30-05-2011 mag 4 / popular /

article/

The participatory interface

Abstract: 

In this article I will explore the role of the interface as an artifact and how this invites users to (take) certain actions of participation within an online community. As a case I will use the discussion-board of the social network site Last.fm. On this board there’s a lot of room for users of the site to share their ideas for the website on different levels. By using this community forum and it’s different functions, members of the site can help constructing the space of the network.

 Introduction: what are online communities? 

A lot has changed in the online world since the so-called Web 2.0 is gradually replacing its predecessor Web 1.0. Especially in online communities and networks this more interactive form of the Internet offers the regular user more possibilities. Other sites still are classifiable as Web 1.0 or as the ‘old web’ (Cormode & Krishnamurthy 2008, 1).

First it is important to understand the term online community, a space within the World Wide Web in which people can interact with each other. An early definition is given in Howard Rheingold’s The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier: “Virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace” (Rheingold 1993, 6). In this sense Rheingold makes the comparison between the virtual and online community, which appears  to  be  similar  to  real  life:  “People  in  virtual  communities  do  just  about everything people do in real life, but we leave our bodies behind” (idem, 5). In certain areas there are striking differences though. Online communities have a different form of “interaction, communication and coordination […] than when people meet face-to-face” (Kollock and Smith 1999, 3). This leads to the idea that online networks and communities are used to connect people with each other (idem, 3) who might never actually meet in real life (Rheingold 1993, 4). The role of the body isn’t big anymore when communicating in an online community, but as a user you are in a way a citizen, a habitant (idem, 11). Just like a regular citizen this means there are usually certain norms and rules to obey and behavioural expectations to meet (Sproull and Kiesler 1991, 50-51).

Since  the  emerge  of  online  communities  (like  Arpanet  in  the  seventies),  people unexpectedly started to use these networks to build up social relations “across barriers of land and time” (Rheingold 1993, 8), so the idea of online communities goes back to the earlier stages of what would later become the Internet.

Differences between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 

Gradually, Web 2.0 is replacing Web 1.0 as the standard on the Internet. In 2008, Graham Cormode and Balachander Krishnamurthy wrote the essay “Key Differences between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0”, which summarizes the most important differences between these terms. As the essential difference, Cormode and Krishnamurthy state that the content in Web 1.0 was created by a few, and that most members or users were passive consumers of the content given by the few. In contrast to this, all participants are able to create content in Web 2.0 (Cormode and Krishnamurthy 2008, 2).

Rheingold  mentioned  in  his  The  Virtual  Community  a  couple  of  examples  of communities in Web 1.0. He discusses WELL (Whole Earth Lectronic Link), an early online community which he joined back in 1985: it’s “a computer conferencing system that enables people around the world to carry on public conversations and exchange private  electronic  mail  (e-mail)”  (Rheingold  1993,  3).  In  this  community  online participation  already  played  a  big  role,  however,  real-life  meetings  were  also  an important part of the community. An example of a different kind of community is the case of the Internet presence of the band New Model Army. They were known for their early online interaction with fans. Their site didn’t only release monthly newsletters, but also contained the Noticeboard, a discussion board used by fans and a few of the members through which they can communicate (O’Reilly & Doherty 2006, 139). The idea of the forum or discussion board already existed during Web 1.0, but appeared in a more one-dimensional way. Users were able to post only on certain existing pages, but usually weren´t necessarily able to help constructing the space.

The  possibility  for  everyone  with  access  to  the  Internet  to  construct  the  web  is something typical for Web 2.0. “The democratic nature of Web 2.0 is exemplified by creations of large number of niche groups (collections of friends) who can exchange content of any kind (text, audio, video) and tag, comment, and link to both intra-group and extra-group ‘pages’” (Cormode & Krishnamurthy 2008, 2). The role of creating, sharing and tagging (linking between items) is important, because networks can be created by cross-site linkage: constructed links between different items from different databases all over the web, creating a vast and complex network of terms and items (idem, 2). A good example of this is blogging, an online log which can be created by anyone with access to a computer with an Internet connection. Two popular examples are Blogger and Tumblr. On Tumblr, one blog itself can expand to an actual online community, in which various users participate, create and communicate (Cashmore 2009),  where  Blogger  usually  seems  to  be  used  in  a  more personal  way.  Another example of this is the support forum, like the forum of the online social music network Last.fm, which will be discussed later in this paper.

