What kinds of communities can be formed around badly-designed virtual social spaces? This talk is about the myriad of ways in which people find ways to connect through the safety of bad design. However, in a broader sense, it's about critiquing the idea that there are universal truths about how virtual social spaces should be constructed. This talk is about designing for outsider culture and designing around prioritizing the needs of underrepresented groups in mainstream media.
Originally written for a talk at UCLA, for DMA 161 - Network Media, taught by Chris Cuellar
Edited in May 2020 to be more concise and targetted at a broader audience.
This talk is going to get a bit personal, so I want to start off talking a bit about who I am.
Who am I? In the broadest terms, I’m a designer—that’s actually my title at work—and I try not to limit myself too hard by that. I’ve designed for a wide range of mediums—print, mobile, web, and virtual reality. Regardless of what I make, there’s always some sort of social aspect.
I’ve helped design an AR app for kids that allows stories to come to life in their room as they read out loud. I’ve designed ways to view 360º videos in any VR device, many of which put you in the shoes of someone else’s life. I’ve helped design a ridiculous social music making experience where you play instruments powered by cartoon animals. I designed an exhibition space for people to get into a shared VR experience where they embodied badass space women. I designed a way for content creators to share their 360º videos with the wider world. In my personal work, I’ve explored how people relate to digital worlds.
Many people will wonder how I got to designing for VR—it’s a new field, and it’s also my first job out of college. How did I get interested in it? How did I learn skillsets that are useful in designing for it?
The best answer I can give is that I started designing things because I wanted to design social media profiles for my various online personas
These are definitely some embarrassing photos that I don’t usually show strangers, but I figured they would give a bit more context. I really credit a lot of who I am as a person and why I’m standing here today because of the social spaces I inhabited when I was growing up on the internet. You can see one of my first portfolio website designs (note the old version of Illustrator), a picture of my emo years, and some screenshots from when I video chatted with online friends of mine.
However, this talk isn’t just about designing for our own personal spaces (it’s not just about who you portray yourself to the world as), but more about the design of online social spaces and how they can affect our behavior. I know this class focuses a lot on technical skills, but it’s been very important to me to not only know technical skills but also to be able to critique the things that I’m helping to build so this talk isn’t just about designing for code or for the individual—it’s also about designing for social groups
Whether it’s the latest social media privacy scandal, the latest influencer drama, or the latest research study showing the negative aspects of being connected all the time, there are plenty of news articles about how the internet has ruined our lives.
My mom agrees with these sentiments—she blames a lot of our differences on my usage of the internet.
[In image, a book cover with the quote "I still blame the internet for driving the wedge deep between us"]
This is a direct quote from one of the emails she sent me
However, I want to talk about some of those ‘bad’ design decisions and how they can actually work to improve our lives, especially if you belong to a minority. How do those design decisions impact the way we interact with each other in positive ways? I’m going to take you through a few design decisions you can choose to make when designing for social spaces on the internet.
The first thing I’d like to talk about is anonymity. Anonymity is often seen as a big factor into why people behave awfully to others online—anonymity means a lack of repercussions so people are more likely to engage in behavior that would be socially unacceptable. However, the discourse is usually about trolling, bullying, or other negative behaviors. I’d like to flip the script a little bit and defend anonymity.
[from image: 50% of LGBT youth report having at least one close online friend compared to 19% of non-LGBT youth. Stats taken from GLSEN’s “Out Online: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth” First National Report to Look In-Depth at LGBT Youth Experience Online]
It’s a common experience for LGBT people who gained access to the internet to find solace in online communities and online friends. Anonymity allows LGBT youth to explore their identity safely, without fear of being outed in their physical lives.
Over half of LGBT youth used the internet to connect with other LGBT folk.
Over 1 in 10 LGBT youth disclosed their identity to someone online before anyone in person.
Over 1 in 4 say they’re more out online than in person.
Over half who are not out in person had used the internet with other LGBT people.
