User:Rita Graca/thesis outline4

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Thesis Outline
14 November 2019



Persuasive design, social media platforms, alternatives, vigilantism

Thesis Statement

Mainstream social media platforms compel users to participate through manipulative strategies to capitalise engagement. While abandoning these platforms doesn't seem a valid choice for everyone and demonstrates a system of privilege, users can gain agency through other means.



Clarification on what is manipulative design

  • persuasive tech, weaponised design, technology violence, or other better terms.

How design implementations can have socio-political effects. Well explained in Do Artifacts Have Politics? (Winner, 1980) with a lot of anecdotes.

Our daily lives are mediated through interfaces that are getting increasingly harder to recognise and understand.

  • At the World Economic Forum in 2015, Google chairman and ex-CEO Eric Schmidt promised that “the Internet will disappear” into our environments. (Blas, 2016)
  • D. Norman's idea that “the computer of the future should be invisible”, meaning that the user would focus on the task they want to do instead of focusing on the machine. Much like a door, you go through it to go somewhere else. (Norman, 1990) But Olia Lialina reminds us that computers are much more complex devices, and that closed or opened doors allow different degrees of agency. (Lialina, 2018)
  • It seems that the trend is to keep building imperceptible interfaces, e.g. conversational interfaces. "The irrefutable tendency to make all graphic interfaces as usable, engaging, simple, and social as possible is an expression of the values inherent to the discourse of Silicon Valley and global technoculture elites." (Belsunces, 2015)


Point A: Certain features on social media platforms exist to influence users on taking certain actions. While some of them seem innocent, like a notification to remind us of a birthday, they also reveal capitalistic, seductive intentions.

  • In the 20th century, specialists moved past the idea that information drives behaviour to understand how to play with irrational emotions through propaganda and, then, advertising. Example: Torches of Freedom, how women smoking became a symbol of liberation. (The Century of the Self, 2002)
  • Nowadays this persuasion can be done even better with the help of technology. "It is not individual contracts or dollar amounts that matter so much as the habits that are produced and regimented. And new digital technologies have proven astonishingly good at regimenting humans." (Mantz, 2018)
  • Short reference on how persuasion can be positive. The idea of "captology" for B.J. Fogg is mostly positive, "motivating users to make better use of the application and supporting them in achieving their goals." (Fogg, 2003)
  • Clear examples of persuasive design features on social media. Notifications, auto-play, integrated buying features, next episode tab, Dark Patterns.

After a while without using your phone, you suddenly realise you have not checked it for a while. Maybe someone called, emailed, ping you. This is a habit that happens without triggers, a thought that seems to come from the vacuum, out of nowhere. A successful behaviour change happened in most of us, and we went through several steps until we reached this state.

Point B: Engagement has turned into currency and, without ethics guidelines, interfaces become aggressive to generate profit.

  • Practical example: the U2 album being downloaded without consent to everyone with iTunes in 2014.
  • We are the target in the attention economy. Meaning of engagement for brands, people and algorithms, growing quantification of online life. "As Golub (2004, 2010), Boellstorff (2012, 2015) and many others (e.g. Nardi 2010; Snodgrass et al. 2011) have noted, yes, our online avatars are political economic actors." (Mantz, 2018)
  • The unfairness of this, how persuasion turns into coercion without supervision. Libertarian Paternalism on Obama's Social and Behavioral Sciences Team; Facebook experiment with the manipulation of 700,000 users' feed; Cambridge Analytica scandal, etc. (Shaw, 2017)
  • Especially important when looking at underprivileged groups. Research "explains that individuals with low self-esteem are more susceptible to the opinions of others as they are seeking social approval and acceptance." (Djafarova and Rushworth, 2017)


Point A: Quitting media platforms doesn't make sense for everyone, is determinist and reveals a system of privilege.

  • Trying to improve our social media relationship is a fair move. However, this discourse targets a group of privileged people and we should acknowledge that.
  • "Quitting" overlooks all the political, social and economic conditions that influence social media users.
  • The alternative seemed to be to leave the surveilled platforms, but is exactly ‘the vulnerable populations who are the least able to “quit Facebook.”’ (Nakamura, 2015) Comparison with governments shutting down the internet to prevent the dissemination of any media. (Blas, 2016)

Point B: Users are persuaded to believe centralised platforms are the only real option. Who are the alternatives for?