The interface as mediator 

The interface of the medium is important when discussing online participation. The interface  can  be  seen  as  the  bridge  between  a  human  and  a  technological  object (Scha fer 2011, 59). It is a mediator between the subject (in this case the Internet user) and the object (the computer, the Internet or the community) which helps two parties understand each other. Interfaces have developed and became easier to use which enables users to create their own software and websites (idem). On an online forum, the interface is the way it looks and how it has to be used.

The interface is a device crafted by humans, and thus can be seen as a cultural artifact with goals and values inserted by the creators, suiting the interface’s nature. The forum in general is also a quasi-object, a term used by Latour, Serres and other scholars. The term  quasi-object  is  something  that  “mediate[s]  and  transform[s]  personal  and collective identities and network relations. Quasi-objects bring together a network of institutions, which would otherwise not be linked, in a way that shapes (constructs) identity  and  carries  relationships  of  axes  of  [Foucault’s]  ‘power,  knowledge  [and] ethics’”  (Boje  2003,  3).  A  forum  brings  people  together  in  a  network  and  shapes relations through identities within this network.

The case of the Last.fm forum 

Last.fm  is  a social  network,  focussing  on  the  musical  preferences  of  the  members. When a user creates an account, the site provides software which is able to keep track of the played music on the computer. Through this way, the site is able to keep track of the listening habits of a user and is also able to show charts of top artists, top tracks and recently played tracks on the profile. The member’s identity is constructed by musical preferences, which sets Last.fm apart from other social networks like Facebook

The site has a tab called community, through which a user can get access to the Last.fm forum. There are different subforums, with the Web Site Support forum being the one with the highest amount of topics. The General Discussion has the highest amount of posts. The forum in general is basic and has a user friendly interface. In the Web Site Support forum, users can post their problems with or ideas for the site and share them with the staff and the rest of the active forum users.

The interface of the forum is a mediator in different ways. First off, it is able to connect the user (subject) with  the medium of the forum (object). The user sees a nicely designed forum, but behind this lots codes are cracking when an action has been taken. Secondly, it’s also able to connect the same user to other active users and the staff of the site to discuss various issues ranging from informal topics to problems with the usability of the website.

Participation 

Participatory culture 

Participation is an essential part of Web 2.0. Participatory culture is a term used by Mirko Tobias Schäfer in his Bastard Culture! How User Participation Transforms Cultural Production (2011, 167). By this he means the idea that there are new formations of cultural production. One of these new formations are the “intertwined dynamics of design  and  appropriation  in  the  cultural  industries  (idem)”.  The  role  of  users  and producers blur in different processes of production, modification and distribution of artifacts  (idem,  167),  meaning  that  the  distinction  between  producer  and  user  is decreasing. Among others, the user-friendly design or interface of the artifact is able to help the user to participate in a community. Participatory culture means more than just being able to say something: the user can actually become a part of the construction of a cultural space. Henry Jenkins adds to this that in a participatory culture, the bar to participate is low, there is support for new ideas and members actually believe they can  add  something.  The  possibility  to  social  bonding  between  members  is  also essential (2006, 7).

When a user finds a bug on Last.fm, he or she is able to inform the site administration about this on the forum by opening a topic about the problem. Other users can also share their experiences with this issue and ask a staff member to have a look at it. When the issue is important enough steps will be taken to solve the problem. The user helps with creating a user-friendly space. Usually when someone raises an issue, a staff member will respond to this in a professional manner, giving the users the idea that they are taken seriously. The atmosphere this creates stimulates the idea of being a part of a community, especially if the user makes use of the other possibilities of the forum, like joining more informal discussions about music or daily issues.