[source: GLSEN’s “Out Online: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth” First National Report to Look In-Depth at LGBT Youth Experience Online]
The internet has been such an important way for LGBT folks to find not only themselves but to create the safety net that helps them thrive, and anonymity plays a huge part in that.
On a more personal level, anonymity was the thing that really made a difference for me when I was growing up online. One thing about me that may not be obvious just from looking at me is that I’m a trans man. Anonymity allowed me to explore my personal identity in a way that was safer for me to do so—I could try on different names, different personalities, and different genders.
One of the first memories I have of introducing myself as male was when I played Runescape using a male avatar. I introduced myself on every platform from then on as Zach. And all of this was before I knew what being trans was—I just knew that presenting as male was more comfortable and I thought of myself as male in my own head ever since I could remember. The anonymity of the internet allowed me to express this about myself without the repercussions of saying it out loud to my parents. And this kind of experience isn’t just common, it’s growing as technology improves.
And you can see this playing out in the evolution of social networks, too. VRChat is an online social network that you can access in VR. Think of it as a chatroom, but with 3D avatars that people can embody.
Zambina, this trans woman, uses VRChat as a way to explore her identity and to express herself. The digital realm, where her family can’t see her, is a way for her to express her gender. In the same article, she mentions that she belongs to a family that wouldn’t accept her, including her brother who looks up to her. Those kinds of pressures are pretty much in line with my own experiences of growing up digitally.
[source: “How gender questioning and transgender gamers found a safe space in VR”]
It’s not even just trans people either. In VRChat, the most common avatars are actually anime girls. Michelle Cortese decided to ask men in VRChat why they wanted to have female avatars. While a lot of these answers are still pretty sexist, most of the responses had an underlying tone of understanding gender roles and wanting a safe space in which to subvert them. They want to feel attractive and wanted, they want to break free of the constraints of male gender expression that are placed on them in their ‘real life’ or physical identities. The anonymity of the digital space gives them that freedom. They can act it out, and then be forgotten if it doesn’t work out.
“As it turns out, these men — wanting to adorn themselves, yet held back by gender-normative sensations that there’s queerness in the decorative male and only women can be pretty — don female skins as a means to free themselves of the confines of their expected expression. They built their own safe spaces, bolstered by toxicity, to experiment with gender identity.”
[source: "Virtual_ Healing" by Michelle Cortese]
However, that brings us to the next thing I’d like to talk about—persistence. Namely, persistence of your data.
The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the recent California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) both include articles that give users the ability to force companies to delete all of their data. Generally, this is a good thing—who wants to eternally be remembered for that stupid thing they did when they were 12, possibly losing out on job or housing opportunities in the future?
[LGBT youth were five times as likely as non-LGBT youth to have searched for information online on sexuality or sexual attraction as non-LGBT youth (62% vs. 12%).
LGBT youth were also more likely to have searched for health and medical information compared to non-LGBT youth (81% vs. 46%).
source: GLSEN’s “Out Online: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth” First National Report to Look In-Depth at LGBT Youth Experience Online]
But what happens when your community isn’t main stream? These statistics show that LGBT youth are desperate to find out information about gender and sexuality. There are plenty of resources about the trans community nowadays, but my experience was more like this:
Not reddit or other social networks like that. Just this: chatrooms, forums, email lists, most of which are now lost because they weren’t archived. These are only some of the sites that I found that still exist—most do not. While some of the information wouldn’t be considered “correct” now, this was all information that really helped me explore my identity. With current paradigms of how content is surfaced on social media pages (think Facebook groups, subreddits, and even more things like Snapchat), things are designed to appear in feeds which are harder to reference.
Paul Soulellis is an artist and designer who curated this zine for the Internet Archive (most well-known for the Wayback Machine, but tries to serve as an archive of knowledge in the public domain). He collected rare, historical content from African American, Native American, and LGBT sources and digitized them for the first time so that they could be added to the Archive. One example is On A Grey Thread by Elsa Gidlow (1923), which was the first publicly lesbian volume of poetry published in North America.
