If It’s Too Social, You’re Too Old

I recently came to this conclusion: as an interaction designer, if I’m not actively using social networks, then I’m just not doing my job. It’s obvious to say, but social media is the evolving, messy, inexorable and probably bright future of this business. Its all-comers approach to the creation of content and value is exactly in line with my philosophy for how design needs to change in order to matter in the coming decades. Still, that inevitability hasn’t stopped me from more or less ignoring these networks for too long.

To be sure, I have found some limited entertainment and satisfaction in social networks; Flickr is a good example. But frankly, I more often find them to be incredibly tedious. When it comes to a site like Facebook, whose proposition as an integral part of how we will all communicate, commiserate and transact in the near future is almost a sure thing, the time I spend on it seems more like homework than play. For many months, my position has been: email me and instant message me all you want, but please, whatever you do, don’t make me sign into Facebook. It’s just too much of a drag.

I admit that’s a bad attitude. Actually, it’s an irresponsible attitude for someone who purports to be a forward-looking designer. It’s a disservice to my colleagues and my employer, to begin with, as it basically amounts to sleeping on the job. But it’s also a terribly ineffective way to manage my own, long-term career development; ignoring social media in 2008 is not dissimilar to ignoring the emergence of the World Wide Web fifteen years ago. Those people got left behind, and the same thing could easily happen to me.

Working It

With good intentions, then, I’m now checking into my Facebook account regularly, earnestly trying to shunt aside that feeling that I’m doing nothing more than squandering away precious free hours. I’m still working through my backlog of friend invitations and messages; it’s not a burdensome task, really but it does feel like menial labor. And I’ve even returned to Twitter, which I tried fairly early on before taking a position that it’s basically ridiculous. Like I said, my intentions are good, but I won’t deny that my attitude has a ways to go yet. Keeping up with these networks is getting incrementally more entertaining, but it still very much feels like something I have to do, rather than something I want to do.

After a decade-plus of working in this business then, this is what it means to be an interaction designer: what was once effortless now takes effort. It would be disingenuous of me to suggest that I’m old, but neither am I young anymore. Suddenly the sky is starting to darken with increasingly ominous clouds of obsolesence. In my twenties, new ways of thinking and doing seemed very natural, and adjusting to the landscape was elementary business. Now, fending off stagnation has to be added to my job description. Learning new things takes work.



  1. Your “necessary evil” stance is shared by me. The networking stuff is barely fun, but becoming more and more important… as you’re realizing.

    I was skeptical of twitter, too, at first… just didn’t make sense to me. But I’ve managed to form more than a few legit business connections that have become quite friendly (for people who’ve never met in physical form). Stick with it, I say.

    I just got an invitation to connect at LinkedIn from my 67 year old father. If he’s up on *any* of this stuff, I’d better be a flippin’ expert.

  2. Don’t feel bad for not liking facebook. It’s a horribly designed site in every sense, visually, interaction, IA, its all wrong.

    The only one thing it has going is a captive userbase. As soon as there’s competition, I reckon it will have to either adapt or die.

  3. In some ways, Khoi, I think you and I are quite opposite. Here I am, in my mid-20’s. I was on the Twitters and I loved it. But I had to quit it. Not because we were too cool for each oither. But, I realized that it was taking up too much of my time. I hardly had time to think about the work that I was hired to do. What good is it at that point if it becomes almost entirely a distraction from real life?

    Social Internet is non-stoppable. That is a given. And while I agree that we cannot ignore it — indeed it’s our duty to be more than ‘familiar’ with it —аI don’t necessarily agree that we should be obligated to fully embrace it all. I’ve reduced my Social Internets engagement to Facebook and Flickr. There are obviously other forms, such as blog commenting, forums, etc. But beyond this, I can’t handle any more than email and IM if I am going to actually get any work done.

    In the encouraged manic pace of our culture, despite my job, I desire more and more to slow down; to single-task rather than multi-task.

  4. I’m a 22 year old web designer and I’m less wrapped up in social networks than most of my friends. Most social networks are either broken (myspace), or over-complicated (facebook). I encouraged my friends to start blogs and to make our blogging community it’s own network.

    You’re not falling behind if you choose not to use every social network out there. Pick one or two and spend your time there. Or, Khoi, spend your time on your awesome blog! I think most of us would prefer to read and comment on your posts than hear random thoughts from Twitter (that probably weren’t directed at us anyways).

  5. While I’m not nearly so kewl as you, I eschew the lopsided signal to noise of social networking. How do people have the time? I RSS several blogs and photoblog, but prefer to spend the bulk of my time creating.

  6. @Khoi @Dan I agree with you both that Facebook is a drag to use and very poorly designed. I only use Facebook for networking and have not had a lot of success. I do find Twitter to be much more valuable of tool.

