The internet vs. The government


Is it a thing? Francisco Dao talks addresses the topic in his weekly column in the PandoDaily about the capture of the Boston terrorists :

“If anything teachable came out of the tragic and frightening events in Boston last week, it’s that the powers of the Internet failed in every way. The FBI, the police, the national guard, the fire department, and every other first responder who worked to keep the people of Boston safe and ultimately kill and capture the marathon bombers were part of the government that the tech industry loves to vilify.”

Now, let’s remember that the distinction between a game of collaboration and a game of competition… the internet is not against the government, its just trying to collaborate. Is enough just to think about the quantity of offline perpetrators that have been caught by collaboration with both sides (an example here). If anything, the disorganized mass of the internet is trying to make its way as an entity to be respected.

I highlight disorganized  because that’s what Dao’s really talking about. Can anyone really expect from a forum in reddit (history of reddit here) some meaningful social collaboration? Reddit is too permeable to lies, inventions and amplifies mistakes because the social mechanism of interaction between users is based on chained discussions that tend to focus on the latest entries and live from the momentum users put into it, i.e.: short, chained statements. Kind of like speculative strategies in the stock market, it reminded me of this cartoon :

But despite the focus of reddit not being on the content of information but on the agility that it is passed, there’s a learning curve for the community on how to best use the platform. To test it, I launched a reddit post saying reddit “sucked at dealing at dealing with the Boston suspect identifications” only to 1min later having a comment saying “We get it. Can everyone and their mothers stop trying to say the same thing over and over?”. It helps to build the case for automoderation, the other comments too. Redditors are not bound to be unfruitful, just, sometimes, the answer is not in the public domain.

Gail Gardner puts it in an arcticle from last year on directory journal :

“Redditors are NOT blogger fans and most of us are fortunate if we aren’t already banned there!”

Bloggers focus on contents while redditors focus on the chain. They are not there to hear, they are there to be heard. Reddit is about agility and speed in transacting information spread on the web social circles. Their users are not concerned with one individual point, they are trying to build a social perspective. Look at how Gardner describes the anatomy of a reddit article :


Remember that Gregory Chiotti said, ‘Redditors are looking for (something that is insanely informative or entertaining)’?  BUT – and this is a BIG BUT – consider the audience there.

Your ‘insanely informative’ entertaining content needs to be 30 seconds long and appropriate for people who think like tweenage boys stuck in puberty – or raunchy, violent or perverted if you can swing that way.

Unless you become accepted in an intellectual Sub-Reddit of people who agree with you, your content will need to appeal to the masses – the lowest common denominator. You could start your own, but if you want to drive traffic you have to be where the RedditGators are.

Short works best even with intelligent people, as this further advice from maxwellhill explains:

‘Substantiate a good post with one or at most 2 decent references and then surround these with you own narrative of choice. A video might help but only 1. Redditors can’t comment on the main topic if there so many referenced articles in the blog that it switches people off (for me at least). IMHO generally more is less.’

In other words, a really short post featuring a 30 second animated cartoon video and a cartoon image of the RedditGator would have a much better chance of getting to the first page of Reddit than a comprehensive post like this one.”

So the focus here is not on the content, but on the transaction of information much like a social web crawler. Reddit’s communication style reflects that by being frontal, direct and concise.

Going back to Dao’s post and his main point :

“My point isn’t to paint the government as perfect, far from it. I get as frustrated by government incompetence and I hate paying taxes as much as anyone. But I’m not so self important to think that I, the Internet, social media, Reddit, the tech industry, and even Anonymous, can solve all of our problems if the government just gets out of our way.”

I get it,  sometimes it is frustrating having to accommodate the presumption of a mass attitude that is still in formation, but it’s just a communication problem. But I don’t really believe that internet users are really anarchists defending that they do better than the government. On the opposite, I think they just want to collaborate, and I even believe they can at least compete with engine search of information that is publicly available.

I don’t really see a problem in having forums of people talking a lot of bullshit to try to find one relevant piece of information, it’s not like it’s harmful and despite some possible problems like the spread of information on police activities, it’s not new this problem, normal media coverage already launched this topic and I’m afraid it’s on the side of the government to deal with it. If anything, I think that police forces and other government forces can become more socially integrated and try to manage from within these flows of information.

As for the arrogance, I agree it can be moderated, but it merely reflects the will of the online community to have its skills recognized in the world offline. As a web enthusiast and admirer of the socialnomics revolution I would say it’s a legitimate claim.


Cognitive load : from knowing your user to designing for him.


Since I moved to Paris, I got used to waiting for the bus knowing exactly how many minutes I must wait for the next one to come. Now, whenever I travel to a city where the bus doesn’t show that information, I feel vaguely lost because I have to take a few steps to deduce how much time I’ll have to wait for the next bus by looking at the schedule that typically is affixed on the bus station. Experience design and the cognitive load approach helped me understanding this problem.