He said this:
"We tend to think about archives as places of deep abundance. Rich sites that house a multitude of perspectives. This can certainly be true, but archives are also sites of erasure, allowing some voices to be amplified while others are minimized or excluded when they don’t fit into normative narratives."
It’s important that people can be forgotten, but on the flip side we have to remember who is most often memorialized. When creating communities online, how do we make sure that the most dominant voices are not the only ones archived and remembered? How do we make sure to leave behind a history that may be important for people later down the line who want to know where their culture comes from?
The thing that I’ve come to realize is that I’ve lost a lot of my own history to places that have been forgotten on the internet. The first pictures of my identity as Zach. The old designs that I made. Old drawings. And none of this stuff are things that you could dig up later, long forgotten—if you lose your log in, or the site loses funding and its domain, or you just forget you ever accessed a website, or it’s inherently ephemeral like chatrooms, those things are gone. I was lucky that I was friends with a moderator of a chatroom I talked in, because he decided to keep logs of every time he was in the chat in case there was a conflict. I documented those chat logs in a series of books that archived them in a physical format.
Reading back through the chat logs, I was reminded of a lot of things that I had forgotten about. I read through them right after I was formally diagnosed with depression and put on antidepressants—these chat logs helped remind me that while the diagnosis was new, the actual symptoms were not. Spelled out in black and white were all of my symptoms, all of my cries of help that no one I knew in person knew about until my official diagnosis. These chat logs that I accessed were important medical information that I would never have had access to if I had the opportunity to delete all my data, in the way I purged my old social media accounts when I came out as transgender.
That being said, I was pretty lucky that the person holding these logs was a friend and a chat moderator.
That brings us to the next thing I wanted to talk about—pre-emptive protection measures for users of a digital social space. This is something that many people believe is practically impossible to do on the internet—it’s extremely hard to automate content moderation.
Some of you might know of Club Penguin, an online game aimed at kids where you play as a penguin. Because it was geared towards kids, they implemented something called “Ultimate Safe Chat”, which was essentially a chat tree populated with pre-determined words and phrases, in an attempt to limit any speech that wasn’t PG-13. You could also chat with this safe mode off, but you were at risk of being banned if you said anything even remotely close to a swear word.
As you can imagine, users still found ways around these limitations. This is someone’s igloo—essentially their in-game house where they can rearrange furniture. Users also used Ultimate Safe Chat words in combinations that could be seen as somewhat sexual or vulgar.
[For more similar stories, check out the following blog post: The Untold History of Toontown’s SpeedChat (or BlockChattm from Disney finally arrives)]
The good news is that there are ways of designing spaces that don’t practically beg users to find ways of breaking the rules. One pre-emptive measure is to set expectations for the social space well beforehand.
Although not every Twitch streamer has it, it’s more and more common to see chat rules posted on their page because they’ve acknowledged that a bad chat can result in less viewers. As long as there is some control over the social group and bad actors are easy enough to catch, continuous and reliable moderating, along with group expectations are important to creating a community where people feel comfortable and safe participating.
You can see this reflected in VR games as well, with this being RecRoom’s code of conduct that appears in the entryway of the main social space. Users are essentially hit with the rules every time they enter the room.
However, it's pretty apparent that there's often a lack of consistency in how the rules are enforced, especially since it's much harder to moderate a VR session than it is a chat that often leaves visible evidence after the fact.
Bianca Ciotti has a great twitter thread with some simple best practices for how to make a safe and healthy social community. It’s way more in depth, but a simple summary is this:
[source: Bianca Coitti's Twitter]
In my personal experience, this is something that I wish I would have had more access to when I first started going into social spaces on the internet. I was fine when I was on explicitly child-friendly sites, such as Neopets, since they prioritized safety. However, this wasn’t always the case when I went onto IRC chatrooms with no real safety nets other than a handful of individuals who weren’t always online.
