Escaping from freedom: the problem of designing for user agency

Fromm, "Escape from Freedom," 1941

Fromm, “Escape from Freedom,” 1941. on the appeal of totalitarianism.

The Guardian had an excellent story recently, “Conscious computing: how to take control of your life online” by Oliver Burkeman. It focuses on movements, tools, and practices that seek to counteract the deliberately distracting tendency of most current Internet media and services.

The problem is aptly described by Nir Eyal, a Silicon Valley internet entrepreneur who cites the “behavior design” models of Stanford psychologist BJ Fogg as inspiration:

Let’s admit it, we in the consumer web industry are in the manipulation business. We build products meant to persuade people to do what we want them to do. We call these people “users” and even if we don’t say it aloud, we secretly wish every one of them would become fiendishly addicted.

Eyal advocates a version of this approach for product development, which he calls the “Hooked” method, which is also the title of his forthcoming book.

I think of this situation as part of a more general pattern: the perennial tension in the information environment between user agency and producer agency. User agency is when the user has control over the environment/media: for example, time- and device-shifting of content, peer-to-peer media, blogging, open-source tools, remix culture, net neutrality, and general-purpose computing devices. Producer agency, on the other hand, is exemplified by broadcasting, bundling of information goods (e.g. cable TV), click-wrap licensing, DRM, etc.

Many media environments show complex interactions of of user and producer agency: for example, iTunes is a controlled system, but it allowed users broad a-la-carte access to music. The iPhone apps system is strongly controlled by Apple, but helped create a smartphone experience that is much more flexible and open for users than earlier mobile phones were, and also a developer ecosystem that is more open than carrier-controlled platforms generally have been.

User and producer agency have a particularly complex relationship when it comes to informational tools: such as, say, book recommender systems or social media. We gain agency and quality by finding others to make choices for us — curators, guides, recommenders.

For example, let’s say one enjoys, as I do, great public radio stations like New York’s WNYC and San Francisco’s KQED. On the one hand, I am exercising minimal user agency, because I turn on a stream and let the station determine my listening for hours on end. On the other hand, I am choosing this listening material, among a vast field of alternatives available on the Internet, and I’ve assessed that it’s likely to provide high-value and diverse/serendipitous material while requiring little decision-making effort from me, so I can focus on other matters such as, say, work, or writing a blog post about user agency.

Schwartz, "The Paradox of Choice"

Schwartz, “The Paradox of Choice”

As the example points out, agency is not the same as being fully in control or being conscious: we have only a limited amount of willpower, decision-making ability, and attention. Agency is greater when we are free to apply those limited resources to key matters, not to everything. In many contexts, choices and agency tend to create distraction and what Barry Schwartz called “the paradox of choice” — dissatisfaction, indecision, and poorer experience due to too much choice. Philosopher Damon Young, in Distraction (2010), observes “Distraction is the very opposite of emancipation: failing to see what is worthwhile in life, and lacking the wherewithal to seek it.”


As choices increase past a point, negative emotions outweigh positive


Google Now: answers before you asked

Google Now: answers before you asked

The ascendent model in Internet-native media today, it seems, is that it’s usually better to control and decide for users than to offer choices. (parallel to movements in other areas, such as behavioral psychology/economics-based policies to “nudge” people towards beneficial choices like  retirement savings). A particularly interesting and crucial case, I think, is the movement from user-directed Internet media use, such as Web browsing and email list subscription, towards a mediated “stream” model, such as the Facebook timeline, Twitter stream, or Google Now (answers to your questions before you ask them..).

As the comments of current Twitter CEO Dick Costolo might suggest, I suspect that many Internet business leaders dream of returning the Internet to the glory that was broadcast television: a unified and suggestible audience, all receiving the same quality experience together.
(note: from the other side, traditional television keeps converging into the Web, and a somewhat more user-driven use model than previously, as the channels and carriers develop various services like Hulu and online viewing apps for cable subscribers).

I think the movement on the Internet towards producer curation/control reflects a problematic confluence of a) the legitimate goal of reducing complexity and cognitive burden for users, and b) the coercive goal of giving users less control and transparency, so as to shape their behavior for commercial ends.

So what is to be done? Have the escapers disproven and won out over the controllers?

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang's forthcoming "The Distraction Addiction"

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s forthcoming “The Distraction Addiction”

I believe that, even if the ascendent practice of media companies and investors is to create addiction and distraction, there is a vital (in fact, increasingly vital) counter-practice and sub-market of tools to restore and extend user agency. Oliver Burkeman’s article cited at top discusses a number of the key thinkers and products in this area today. For me, this is a more interesting area in which to work, because it addresses my own needs, aligns with my values, and promises to help other people more.

I’ve been exploring various practices and product ideas related to augmenting user agency and mindfulness, for the last several years. In a follow-up post, I’ll describe a current product idea for augmentative social-media tools, which I nickname Grafida: an acronym of Howard Rheingold’s term for what we need to build: Good RAdar, FIlters, and DAshboards.”

What do you think, or what tool do you want?  Comment below, or tweet/follow me at @tmccormick. You can also email me or subscribe to new blog posts by email at Contact page.

Daniel Ferrara, thought map of "Infotention" ideas.

Daniel Ferrara, thought map of “Infotention” ideas.

9 thoughts on “Escaping from freedom: the problem of designing for user agency

  1. Pingback: What if Twitter were designed to put users in charge? | Tim McCormick

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