  • We are persuaded to believe centralised platforms are the only real option to engage in social media. Persuasion comes back! "The concept of centralization does not pose a problem in and of itself: there are good reasons for bringing people and things together. The situation becomes problematic when we are robbed of our choice, deceived into thinking there is only one access gate to a space that, in reality, we collectively own." (Verborgh, 2019)
  • A short overview of what are the alternative social media platforms, what does it mean to be decentralised (federated and distributed). Why it is important, who makes use of them and why?
  • Why I believe decentralised social networks fail when they present themselves as the solution for problematic social media platforms:
  • Decentralisation can be elitist. Self-hosting or creating a server is difficult, the use of jargon is a way of exclusion.
  • Migrating data can be challenging, but this hardship can be a relief. Having unconnected accounts serves different purposes, from avoiding an unhealthy algorithm to ensuring safety. This can be a good way of escaping centralised platforms view on anonymity. Not using the same name that you use in everyday life is a violation of the Facebook Terms of Service. This proves Mark Zuckerberg's idea is still in place: "Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity." (Kirkpatrick, 2010)
  • "Decentralized systems also suffer from inherently higher network unreliability, resulting in a tradeoff between consistency and availability." (Narayanan et al., 2012) However, I think we shouldn't always expect 100% availability. From my wiki, special issue 8: Being online all the time is impossible and may be undesirable. High availability and uptime usually mean more servers, electricity, and pollution. In 2014, a collective discussion about feminist servers addressed this apparent weakness with normality. “[A feminist server] tries hard not to apologize when she is sometimes not available”.
  • It's not appealing for most people to move to the alternatives. Going back to the first topic, the user experience is decisive. Users prefer to trade privacy, centralisation, etc for the best user experience. An egocentric view of the world? Or an efficient one?
  • My perspective on self-hosting introduced by Special Issue 8.

Point C: Combative actions on social media demonstrate the need to make discussions public by publishing them.

  • There are no set of solutions, 10 steps to take to emancipation. But the fact that people are joining movements and displaying resistance, it means something. It produces something and publishes something into the stream of information. "It means being clear about what we want our technologies to do for us, as well as expecting that they be clear about what they’re designed to do for us." "Drawing on this broad view of the goal, we can start to identify some vectors of rebellion against our present attentional serfdom." (Williams, 2018)
  • Take cancel culture as a case study in order to discuss how digital vigilantism becomes a way to users assert their agency. Cancel culture happens when a mediatic figure does something unacceptable in the eye of the public and therefore becomes cancelled. "People talk about the attention economy — when you deprive someone of your attention, you’re depriving them of a livelihood.” (Nakamura)
  • The idea of policing has reached new proportions with social media. Ineffective politics pushes the users to react transforming shaming culture in meaningful political participation. (Ingraham and Reeves, 2016)
  • In the same way decentralised networks are against the monopolisation of power, cancel culture also resists centralised governance inside social media.
  • To fight back users created blogs. e.g. Fat, Ugly or Slutty or Not in the Kitchen Anymore collects and display racist, sexist and homophobic comments that female and queer gamers have received. This polices online spaces with the user’s own rules.
  • How design allows the conversations to happen/not happen. Design features as moderators or promoters.
  • My project: compare distinct platforms to understand how their structure allows different ways of resistance.

I focus on contentious actions because they give the most extreme examples. Equally generous approaches for reclaiming user agency:

  • Experiences with manifestos. e.g. Interface Manifesto by Hangar Barcelona, The Hacker Manifesto by Blankenship, designers oath.
  • Legal actions, flagging, complaining, reporting. Users as David Carroll or the NetzDG Law.
  • DIY tactics and low tech. e.g. Anti mobile by Tsila Hassine, Disobedient Electronics by Hertz, Netless by Danja Vasiliev.
  • Meme culture. “The meme has escaped the confines of internet forums, and is becoming a tool useful to targeted political struggles.” (Metahaven, 2014)


The debate on what is acceptable behaviour within persuasion on social media platforms is complicated. It easily piles on ambiguous questions such as who is the authority, how it imposes limits and based on what morality. But users have been engaging with these issues in practical ways: either by building other platforms or by joining movements that tackle directly their concerns. The more the users amplify their interests, and experiment with their resources, the easier it gets to catalyse change.

Still open questions:

What change do I want to see? Where will change come from?
Do actions of protesting change something or do they give an illusion of power?
Is manipulation revocable?
Should we run, hide or fight?

Link to annotated bibliography