The thing that really helped me was that I was friends with the moderators who always kept an eye out for me—so much so that I’m still in a group chat with them to this day. They made the space more safe, set expectations for appropriate behavior, and enforced the rules consistently. It’s not enough to tell users to block and/or report bad actors—you need to design the space so that people are not encouraged to act badly.
At this point, I generally start to thing “why don’t we just take the people out? People make everything harder!”. And that’s true. But there’s something to said in support of user generation. By this, I don’t mean strictly about user-generated content, but rather in how content is designed to be presented.
Todays social networks are designed to disappear—the content is key. They all use similar design paradigms and while they may be used with a browser, they are often optimized for an app.
While this change does make some experiences better (for example, autoplaying music on personal profile pages is no longer a common part of the internet), I do think some things have been lost. Users have much less control over how their information is displayed, and their control is usually limited to privacy settings and restrictions as opposed to self expression.
The turning point for me in how the web changed was when people started to get onto Facebook, moving away from MySpace.
I’m not sure how many people here were old enough to really get into MySpace but every user had the opportunity to completely customize their profile. There were default sections, but you could also hide everything and make a completely different layout if you wanted to, pulling in your information into divs that you defined, functioning very similarly to a CMS of today.
On a more personal level, MySpace was the place where I really started to experiment with HTML and CSS. These aren’t MySpace layouts but I’ve completely lost all of the ones I made before. It’s also impossible to really replicate it without a lot of effort, because even if I had the code I used before, it no longer works on the current iteration of MySpace.
The messy, “poorly-designed” web was a way for people to express themselves, but also to learn more about the tools that they were using. It empowered people to take control over the platform in the pursuit of identity. Websites that curated layouts for MySpace, Livejournal, and other similar platforms popped up and grew communities around learning how to code to make profiles. It’s no surprise that movements focused around self expression and being different, like the emo subculture, were popular at this time.
In many ways, Tumblr is the closest popular social media platform to this that still exists today. But even that has declined in popularity, losing out to platforms like Instagram. It tends to be niche, rather than mainstream.
You see this difference in the evolution of VR social networks too—how much freedom does the design of the social space give to the users to determine how their space looks like? VRChat enables users to embody any kind of avatar that they can figure out how to model and rig, which is a contrast to most other platforms that offer varying degrees of customizability within pretty strict constraints of premade avatars.
While avatars are usually construed as something of our own choosing - a one-way process - the fact is that our avatars come to change how we behave.
- The Proteus Effect: The Effect of Transformed Self-Representation on Behavior - Yee, N. & Bailenson, J.N. (2007)
It’s even more important in the case of VR where you embody an avatar. Yee and Bailenson found that users’ behavior changed according to traits associated with their avatar. In this study in particular, they showed that changes in height affected confidence levels. In following studies, Yee showed that in playing multiplayer games, men who used female avatars were more likely to play support roles.
We saw the importance of identity expression when I talked about anonymity, but this is on a more fundamental level of behavior—how we treat each other in common situations, regardless of our own identity. If how we are presented in the digital space affects how we behave in our interactions with other people, how much more important is it that we have control over how we appear?
The last thing I’d like to talk about is fandom. Sacha Judd does more in depth talks and write ups about this subject and I’d recommend checking those talks out. This section admittedly pulls heavily from her work, but I've tried to insert my own personal experiences as well.
[reference: How the Tech Sector Could Move in One Direction by Sacha Judd]
For people outside of fandom, it seems like a thing that only weird people are into, but I’d like to have the opportunity to change that perception.
[Slide shows a Vox article titled "Larry Stylinson, the One Direction conspiracy theory that rules the internet, explaned"]
The first thing I’d like to point out is that it’s more acceptable to be part of some fandoms than others, and often it’s because certain fandoms disregarded because they are female-coded.
For instance, being a passionate fan of sports isn't something that most people would think twice about, regardless of your gender. It might be a bit more weird if you knew all the stats of every single player, but you're not likely to be laughed out of a casual viewing party. However, if someone came up to you at work and said they were into the latest boyband, such as One Direction, and knew their heights and birthdays, would that be taken any differently?
