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The IA as Social Architect

by David Sturtz

I read danah boyd’s essay, “Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace,” at the beginning of the month and was thinking that it raises some points for information architecture to consider. Then suddenly, it was everywhere. I jotted down a few of my thoughts, but never finished the post. This week danah posted a response to the many criticisms of her essay, reminding me of the notes I’d made. Here they are, still rough, but you get the idea…

The way danah has framed her thoughts may raise some ethical issues for designers. The whole topic is particularly interesting considering the discussion and criticism of MySpace that happened in the IA/UX/design communities a few years ago, when it was first becoming widely popular (see MySpace: Is “Ghetto” a Design Choice?, for example).

Andrew Hinton has covered some of the main points I was thinking of, touching on how information architecture plays a role in “creating structures… to channel people in particular ways.”

So here are a few of my rambling thoughts and questions:

I’ve read in several places the belief that the relationships people define online mirror those in the real world. Is that necessarily the case, or are we lacking systems that enable us to transcend offline barriers?

One comment on the original post suggests that the divide may be more a matter of needs in “identity production and network capacity.” In my casual observation MySpace seems to be all about “I am what I make/what I like” and Facebook is more “I am who I know/what I do.”

As designers, how do we go about discovering and understanding these needs in our users, and avoid creating systems that merely reflect our own needs? (Maybe it comes back to the importance of the beta in social software development, as Rashmi Sinha noted in her IA Summit closing plenary.)

Or, do we need to “liberate the means of production” and allow more individuals with more viewpoints to create the systems that work for them? We’re letting users create content, how do we let users create systems?

Imagine a highly-detailed version of Yahoo!’s Pipes that gives anyone a graphical framework to create the next Digg or Twitter. Not unlike the Facebook platform, but simpler, more flexible, and more open.

At the IA Summit this year, Olly Wright spoke about Information Architecture and Ethical Design (slides [PDF] and audio [mp3] available). What are the professional ethics of IA? and how do they fit into the decision to create systems that may isolate or exclude?

I’ve definitely got more questions than answers, but hopefully the debate this essay spawned can help us all to examine the issue.

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