Boyd: ‘Incantations for Muggles’

Danah Boyd’s “Incantations for Muggles” underscore how Web 2.0 technologies mesh with and enrich everyday life. This piece emphasizes that technologies fit into pre-existing practices.
Boy outlines four key life stages that have direct relevance for the exploration of social network successes and failures.

Stage 1: Identity formation and role-seeking (youth)
This is the stage of youth, where we try to make sense of who we are in relation to others. We try to reflect aspects of conflicting social cues back on others. This echoes Goffman’s theories about the presentation of self, as cited in a previous post. Youth are a separate subculture, and this period lasts a lot longer today than it used to.

Stage 2: Integration and coupling (20s)
This life stage, typically the 20s, is when people seek meaningful labor and campanionship. Unfortunately, the jobs aren’t there today, so this is an increasingly vague period.

Stage 3: Societal contribution
This is where the “Donna Reed” meets “Father Knows Best” model still applies. The white picket fence myth is still remarkably ubiquitous. It is the dream that many are working toward.

Stage 4: Reflection and storytelling
“In theory, people retire and their children grow up.”

The key takeaway here is that people value different things at different life stages, and they use technologies for different purposes that suit these values:

How would you design for these different groups? Unfortunately, for the most part, they’re considered one big lump of “generic user.” Many of the technologies that they’re using are the same, but how they’re using them differs.

You can see this through “social network sites” and “blogging tools.” Youth go to MySpace and Facebook primarily to hang out with friends. 20somethings go to get laid. Both groups use the sites to keep up with what’s going on in their social world – where the parties are, what gossip is key, etc. White collar workers go to LinkedIn for career purposes. Unfortunately, there’s no really good social network site there to meet the needs of the older contingent. (This should make the VC ears perk up – when are we going to start designing for the retirees? And why do i have a funny feeling that this isn’t going to happen until the Baby Boomers start bitching?)

Keep in mind, this was written in 2007, just before Facebook burst onto the scene.

From an economic standpoint, niche customers often are not the most profitable. Public companies are required to grow, not just maintain profitability. They must go for the masses. Facebook’s opening up to the masses beyond college was resisted by early users. The market values growth, but the cost of growth is a loss of user passion. Big tech uses “lock-in” strategies, such as cellphone contracts, to force users to stick around when their passion fades. These corporate practices affect how systems are designed, deployed, allowed to evolve.

This blog includes a series of posts that stem from readings and other source materials in the Fall 2011 “Collaboration in Networked Environments” at The New School. For more Collaboration: Key Concepts posts, click here.