This is personally important to me because I credit fandom with getting me more into art and design. I joined communities and made online friends through shared interests—people love to make things about things they’re passionate about. It makes it easier to get recognition for work and to create social bonds when there’s something connecting you to people on a personal level. People also generally tend to be nicer when you make things about subjects that they’re passionate about.
Fandom was a way for me to improve my art while meeting people who liked the same things that I did—something that I didn’t really find in my day-to-day life at school.
While fans are often the brunt of jokes online, they care deeply for each other and their work. Even if the platform is redesigned and the things that they love are gone, they find ways to adapt.
When fans got frustrated because websites kept censoring their fan fiction, they gathered and decided to create their own website to host their fanfiction.
Archive of Our Own was entirely built and designed by volunteers from fandom. Many of those volunteers learned the skills needed for the project simply by working on it. While the broader tech industry struggles with recruiting a diverse workforce, this open source project, when it launched its open beta, had over 20 contributors, all of whom were female.
When Maciej Cegłowski, the creator of Pinboard, tweeted out this request, he didn’t expect to receive a 52-page tech spec document laying out features voted on by fans creating the document. In some cases, fans provided him with code to make it do what they wanted it to. Certain fans were given specific jobs, like creating a contents list or simply indenting things correctly. They provided him with actionable feature requests—all on a voluntary basis because they were passionate about it.
The reason they were so passionate? A bookmarking site that they had been using had a redesign, which ended up removing key features that they relied on to keep track of their fanfiction. They saw his request as support for their passion, so used their passion to support him.
[reference: Fan is A Tool-Using Animal by Maciej Cegłowski]
And for all that this talk is about designing social spaces that empower counter culture users, it’s important to note that fandom isn’t necessarily in the minority—it’s just not something people always talk about overtly outside of their digital lives. Just remember that the 5th most retweeted tweet is a One Direction post that hints at a relationship between two of the members. It’s only beaten out by someone giving away free money, someone trying to get free lifetime chicken nuggets from Wendy’s, and Ellen DeGeneres tweeting on stage from the Oscars (a post that's arguably also fandom-related).
[image in slide is of a tweet from Louis Tomlinson, a member of One Direction, mentioning Harry Styles, another member. It reads "Always in my heart @Harry_Styles. Yours sincerely, Louis"]
We've covered a lot of different ways social spaces can be designed to impact the communities that they serve. I just want to reiterate some key points.
Radical designs for social spaces should always consider outsider culture
If you want to make a space that is inclusive and safe, you should always consider the people who are not often included in social spaces. What are their needs? Are any decisions you’re making going to negatively impact them and the way that they use your platform or social space?
When you make decisions based around the needs of the majority, you also take away choices for the minority
Related to that, if you only consider the needs of the majority, you are actively choosing to take away choices for the minority. They aren’t exclusively opposites, but more often than not when you limit the space to make the majority of people comfortable, you always run the risk of gating off functionality from people who rely on it. You have to make the decision as to whether or not it’s worth the trade off—do you care about the minority’s flexibility enough stop gating that feature? It’s a product question.
Designing a social space is all about setting expectations and boundaries—that doesn’t change just because it’s online
Take cues from how we organize social spaces in our day-to-day life. What are the spaces that make you feel most comfortable? How can you make those same spaces more comfortable for other people?
Even if not done right, people are resilient and find ways to make their own communities
We should always aim to make communities more safe for the participants, but it’s important to note that even when things were confusing for people and weren’t friendly to them, they found ways of organizing in spite of it. People want to connect and they'll find ways of communicating to others that are like them.
And if everything works out, you get stories like this. My husband and I met in a gay IRC chatroom about 10 years ago. When I moved to college in 2013, we decided to meet up and started dating in early 2014. We’ve been together for 6 years and we've married for nearly 3.
Designed by me. Made using Semplice and custom code by me. Font used is Aileron by dot colon. Elen síla lúmenn’ omentielvo.