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Can design help shift power back to the user in social media?

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MFA IxD2 students Mehek Sharma and Zhi Wang developed a critical design project aiming to make Facebook's profiling algorithms more visible and work in favour of the user.

Today's social media platforms are very quick to adapt to user behaviour. Facebook, Twitter and other social networks keep finding new ways to be helpful and accommodate our intuitions. Increasingly, though, people are beginning to ask what is "under the hood" of these platforms. Not least in light of last year's Facebook scandal. As a more critical perspective emerges among the public, more transparency is being demanded. This debate became the jumping off point for MFA IxD2 students Mehek Sharma and Zhi Wang latest project.

The project, 'Ideal You', was recently awarded an honourable mention at the Fast Company World Changing Ideas Awards. Besides promoting transparency, the goal of the project is to provide the user with more autonomy and input into their own Facebook experience. By enabling users to have more control over how their actions are interpreted they gain influence over what types of content is shown. By giving control to the people, the dynamics between Facebook, users and advertisers shifts the power more to the user.

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"We wanted to make the invisible workings of Facebook more visible to the user. For example, they currently have a section where you can change the ad preferences, but this is buried deep in the system. 'Ideal You' is an attempt to allow the user to break out of the "programmed" bubble of preferences that Facebook creates", says Mehek Sharma, who is graduating from the Interaction Design Programme this semester.

Tranparency, adjustability and trackability

'Ideal You' gives the user assistance in three different areas; transparency, adjustability and trackability. It offers transparency by revealing the reasons why Facebook thinks you are interested in certain things and how that influences your feed. It also helps you adjust the content shown to you by letting you gauge the level of interest you have in certain topics. Finally, the service helps track how Facebook is performing in adjusting the feed to the individual goals set by the user.

"For us, promoting transparency in social media is not only a solution that aims to empower the users, but also build trust from the user to the service. In the end, this might allay users' fears as to what Facebook is 'really' up to", says Zhi Wang.

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The resbonsibility of design in the digital age

It seems the role of the user-centered designer has been sidestepped through the rapid development of social networks in the digital era. In order to once again start prioritizing human experience, values and integrity, design needs to catch up in defining and shaping these products, in order to take care of all of the users and functions of modern digital things in a more holistic way. Today, that is often not the case.

Researcher Heather Wiltse is responsible for the course 'Interaction Concept' together with IxD programme director Christoffel Kuenen.

"We wanted to challenge students to work with fluid assemblages: to assemble responsive things from a variety of components, to build on top of existing platforms, and to care for multiple users and types of use. It is connected to the research project Design Philosophy for Things That Change, which seeks to develop design philosophy that can support new types of thoughtful design practices for connected digital things. 

"I think 'Ideal You' is an exciting example of developing a design practice that engages with slightly different materials and parameters than interaction design traditionally has, and it was nice to see that this kind of work can also be recognized in such an awards scheme.", concludes Heather Wiltse.

The course development team for 'Interaction Concept' included Heather Wiltse, Christoffel Kuenen, Johan Redström, Elisa Giaccardi, Remy Bourganel and Daniel Peterson.

April 2019