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Mar 08, 2005: Do we need Anti-Captology?

At the IA Summit, BJ Fogg's opening keynote on persuasive design was, er, quite persuasive. For those of you not familiar with BJ's work in captology, here's the definition:

Captology is the study of computers as persuasive technologies. This includes the design, research, and analysis of interactive computing products created for the purpose of changing people's attitudes or behaviors.

Een zee wronk hands, captology could be dangerous stuff. I was glad that BJ tempered his enthusiasm with at least a little discomfort over captology's ethical implications. Made me think of Einstein's famous letter to Roosevelt explaining the Bomb's feasibility, not something that sat well with his pacifism. And it made me wonder if we need to develop a new field called anti-captology? There are analogies from other fields, ranging from LIS's advocacy for information literacy to journalism's media literacy. Does society need to inoculate itself against the (highly likely) potential of captological abuse?

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Comment: David Zerlin (Mar 8, 2005)

I appreciate that Fogg is thinking about ways to ethically evaluate the use (or misuse) of interactive media. This could form the theoretical foundation of society's inoculation against misuse. He didn't go into great detail, but it was something about increasing or decreasing freedoms for the end user, yes?

Comment: Lou (Mar 8, 2005)

Sort of. I didn't get the sense that he'd really dug into it too much yet. Maybe he's still grappling with the realization of having opened a can o'worms. ;-)

Comment: David (Mar 9, 2005)

Hi Lou,

You missed Andrew Dillon's closing, where a big piece of what he spoke about in terms of creating an IA profession was a need for ethics. It was a powerful part of his presentation.

Comment: Mike Steckel (Mar 9, 2005)

I am not convinced "anti-Captology" is possible. Can we go to a business and say we want to help them with their site but don't want to change user behavior? Websites are designed to persuade people toward certain organization goals. The vast majority of websites are persuasive, it is impossible to get away from that. I took from Fogg that we are all involved in captology and we should be aware of how we are using it and how others are using it on us.

People absolutely will misuse "captology" just as they do in persuasion through conversation. And I agree with David that the closing discussion of a code of ethics may help us separate helpful persuasion from harmful persuasion. No persuasion seems to be nonsensical.

Comment: Bud Gibson (Mar 9, 2005)

There has been a long history of research in persuasion, some of which B.J. Fogg alluded to. The big name in the field is Robert Cialdini who has written several books on the topic. Basically, he makes the case that you cannot escape persuasive influences. In essence, there is no "literacy" or what not. His suggested strategy is avoidance.

Now, Cialidini has written a lot and has formed a consultancy focused on positive influence. I think you could start here:


Comment: Lou (Mar 9, 2005)

Interesting, but how can one avoid it without complete self-isolation?

Comment: peterme (Mar 10, 2005)

Mike's right -- You can't have anti-captology.

Persuasion Happens, intentionally or not.

BJ's research is, and always has been, about making yourself aware that this occurring, and arming yourself with this knowledge so you can be better prepared.

Initially, BJ approached this very much in a judgment-free way. But at the Summit, he made it very clear that he's developed some strong viewpoints as to the appropriateness of persuasion.

Comment: Lou (Mar 10, 2005)

He did, but in a sorta kind of way. I'd really love to see him explain a bit more strongly his take on what's ethical and what's not. He might be doing this elsewhere, but he only implied this in his keynote. I was left with the impression that he wasn't really sure how much he wanted to delve into the ethical implications of his work.

Comment: Bud Gibson (Mar 10, 2005)

To quote Lou:

"Interesting, but how can one avoid it without complete self-isolation?"

To quote Peter Merholz:

"Persuasion Happens, intentionally or not."

To quote Mike Steckel:

"I am not convinced "anti-Captology" is possible."

I will now amend my view which had been in line with these last two. I wonder if we have not achieved 'anti-captology' to some extent with RSS, and ad/media blocking plug-ins in our browsers, although both may be eroding a bit. RSS essentially makes it possible to divorce display from content. A lot of captology occurs in display or user experience (persuasive techniques tend to be only partially part of the content). In an RSS reader, the user is essentially wresting control of the content display from the original author/designer (Josh Porter writes quite eloquently about this in both Digital Web and his site bokardo). Think of Thomas Vander Wal's personal information cloud.

I'm not sure I agree with Gene Smith about the death of the page. Perhaps the page is dead, but the RSS packet is alive and kicking.

Second, on the Firefox front, various plug-ins (ad-block which also blocks those horrid flash UIs) can help you control the experience and CULL WHAT YOU WANT, THEREBY REDUCING THE IMPACT OF PERSUASIVE, SUBLIMINAL TECHNOLOGIES.

The interesting point for you as an IA is that the cure to captology may be placing control over some of the central elements of IA in the hands of the user. The user gets to decide which level of seduction to open themselves up to. Where does that leave the IA professional? (Did you ever think of yourselves as purveyors of seduction?)

I would be remiss if I didn't point out that on the RSS front at least, all sorts of attempts are being made to reinsert external control of user experience (vis., inserting ads into RSS).

Comment: Lou (Mar 10, 2005)

Bud, great points, although a couple of quibbles:

* You can't cull what you don't know exists. Filtering tools are quite useful, but they're not perfect.
* Smart IAs realize that they're not in the business of controlling the user (and that goes for smart designers of all stripes). The Web has always employed a model of shared control--between user, publisher, site designer, browser designer--and that hasn't changed. Good IA means determining the appropriate mix of control for a given situation. Sometimes users want control and should have it; sometimes they don't want control and shouldn't have it; sometimes they don't want it and should; and so on. Designers need to consider these options. balance the needs of users, content publishers, browser constraints, and anything else that comes into play, and make educated design decisions based on those issues.

Comment: Bud Gibson (Mar 10, 2005)

Lou, I'm aware of the notion of shared control, but boy there seem to be a lot of top-down control efforts in the IA world. Wasn't this a little bit of the premise of the original post. IAs have control of the user experience, don't we need to sign a code of conduct? My point was that maybe you don't have the control you think you do.

More fundamentally, I think IAs are facing a challenge in the remix society where I pull content from all sorts of places and create my own information space. A lot of IA seems to be about defining the information space and the experience the user will have in it (witness the whole page is dead discussion; that whole set of conversations was about defining the user's experience, in some sense really controlling the experience).

The issue may be one of starting point. Do you start from the user or do you start from the archive to be communicated? Many efforts start from the archive, witness this sensational IBM talk:


Or, do you start from the user? That's where things like folksonomy come in. It's unclear that these user-centric efforts ever need to evolve into a centralized controlled vocabulary.

Lou, I agree that I may be an IA naif, and I appreciate your indulging me here as I tear through the china shop casting aspersions left and right. But, I also think there's an important point, and that is that the control of the information space may, for the time being, be passing more into the hands of the user. That seems a challenge in many design activities: controlled vocabularies, site structure of database driven sites.

Comment: Lou (Mar 11, 2005)

Bud, I think we'll just have to disagree on our perspectives on both IA and design in general. To me, viewing IA as a profession of control is a gross overgeneralization that's simply not accurate these days. It may have been when IAs were doing their best to counter the complete lack of attention to content organization ten years ago (which, BTW, was in service to heretofore ignored users' needs). Similarly, seeing design challenges as an either/or between users and the archive (what about business needs? technological constraints? etc.) is also, IMHO, false and potentially damaging because control will never pass into the hands of a single party. Accepting that means we face tougher but more interesting design challenges. As always, it boils down to making conscious design choices that best balance the needs of all parties concerned.

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