We live in a time when we do a much of our work with others in an online environment, which is why I’ve argued recently that we need our software to get much more emotionally intelligent.
Recognizing Social Context
The first step to doing that is something so natural, so baked into our social awareness, we don’t even think about it when we do it in the offline world.
- You’re at work and on a deadline. A colleague stops by ask if you’re up for grabbing a beer after work. “No thanks” you say, “I’m on deadline and working late.” Your colleague understands because she’s been there before. Your social context is clear: do not disturb – nothing personal – I’m just on-task right now.
- You’re at a conference for work, but it’s also an opportunity to build friendships and your network. At lunch, you come across a table in deep discussion; you know some of the people, but not all. Is it ok to pull up a chair? It depends. It’s ok if it’s purely a social gathering, but not ok if they’re in the midst of discussing some work project that doesn’t involve you. So you need to clarify the context: “are you all in the midst of some work here, or do you mind if I join you?“
When we’re online, we’re working without most of the cues and social context that help us navigate social situations in the real world. In other words, when we’re online, we have weaker social context recognition – and our difficulty in correctly interpreting whether someone else is in “task mode” or “relationship mode” is a big part of that.
Healing Software’s Split Personality
Our software currently suffers from a schism between task-oriented productivity tools designed for professional use (think Microsoft Office and Google Docs), and relationship-oriented, social networking services, designed for personal use (think Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr). The problem is – lots of people use Microsoft Office for personal tasks and lots of people use Twitter and Facebook for professional networking.
That’s because useful tools are useful tools. We need to get tasks done in both our personal and our professional lives, just as we need to build relationships in both our personal and professional lives.
I’m not arguing against software that’s explicitly designed for either professional or personal use, but I do believe that our software needs to get much more seamless in bridging the relationship-oriented and task-oriented modes of our “doing” and our “being.”
Mobile: Where Our Offline and Online Social Contexts Merge
Thanks to “geo-tagging” and “geo-fencing” – there will soon be a day when the majority of our online social interactions will occur through some sort of mobile device. Once Facebook, Google and Twitter fully tap the potential of these mobile computing platforms, we will face a much more intensely social world than we could even imagine today.
You will have the choice, of course, of just how public or just how private you want to be, but very soon the following scenarios will be very common, and very easy through your phone:
- You have a two-hour layover in the Chicago airport and the minute you land, you see that two of your friends are there too. With just a couple clicks you coordinate plans to grab an over-priced beer at the bar twenty feet from you.
- You’re young and single and hanging out at a downtown coffee shop. Out of the blue, someone you don’t know, but find quite attractive, asks if they can join you because you each match each other’s criteria in your online dating profile. It’s a nice conversation, which leads to an equally nice first date.
- You’re at a party, and across the room you spot a guy who helped you out on a project a few years back, but you just can’t remember his name. Just one click and his face and name pop up, along with all the stuff you worked on together. No more of that awkward forgetting people’s names.
In that kind of world, a world where the online and real world are deeply integrated, we will need our tools to be much smarter about knowing when it’s ok – and not ok – to interrupt someone. Sometimes, when I’m shopping at the store, and I’m really on task, and just want to buy my stuff and get home. Other times, I’m in less of a hurry, and way more open to running into people and talking for a bit. Again, one of the biggest challenges here is recognizing our social context – are we open to being social, or are we trying to stay on task?
An Idea for Filtering Social Context…
So let’s imagine your phone worked a little differently than it does today. Picture a simple slider like the one to the left that allowed you to filter the information you see on your mobile device, based on how social you want it to be. We’re talking about interacting with this information via an Android phone, iPhone, or Windows Phone, so you’ll be doing this filtering with just a simple sliding gesture of your finger on the left-side of the screen.
- Slide the control up to the ‘globe’ and you get global search results, which is to say, you see everyone’s input into filtering the information you see. This, of course, is the way that search works today when you realize that the way Google and other search engines rank search results using PageRank algorithms designed to tap “the collective intelligence of the web.” Up to now, most of that intelligence was based on links between sites, but as Google, Bing and other search engines more deeply integrate our sharing, liking and other behavior on social networks, we simply add another layer to our social filtering.
- Slide the control down to the middle, and you get social search results, which is to say, the information you see is filtered by just the people you know. Filtering search results in this way is, of course, precisely what Google is now doing with its Search, plus Your World feature, which promotes certain content in your search results based on whether people in your social network have shared, liked or 1+‘ed it.
- Slide the control down to the bottom, and you get personal search results, which is to say, you just see the information that you’ve shared, liked, starred, or bookmarked. This would likely replace some of the way we use bookmarks today and make shared bookmarking websites like Delicious and Diigo increasingly obsolete. If you doubt what I’m saying here, take a look at what Google is doing with search on Google+ (see image on the right).
This is where search is going, folks. Three tiers of search: global, social and personal. And what gets really interesting is when you start thinking of this less like three distinct modes and more like a spectrum. In between personal and social search is the overlap of content that you and your friends have shared. In between social and global are ever radiating, concentric circles of friends-of-friends, and friends-of-friends-of-friends. With a sufficiently fast data connection (and some good engineering from Google and other search providers), the results should change fairly instantaneously, giving you a nice intuitive sense for how to manage your filtering.
…And for Signaling Social Context
When we’re doing this kind of information search through a mobile device, we’re also frequently out in public. One option for the slider I’m describing would be to enable it to also serve as way of broadcasting your social context to others so they can be more socially intelligent in how they choose to connect with you. When your slider is set to the social mode in the middle, they can feel free to stop by and say “hi.” When the slider is at the bottom or top, you’re wearing the online equivalent of a “do not disturb” sign. You could argue too, that some people might choose to use the “global” mode to open them up for social interactions with people they don’t know, but there are clearly some security issues associated with that.
A Key Part of “Contextual Computing”
What I’m describing here is one aspect of “contextual computing” – and it is the future of our mobile devices. In this case, we’re just talking about our social context.
The prospects for getting social context right are quite exciting. Building better social context into our software could really help connect people, real people, people who may be sitting by themselves in a cafe or park today, longing for connection in the sometimes deafening silence that surrounds us in moder life. Tools that helped them more easily reach out to others who are also looking for connection could play a very important role in restoring some of our depleted social capital. It may even help us start bowling together again…
Getting all this right is tricky work though. We’ll undoubtedly make quite a few mistakes along the way; some mildly irritating, some downright awkward, and some downright dangerous. Those are the serious stakes we face when the virtual world collides with the real world and that’s why we will need to bring in some new areas of expertise into our software development processes.
In my last post, I made the case for adding applied anthropologists to the software development process, and I’ll close here by going one further and including behavioral psychologists in the mix. These are the people who live and breath issues like introversion, extroversion, attachment, social anxiety and the wide range of other issues that affect the ways in which we connect with others.
These are the new layers that we are now asking our software to understand as part of our shift to contextual computing. To get this emotional intelligence layer of our software right, we now need to tap the people who truly understand it.
Note: I’ve done some overall edits and substantially changed the Filtering and Signaling Social Context sections above on January 18, 2012. For full transparency, here was the original text.