  7. I agree with Khoi and think some of the commentors are missing the point. This is an issue of being a competent interaction designer: of course we (curmudgeons) would like nothing more than to singletask all day. But some of us have a professional responsibility to be familiar with interface conventions and user experience.

    The networking stuff is part of that, but I could care less about that — and I am pretty sure that Khoi doesn’t need to network.

    The question is not if Facebook is good, it’s just reality.

    I actually closed my FB account in frustration but just reopened it minutes before reading this post (!) for exactly these reasons.

  8. @khoi @dan @all detractors or curmudgeons re: FB,

    i am as invested in and seasoned as the rest of you monkeys on interaction and experience design. i want to say for the record that i love the way FB is designed. LOVE, not like, not professionally accept, etc. LOVE.

    it’s got 90MM users and is growing. it is the OPPOSITE of myspace and AOL as far as community design goes. it is not about networking. it is about passing fun notes around like you did in gradeschool while the teacher wasn’t looking. it is austere and code/text based b/c precious few websites/web apps today can deal with the traffic. it is a holy miracle that FB stands up to the current load (i will admit it is often slow). what is simply great about FB’s design is that without all the user generated content (about 98%) it would just be a dumb IA wireframe. the only things rendered in color are picture icons and photos that people post (and the occaisional innocuous ad). it is like a soho white-walled gallery where the art pops out from the walls, and gallery goers are as much lookers as they are being looked at. FB, as far as i am concerned, deserves every nickname ie “the other Internet” that it has earned. i am a member of nearly everything else out there, i am also knee deep in designing a few niche social netowrks, and nothing comes close to FB. and i even think the redesign is fantastic.

    apropos khoi’s confessional, i think the core message is really this: take away the category name of these sites/technologies, and just call them something like “people-content-web”. and there you have it. there are 2 internets: 1) commercial-content and 2) people-content. no, khoi does not need to network, for he is the most famous designer in the universe. but there are people who are khoi’s friends who really could care less about his professional life, because they know him best as “that crankipuss who has a heart of gold and is a dog-lover and dates really hot chicks and knows how to configure a router.” this is what #2 is for. #1 grew up FAST, before #2, and now #2 is as mature. it’s really just like having a left arm AND a right arm. there is balance in the universe.

    fyi- everyone on my FB list who knows khoi has either emailed me or commented on his recent facebook-activity…like that’s more interesting than the presidential election in my little social cohort. khoi, you need to know that there’s been this weird shadow social universe just WAITING for you to play in this sandbox with us. we are happy, no, elated, that you decided that this eccentric playground is, well, cool enough now.

    by the way, i use linkedin too. yawn. all work, no play. FB is play. twitter is play. PLAY rocks.

  9. Huh, I had a totally different reaction to this. I just typed up a blog post yesterday in opposition to the common developer notion that designers and researchers and marketers and — most importantly, users — are idiots and you should only develop products for yourself. Then you’ll have the insights needed to make it wonderful.

    So, this is the same argument from the other side. That as designers we MUST experience everything we are working with. Okay, I might agree with that, but must we live it, breathe it, internalize it, believe it? I say no. I don’t use 98% of the products I have designed at built. Nothing against the products, but I’m a weird, old, designy, technological person and that’s almost never who the target market is.

    I think an ability to design for any group by understanding them at a professional level is more important than /becoming/ a member of any particular group.

  10. Khoi,

    My philosophy is, social networking sites are what you make of them.

    Year ago, I was told to sign up Myspace by some online friends. I signed up and accepted any friend requests that came my way. So I had 200+ friends whom mostly were stranger I never bothered to talk to. Needless to say, I found Myspace experience to be a waste of time.

    Years later a RL friend told me to sign up for Facebook. I was very resistant. Long story short, I did sign up and chose who to be on my friend list selectively. I have since caught up with many, many long lost friends from HS and college. I find FB very value-able to me.

    So in conclusion, social networking is what you want it to me, whatever your intention is.

  11. I decided this year that I was going to make my dream job happen. I currently work with people who are not my “tribe”. So, I needed to learn new stuff, and start putting myself out there to do social networking and real, in-person networking.

    Learning new things IS hard. I had to learn CSS. I had to learn some things about Flash…and I still need to. And I agree that Twitter is a time waster. But I do have a website, a blog, a Creative Hotlist profile, a Design:Related profile, a Behance profile, and others.

    I agree that maintaining all this and trying to get benefit from them feels like a second job.

    What makes me keep at it is the fact that, I want control over my image and I want a fun job, and I think doing these things might help get me there.

    The second reason is I see my 65 year old bosses who can’t handle the idea of our company building websites.One of them doesn’t even use email. I don’t want to be that person when I am 65. I want to be the person who embraces new technology over my entire career and lifetime and isn’t afraid of trying new things.

