It's not you, it's the interface.

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

Talking on the phone with my sister several weeks ago, she began enumerating the reasons she shouldn’t join Facebook. This was hardly necessary. I am fairly certain that the mother of three young kids has very little time for updating her Facebook status or playing Photo Hunt (new window). Still, I tried to play along:

"You could upload pictures of your kids," I offered weakly. Little did I realized I had hit the issue squarely on the head.

"That’s just it!" she said, arguably more embarrassed than exasperated. "I hate online photos! I know that makes me old fashioned, I just really like to hold my photos. I like them in a scrapbook on my bookshelf. I like taking a scrapbook down from the shelf, curling up on the couch, and feeling the pages while I turn them. It just feels… more authentic."

"Sounds like an interface problem to me," I teased, yet her choice of the word "authentic" surprised me. I had spent the summer considering "authenticity" online, the previous week I had been retooling a software-based authentication system for work, and just the day before I had teased Dr. Turner about the digital photo frame in her office that remains defiantly in the "off" position. "Yeah, they’re kind of creepy," I said with a wink after Dr. Turner had finished defending herself.

So what makes something "authentic"? Talking with my sister, I was reminded of The Ting Tings concert I attended at the 9:30 Club for my birthday. Dancing to the latest band thrust into stardom by an Apple commercial, I pulled out my iPhone to take a picture of the concert and capture the experience. Stretching my arm to frame the perfect image, I couldn’t help but laugh: everyone was doing exactly the same thing. The dark sea of hopping masses was punctuated by the glowing LCD screens of phones and digital cameras, all looking for that perfect shot. "I might as well search for ‘DC Ting Tings’ on Flickr tomorrow," I laughed to myself, but then quickly reconsidered. Sure, I could download someone else’s photos, but then it wouldn’t be my experience.

This, however, was only half of story. With each click of a shutter, I watched as club-goers evaluated their new photo, and then shared the photo with a friend for consideration. Non-verbal nods of approval was all that was possible over the bass of the band, but with out fail, each photographer waited for the response of their friend before letting the image rest on the flash-memory of the digital camera. It was as if the photographers needed some 3rd-party authentication: "Yes, we were here, and yes, you have accurately represented this experience." In the end it seemed as if the band was only playing backup to the capturing and sharing of images that were placing people in particular spaces, performing particular acts, and authenticating particular experiences.

Back on the phone with my sister, it was getting late. "Maybe I should just sign-up for a Facebook account," she said with resignation in her voice. Taking the position of the technological determinist, it is only a matter of time before my sister’s concerns evaporate. She will purchase some yet-to-be-invented Scrapbook2.0, and flip through those digital pages with all of pleasure of her previous scrapbook, and without the sink of "acid-free".

Even faster than technology, however, she will change as well. At least for my sister, a request for authenticity seems equivalent to admitting she is "old", or "out of touch". It is interesting that somehow the responsibility to secure "authenticity" falls on her shoulders, and not the unimaginative, and arguably ill-conceived interfaces she tolerates.

In a networked world, technology authenticates us as well. Skyler Sierra’s quote, "If you’re not on MySpace, you don’t exist", made famous by Dana Boyd, gets right to the point. As technology is increasingly involved in the details of how we negotiate our relationships, the importance of our interfaces and the very material by which all of these relationships are sutured together seems paramount. Even more than what technology does for us, I think it is time to consider who and what technology makes us. Perhaps it is time to demand more.


Jed Brubaker is a graduate student at CCT researching identity and technology. Read more at