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This month's Frame: Building for successors and predecessors
A framework for putting the temporal dimension at the heart of how we conceive and curate platforms and communities.
“Please Leave The Toilet as You Would Expect To Find It”. Injunctions like this urge us to treat other people, or property or spaces that have no singular owner, as we ourselves would like to be treated. They also serve as a reminder that the world is inhabited largely by people we will never encounter or don’t know.
That is not self-evidently true of all social worlds. Small scale societies are ones in which people know each other well. They are face-to-face communities in which people share the same lifeworld. Move up in scale and society looks different: we are surrounded by people we don’t know and the world, and its meanings, are not all of our own making. Humans, Clifford Geertz suggested, are like spiders suspended in webs of meaning of their own creation, but these webs are the work of many other spiders.
Digital products and platforms seek to operate at scale. The “web” of their infrastructure is designed to support many more than the Dunbar number of 150 implied in the trope of a small-scale society. Such platforms provide surfaces on which many people we will never know are making decisions and taking actions which will shape our experience. Our actions, likewise, will impact the experience of others. That scale has design implications, especially where a “social graph” is central to their design.
Typically, people working on digital platforms obsess over the spatial dimension of relationships—about bringing people together in conditions of co-presence. But what about considering the temporal dimensions of people’s relationship, the way time past, and time future, has an indirect but still profound impact on how people engage and interact on platforms?
This temporal dimension is less often considered in how we conceptualise and design platforms. To ignore it is to neglect a critical dimension of human experience, for time is at the heart of relationships.
The work of Alfred Shütz (1899–1959), an Austrian philosopher and social phenomenologist can help put the temporal dimension back into how we think about relationships.
Schütz began with a theory of the “lifeworld” which proposed that social experience is separated between the social reality that has been directly experienced, and social reality that is on the horizon of direct experience. The former is the world defined through our perceptions and actions. This is an environment of consociates, who "shares with me a community of space and a community of time”.
There are also, Schütz argued, contemporaries: people of whose lives we are aware, about whom we make assumptions, but who we (may) never meet.
But there are other types of individuals whose actions shape our experience, and whose experiences our actions shape: predecessors and successors. Both are separated from our lifeworld by time.
Predecessors are people of whom we are aware and whose actions influence our experiences. In a society, small or large scale, these are people who have gone before us and whose lives, works and actions shape the social reality we experience. We may venerate the noteworthy amongst them but in large part they are as anonymous as they are influential in their own small way. Everybody leaves their own (small) dent on the universe.
Successors are those of whom we can have no experience since they lie in the future. However, we can orient our actions towards them, if we wish. Their interests are harder to hold close to our everyday actions—but a social world or system can be designed to align our actions with their future lives and experiences.
Using the framework
To build well-functioning communities or social environments we need to think more about designing for predecessors and successors. This can prevent us from creating social environments optimised only for the present, or for the people who know each other well. To design for predecessors and successors is to create a loop between the present and the future, and future pasts firmly in mind. To adopt Roman Krznaric’s language this is about thinking about platforms in terms of their ability to create “good ancestors”.
Consider Twitter: even before its takeover and subsequent dereliction, it was a famously hard platform for newcomers to grapple with. It worked well for consociate-like relationships, and its noise, vitriol and toxicity is a function of it being designed more as a space for contemporaries to gather. It may be the best online town square we have, but it is not one that often supports the sort of interactions one might want to experience. A focus on predecessors and successors—putting the temporal dimension of our relationships at the heart of its design—might be one way to make it a more civil space. How might platforms encourage current users to consider their impact on future users?
Thinking in terms of temporal dimensions has applicability across any number of platforms types and experience. Thinking more about successors in the context of knowledge sharing platforms within businesses might positively influence how easy documents and resources are to discover. Design principles that create good predecessors on platforms—users whose past actions and experience positively enhance the experience of people today—would be an antidote to the “optimise for now” mindset that seems all too prevalent in the world of product design. And Facebook’s Memorial’s team, who design the experience around dead users’ profiles, is a very literal example of taking successors seriously.
In sum, there’s a moral and ethical dimension to thinking about our successors, that will make good predecessors of users in the present.
“Please Leave The Digital Platform As You Would Expect To Find It.”
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Stripe Partners' Associate Director Erin Hackett will be joining an expert panel tomorrow for Xeno Co-lab's event exploring the cultural insights, behaviours and needs around designing for digital privacy in India. Find out more and register interest here.
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