  12. I’m way over-the-hill, 40 years old! I’m on LInkedIn and Twitter, but can’t stomach Facebook. My wife’s on it a lot, but it has no appeal to me. Like you, part of me feels like I “should” have a presence there, but it’s a bit too MySpace for me. LinkedIn keeps it buttoned down, which fits this point in my career better than Facebook. Twitter was sucking a lot of my time until I decided to manage it by only watching @replies. I’ve blogged about the value of Twitter ( http://tr.im/bt9 ), but I think my attitudes towards it are already changing.

    The fact that Facebook feels like homework may be more of an indication of the poor quality of its interface than of any deficiency in you.

  13. Okay. Took your advice. Accepted an invitation. First screen? Add friends from your new friend’s friend-list. So, that whole list will know that you had a chance to friend them when they recognize you on the page of the mutual friend. High jeopardy.

  14. I confess I’d rather live in my car, or under a bridge, if the only way I can remain economically viable is to stay in a never-ending realtime electronic exchange via IM or Twitter. Having to notify other people of “what I’m doing” every few minutes, or to respond to text or IM, is my idea of hell.

    I don’t even have a cell phone, because from what I hear people act like you’re obligated to answer when they call your cell (“But I called your *cell phone*!”).

    I thought the answering machine on the landline phone was one of the greatest inventions in human history, because it freed me from the need to answer the phone without knowing who was calling, having to talk to anyone I didn’t want to, or even having to deal with anyone at all except at a time of my choosing. For the same reason, I love email because it allows me to respond when it’s convenient for me instead of having to respond in realtime.

    To me it sounds like a total nightmare having to live with the possiblity of being interrupted at any moment 24/7. How does anyone ever follow a coherent train of thought under those conditions? In Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” people of above-average intelligence were “handicapped” by a device that emitted ear-splitting noise at random intervals, so the wearer couldn’t pursue an uninterrupted line of thought. Now people line up at Nokia and volunteer to pay money for that kind of handicap.

  15. Steven above makes a really good point when he says:

    “I think an ability to design for any group by understanding them at a professional level is more important than /becoming/ a member of any particular group.”

    I resisted Facebook for a long time but had that nagging feeling that — much like Khoi — my credibility as a professional designer would be undermined if I didn’t actively participate in social networking.

    But, while the decision to join Facebook was fraught with a lot of anxiety (most of it triggered by how frequently the question, ‘Why aren’t you on Facebook?’ was hurled at me), it did make me realise that my design work isn’t any less authentic because I don’t use the product in the kind of obsessive way one might expect.

    I can only compare it to Method acting. Some actors choose this process because it helps them reach a certain level of empathy, but there are plenty of great actors who achieve the same effect by completely different – and more distant – means.

    It’s just a question of process.

  16. I’ve been a graphic designer for 20 years and have just dipped my toe in social networking this year, like many of you, feeling it is my obligation to stay on top of new technology. So I started blogging, and I got on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. I’ve managed to incorporate Twitter into my daily live– I skim headlines once or twice a day, and I’ve gotten some good work contacts that way. But Facebook is too complex and I can’t figure out what all those “gifts” are, or where exactly the “wall” is, and who can see what when you write something. I’ve ended up writing on my own “wall” by mistake. But more importantly, I don’t care to get better at it. I end up using my Blackberry’s facebook application because there are fewer features, and I can see what’s happening without all that other fluff.

    At 41, I feel like an old codger in the design world. But I do think that we have to at least know what social networking stuff can do, if for no other reason, so that we can counsel our clients on its possibilities.

  17. I understand the hassle of having to checkup on so many social networks assuming that you have a tendency of enrolling in most that come out like I do but to be honest, the ability to respond to it via the iPhone has taken away a lot of the headache. So the ironic part is that I don’t log into Facebook via MBP but just on the iPhone.

  18. The very fact that you have such difficulty getting into these social services doesn’t necessarily indicate that you’re not doing your job. You’re a technologist, not a luddite, so consider that it is the fault of the service itself that it can’t communicate the value to you (or me, for that matter) even after you’ve attempted to make use of it.

    I would also argue that the “importance” of said services is suspect, since not one of them has come up with a viable plan on how to make money. Eyeballs are one thing, supporting the content is another. NYT print edition should know this by now.

  19. Before opening my own studio I worked with Tibor Kalman at M&Co;.

    Just recently I was asking myself, if M&Co;was around today, what would we be working on?

    So many of the projects we did, from albums and print collateral, to magazines and corporate identities, are either considered dying industries or have already gone by the wayside.

    What is exciting about “web 2.0” products & services is the movement of ownership. Now, more than I can remember, the end-user is taking more control of what it is they’re buying—creating their own packaging, identity, etc.

    As a designer I find this new form of communicating makes “content” more valuable than ever—something I suspect Tibor would have loved!

