Thursday, September 10, 2009

Fox News Viewers: Foot-Soldiers for Elite Special Interests

Fox News and right-wing talk radio position themselves as populists, championing the causes of their viewers, who are conservative, patriotic, and often middle- to low-income. They appeal to the conservative values of their audience, then get that audience to champion causes that primarily benefit wealthy people and special interests. Yet, if you suggested to a Fox News viewer that they were foot-soldiers for special interests and wealthy elite, they would never believe you.

Here's why they are, though. Consider the tax revolt "tea parties" last April, organized, led, then gleefully reported as a spontaneous "grass roots" effort by Fox News. Many of these protests took place in states with positive balances of payments (they receive more funding from the federal government, from the tax revenues of the country at large, than they contribute in tax payments). Should taxes be restrained or cut as the protesters wished, they themselves would likely have borne the brunt of reduced services, subsidies, roads, and other federal benefits. The primary beneficiaries of their efforts would have been the wealthy, who are the primary target of planned tax increases.

Now consider health care. Many people in Fox News's demographic have tenuous health insurance, and I suspect that many others have none at all. They would be the primary beneficiaries of real health reform. Yet wealthy Fox News and talk radio hosts have incited them to disrupt town hall meetings intended to advance the process of reform. They have taken on the mission of defeating reform as if it were a threat to democracy and the American way of life, when in fact it's primarily a threat to insurance companies, doctors, and others who may benefit disproportionately from the current payment structures. In other words, these protesters are working for powerful special interests, and against their own personal interests.

Thomas Frank dives deep into this topic in his book, What's the Matter with Kansas, which I admit that I haven't read. So this isn't an original idea. I do wonder, though, if the specific manipulative relationship that Fox News and Rush Limbaugh have with their audience, inciting them to work against their own interests, has been sufficiently explored. And I wonder what it would take to get these people to understand how thoroughly they're being played by people they trust.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Blurred Boundaries

According to ABC News Australia, two girls, 10 and 12 years old, got lost in a storm drain and were rescued after they updated their status on their Facebook page instead of using their cell phone to simply call for help. The story quotes Glenn Benham of the Metropolitan Fire Service in Adelaide as saying, "If they were able to access Facebook from their mobile phones, they could have called 000, so the point being they could have called us directly and we could have got there quicker than relying on someone being online and replying to them and eventually having to call us via 000 anyway."

I think there's an interesting point to be made here about interaction design and the mental models of naive users. Consider times when you may have helped a naive user with their computer, and found that they didn't understand such basics as the distinction between the operating system and applications, and between applications and what they do. Email is email, internet is internet. You click on the envelope icon for email and you click on the big blue "e" for internet. More advanced users (whose friends or family have installed Firefox on their machines) may talk about starting Google (since that's the default Firefox home page). Talking to them about their email application or internet client is hopeless because they don't understand the concept. This may have made it difficult to communicate the concepts required to resolve whatever problem they were having.

The point for design is that designers are always the world's leading expert in their product, and they often assume that their users will share their mental models. So their interaction and interface designs often presume some basic understanding of an underlying framework: client/server architecture, application-specific preferences, the need for application updates, file formats, even the basic notion of files and operating system services, all of these may be presumed by the designer and escape the user. The consequence is products that are almost unusable by naive users. Typically, such users will learn a very limited path through the interaction logic to perform a very specific task, and become confused if they deviate from that path.

Two trends are conspiring to make this problem worse in the future, as demonstrated by the two girls lost in the storm drain. Technology is becoming more broadly used by less expert users, and the functional boundaries between applications are becoming more blurred as more and more of them add social networking features. It used to be that calling 911 (or 000 in Australia) was the way you called for help and email was how you kept up with friends. Now, whether you're lost in a storm drain or want to see what your friend is doing, you can call them, email them, Twitter it, update your Facebook page, IM it, blog it, ....

The more functional overlap there is between applications, the more likely it is that naive users will learn, and stick with, one preferred way of accomplishing a task, however inappropriate that may be for the situation at hand. I'm not suggesting that designers should limit application functionality to prevent over-burdening users with choices, but rather that they simply recognize that naive users often don't recognize the basic framework and context of systems and applications that designers take for granted.