Invitation to participation

In the case of a forum, the user-friendly interface is responsible for the possibility of users to participate. The rise of accessible forms of web participation through online communities  like  discussion  boards have  stimulated  many  surfers  to  actually  start participating (Schäfer 2011, 10).  This leads to Latour’s notion of the invitation to actions, to participate like the door does in his “Where are the Missing Masses? Sociology of a Door’. In this paper, Latourargues that an artifact can invite a person to commit certain actions. As example he uses the door: different doors ask for different actions by the way they look and are constructed as an artifact (1992).  A forum is able to invite a user to commit certain actions as well. For the Last.fm user, it is just a few clicks away from their profile. The available buttons tell the user what to do: read in existing topics, post in them, create one yourself etc. One could also say the interface of the forum has agency. Both humans as non-humans have agency with their ability to act “and to do things” (Latour 2006, 154). Humans can commit actions through brain-activity, but non-humans are also able to perform or make humans act. In Reassembling the Social, Latour also mentions the hammer which is able to hit a nail through a human’s deed (idem, 71). In this way, a button on the Internet has agency as well. It’s there, and by a click of a human being it can start a series of events, opening a new webpage for example on which the user is able to operate. The user is invited to do so because the button is there. As mentioned in the introduction of this journal, this is a part of the Actor-Network Theory (ANT), also explored by Latour in Reassembling the Social. ANT is the idea that agency is assigned to both human as non-human actors. There exists a social relation between the two actors (idem). The social relations construct a network: they give the user the ability to act. But not only the relations between human and non-human matter, also the  social  relations  between  the  different  human  beings  active  in  the  network  or community. Like Boje states, the quasi-object links institutions that constructs identity and Foucauldian relations of power and knowledge (Boje 2003, 3).

Hierarchy 

In essence, a forum is hierarchical: the staff (administrators and moderators) have power. They can edit and change things about the forum. Regular members are usually only able to submit? posts. The Last.fm forum is not a regular discussion board but a support forum. Because the forum is linked to a website, it also covers the discussion about the functions of this site.  The staff has power over regular users on both the forum as the site, but the user’s influence increases. Democracy is  the key term here because users get a voice (Cormode and Krishnamurthy 2008, 2).

The authority, represented by the staff on a forum can be seen as a mediator between the site  (the space  of  the  community)  and  the members. They  are able  to  change matters, but users have the possibility to raise problems if they were not noticed by staff itself. At the same time this notion changes the role of the participant to an actor. Instead of being an active participator, the user gets the possibility to actually raise problems about the site, help to fix bugs for example or suggest new functions that could be implemented. For an online network like Last.fm it is important to have a community for the users and give them a voice. By giving their input they can help the site to remain fair and user-friendly.

If the user opts to participate actively (when something is important enough), they can basically become a co-creator of the website. Even if the suggestion is neglected (by whom?),  he  used  the  possibilities  to  give  himself  a  voice  and  to  raise  an  idea  or problem. The power remains with the staff, but at the same time it slightly shifts towards the regular users. Democracy and equality (amongst the actors involved?) are both increasing. At first, members get treated equally, but actions can influence this (making lots of mistakes, making ‘dumb’ suggestions etc.), but there is the possibility for a user to work his own way up into the hierarchy as respected user to both the staff as  other  users.  Like  Jenkins  mentioned,  the  idea  to  be  able  to  add  something is important in a participatory culture (2006, 7). This idea stimulates the user to actually participate in a community.

Reingold mentions that for many people it’s important to become an actual part of an online community, to belong. They can play in important role in one’s life: “Not only do I inhabit my virtual communities; to the degree that I carry around their conversations in my head and begin to mix it up with them in real life” (Rheingold 1993, 11). He talks about WELL in a passionate, involved way, it became an important part of his life. It intertwines with his offline life and he says he cares about the people he meets in this community. There is an emotional attachment (idem, 3). his sense of belonging was present in early Web 1.0 communities, because people felt attached to it and to the other users. In Web 2.0 this sense of belonging is still present, but also changed by the democratic idea of being able to add to a community

Conclusion 

The interface should be seen as the device that connects humans and technology, it enables humans to communicate with technology. It’s a versatile term which can also be applied to non-technological things and it can appear in many different ways. In the case of a forum it’s the general lay-out that covers a complex system of coding, making this system viewable and usable for a regular user. The interface of a forum like that on Last.fm can be seen as a cultural artifact, created by humans to help others. Like Latour argues by using the actor-network theory, artifacts have a certain agency: its functions invites the user to come to take certain actions. When somebody sees a door, one will open it in the way the door invites (them) to. When something’s bothering a user on the Last.fm, he is able to go to the support forum to start a new topic about the issue or to post in an existing topic about it. The only action the user has to take is to click a few buttons (actors) and type the message he wants to get across.

The interface gives the user the chance to raise his voice, which is stimulated by the democratic characteristics of Web 2.0. As being a part of a participatory culture the user, according to Jenkins, wishes to be able to add something within a community in which he feels connected and has social bonding with others (2006, 7). This idea of being part of a community can be important for a person as it gives him the idea of belonging. The member of the community can choose to become an active part of it, by proposing suggestions, ideas or mentioning bugs or problems with the site. By doing this,  the  member  can  become  a  co-creator  of  the  cultural  space  that  is  an  online community.

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