    Addendum: Think of “Twitter” as a form of social computing. It’s not the individual messages that are important, it’s the net effect of so many messages from so many people about so many things that makes it brilliant. Imagine each “tweet” as a byte being moved around in a processor and Twitter becomes one of the most powerful computers in existence.

  20. @Khoi: Don’t ignore your feelings or your intuitions. They got you where you are today. Feel like Facebook is a waste of time? Then why is that? Twitter is ridiculous? Tell me more. The podium is yours, and I promise you, you are not alone in your feelings. Being knowledgeable about something does not mean being a slave to it. You are right that social media is here to stay, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be way better. Social media wants as much of your time as possible (Hmm…I seem to recall using Times People as an example to make this exact point. Wups!)

    Also, nice meeting you briefly at the AIGA/Pitaru talk!

    @Gong: We will arm wrestle about the Facebook interface another time (Yes, it’s great, but it’s also awful in many ways. Enough said). For now: the Commercial-Content-Web is about to eat the People-Content-Web. It is coming, it is happening now. Yes, it’s like passing notes in gradeschool while the teacher isn’t looking. But now replace gradeschool with “Mall of America” and this is the future of Social Media that being designed and built as we speak. It’s not the only future, and it is not inevitable, but it is likely. It is the Business-As-Usual-Web, it is the Protect-Our-Core-Assets-Web, and it is a complete waste of this opportunity. Gong–I hope at this point I can call you a friend (and all thanks to Facebook!)–but my friend, the balance you perceive, if it’s even there right now, will be short lived. As Robert Heinlein wrote: TANSTAAFL. There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. We will have to pay for Social Media. Will it be worth the price?

    @Andy Jacobson: Hello! I was there too. I was the kid doing mechanicals in the corner. I think Tibor would have loved the potential of Social Networks, and he would have lamented how much of the potential is being wasted (Yes, he was a big influence on me too, even from afar). And how about the digital divide? Oy.

  21. So, how is Facebook not AOL? Once the tools for OpenSocial become common and friendly, I’ve gotta think these walled societies will look as crusty as “1000 free hours!”

  22. I’m 100% with you!!

    I’m 41 and now starting to work on SEO, so I NEED TO USE SOCIAL NETWORKS, but I hate it…

    Anyway, a friend of mine helps in the graduated association in my old school, and he asked me for help. The result, i created a social network in Ning for the association and know I’m somehow involved. At least I check it every 2 or 3 days…

    But for twitter, I really don’t get it…


  23. Thank you Khoi,

    After reading Gong’s post about FaceBook and other “fun” social sites, I realized I am in total agreement. I really see the validity and real purpose of these sites.

    I realize I have burned a bridge or two. I extend an olive branch to you, the Szeto Bros. & the the entire Behavior crew.

    adios, get in touch if you choose.

    buena seurte.

    . bryan rackleff

  24. I’m been working as a designer now for 26 years and I’m probably the oldest codger leaving a comment here!

    I didn’t grow up playing computer games or surfing the web, let alone social networking. I grew up reading comics, newspapers and magazines. When I left Art School, it was second nature for me to draw comic strips and design magazines, because I had an inherent understanding of those two fields.

    When I started working on web-based projects, I found that apart from the usual challenges of learning WYSISYG software, Flash and handcoding in HTML/CSS, I had a real struggle getting my head around the way that people and the web behaved. But, as other people have mentioned here, you have to go through all this in order not to be left behind. It’s tough but worthwhile.

    Social networking, no matter how silly or trivial it might seem, is an important platform to stay involved, learn and improve one’s understanding of people and the web. After years of sitting on the fence, I’ve started my own blog (from scratch), joined Flickr, FB, Twitter and I’m going to register with LinkedIn. I add more comments now to the blogs I read (hence this post) and I have decided, even at this late-ish stage in my career to get involved and more importantly, to have fun.

    Social networking, like anything else we were all existing quite happily without, can seem like a chore, but as others have remarked here, it is the future. If I hadn’t decided to embrace the future back in 1989 when I decided that the Apple Macintosh wasn’t a gimmick, my life would be very different now.

  25. I think the thing about using sites like facebook is you have to be sloppy about it in order for it not to be a huge pain. In other words, it is not a site designed for designers, but for the average joe user, it is actually pretty easy if you take the attitude of: click on whatever you see first. Don’t think about it and it is easier.

    In one way, this is indeed an evolution in that it is more inclusive of users who are not fabulous about being intuitive about the web.

    Still, I know what you mean about it being annoying to have to maintain.

  26. it’s kind of a relief to hear you say all this. i find facebook a chore and a time-sink, although it did hook me up with an old, lost friend. the part about fighting obsolescence; i’ve been a dinosaur for decades. you get used to stomping around, along with the intermittent panic attacks.

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