David Lieb, one of the creators of bump, one of of the most innovative (and cool) apps both in its technology and the UX, explain why our product isn’t as simple as we think. As he puts it :

“Minimizing cognitive overhead is imperative when designing for the mass market. Why? Because most people haven’t developed the pattern matching machinery in their brains to quickly convert what they see in your product (app design, messaging, what they heard from friends, etc.) into meaning and purpose. We, the product builders, take our ability to cut through cognitive overhead for granted; our mental circuits for our products’ patterns are well practiced.

This is especially pronounced for mass market mobile products. Normal people already have to use more of their mental horsepower to cut through cognitive overhead. Now imagine the added burden of having to do that while on a crowded bus, or in line at Starbucks, or while opening your app for the first time while eating dinner with a friend and texting another. This isn’t 1999 when your users were sitting in their quiet bedrooms checking out your website on a large monitor while waiting for their Napster downloads to finish; they are out in the real world being bombarded with distractions.”

Cognitive overhead, or cognitive load, is best explained by John Sweller :

“In essence, cognitive load theory proposes that since working memory is limited, learners may be bombarded by information and, if the complexity of their instructional materials is not properly managed, this will result in a cognitive overload. This cognitive overload impairs schema acquisition, later resulting in a lower performance (Sweller, 1988)”. (from this blog post)

There’s a structure to which our brain organizes the information and processes it, particularly, there’s a process to which our brain processes new information and learns, this is the human cognitive architecture. The aspects of cognitive architecture relevant to visually based instructional design are working memory, long-term memory, schemas and automation.

“Working memory plays an essential role in complex cognition. Everyday cognitive tasks – such as reading a newspaper article, calculating the appropriate amount to tip in a restaurant, mentally rearranging furniture in one’s living room to create space for a new sofa, and comparing and contrasting various attributes of different apartments to decide which to rent – often involve multiple steps with intermediate results that need to be kept in mind temporarily to accomplish the task at hand successfully. “Working memory” is the theoretical construct that has come to be used in cognitive psychology to refer to the system or mechanism underlying the maintenance of task-relevant information during the performance of a cognitive task (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974; Daneman & Carpenter, 1980).” (here for a complete reading on working memory)

Long-term memory is central to the cognitive process as it brings elements to the working memory to provide for comprehension (here to explore further LTM) and in its different forms retains parts of knowledge in the brain for later (more than just a few minutes) to be used.
Schemas, are of particular interest to the designer, particularly image schemas. “Knowledge is stored in long-term memory in schematic form and schema theory describes a major learning mechanism” (Sweller again), continuing to quote :

“most researchers now accept that problem solving expertise in complex areas demands the acquisition of tens of thousands of domain-specific schemas. These schemas allow expert problem solvers to visually recognize problem states according to the appropriate moves associated with them. Schema theory assumes that skill in any area is dependent on the acquisition of specific schemas stored in long-term memory. Schemas, stored in long-term memory, permit the processing of high element interactivity material in working memory by permitting working memory to treat the many interacting elements as a single element. As an example, anyone reading this text has visual schemas for the complex squiggles that represent a word. Those schemas, stored in long-term memory, allow us to reproduce and manipulate the squiggles that constitute writing, in working memory, without strain. But, we are only able to do so after several years of learning.”

Through significant repetition, schemas can become unconsciously stored in the long-term memory and are brought effortlessly to the working memory, when required. This unconscious automation is achieved by practice  :

“Everything that is learned can, with practice, become automated. After practice, specific categories of information can be processed with decreasing conscious effort. In other words, processing can occur with decreasing working memory load. As an example, schemas that permit us to read letters and words must initially be processed consciously in working memory. With practice they can be processed with decreasing conscious effort until eventually, reading individual letters and words becomes an unconscious activity that does not require working memory capacity.”

And this is a fundamental piece for interaction design. It’s by best grasping these automated processes that significantly reduce the working memory load or schemas that are best implanted in long-term memory, it is by recognizing these social patterns that the designer will achieve the most rapid cognition of the user, it is how he will best achieve the intended usability.

And that is where the role of the marketeer enters (closed article). If the designer can best translate the usability goal into an experience, meaning he can optimize the interface and physical/mental process given the constraints of the user’s schemas and automations, it is the role of the marketeer while user researcher to provide these constraints and highlight priorities because he’s the one who knows who the target is and what schemas and automations the user has stored in his behavior.

As it turns out, when I first moved to Paris, I had no schemas concerning the bus indication as part of the whole process of taking the bus. But that process could be optimized. Before, when I got into the station I would just wait for the bus to come. Once I acquired a new schema my memory  became filled with an alternative process of how that experience can be and eventually became an automated process searching for that number of minutes I’ll have to wait. Going back to the old schemas now is just not that good experience…