design and values at the outset, being conscious of who we invite in and how we engage them and by remaining contemplative about how these systems unfold and the emergent patterns that shape them, designers of all stripes may be better positioned to create social change rather than just for social norms.

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