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Opinion | Can social media UX teach us humility?

A San Francisco-based UX designer proposes easy-to-use Twitter tools that encourage users to admit to a mistake and receive forgiveness as positive reinforcement

San Franciso-based product creator Nick Punt proposes a Mea Culpa feature for Twitter that enables a poster to admit to a mistake using the same visual design as flagged tweets. (Image: Mint)
San Franciso-based product creator Nick Punt proposes a Mea Culpa feature for Twitter that enables a poster to admit to a mistake using the same visual design as flagged tweets. (Image: Mint)

In my early days as Lounge editor, three years ago, I was the tiresome person at parties flipping out my phone and asking people which cover they liked most amongst the last four, what text they read first on the cover page (not always the headline, apparently), which columnist they read first, whether right-hand pages do it for them more than left-hand ones. Do they read page-wise, in the order intended, like eating from an Indian thali, or jump to what piques their interest straightaway, like a buffet?

Even when we don’t use the term explicitly or call what we do UX (user experience) design, UX is important in the way we design and continually update products. My friend Shirin Johari, a designer, innovator and frequent TEDx speaker with 40-plus design awards to her name, including a Cannes Design Gold, uses the UX word rather freely. This week, she shared with me an article from her UX Collective newsletter that seems to have been specifically written for Indian social media users in 2020.

The article, titled De-Escalating Social Media: Designing Humility And Forgiveness Into Social Media Products, is by Nick Punt, a San Francisco-based “product creator interested in elevating the human condition". Punt has an MBA and a master’s in education from Stanford, a BA in psychology and was a video-game designer at some point—a curious collection of qualifications that he melds in his proposal for social media tools that reward humility and forgiveness.

Punt points out that our present social media environment is skewed towards conflict and tribalism and that the very design of social media platforms has a big role to play in the way small misunderstandings, mistakes or disagreements are escalated. There are very few tools to moderate these effects.

He uses Twitter as a model and the target case of how a user can admit to a mistake. “People are wrong about a lot of things, but struggle to admit their mistakes," he writes. While global cultures have their own norms for face-saving, social media largely lacks these cultural norms. We don’t see enough people admitting to their mistakes (low social proof) and the cost of committing a mistake is high—the original poster is subject to a constant deluge of new readers calling them out, with the combined energy of the outraged far exceeding that of the poster. Furthermore, social media engagement engines favour the drama of the mistake over the correction and reconciliation, if any. So, they do not have the necessary cool-down period to respond thoughtfully. Wearing his psychologist’s hat, Punt also accepts that when feeling personally attacked, it is human nature to dig in rather than apologize. While Twitter’s present options include ignore and delete, his revolutionary proposal is to institute a Mea Culpa feature that allows users to flag their own post admitting they made a mistake

Punt graphically illustrates his proposal on his website,
Punt graphically illustrates his proposal on his website,

Punt’s Mea Culpa feature enables a poster to de-escalate a situation using the same action menu that deleting a post uses, and the same visual design as flagged tweets. A flag icon with the simple text “I made a mistake" uses clear language that separates the individual from what they have said in that instance, employs an active voice to signal responsibility and leaves no room for ambiguity. Further, users can’t engage or amplify the post further. “Mea Culpas are intentionally designed to favour respectful debate and ability to cool off," writes Punt.

Why such an elaborate dance to enable people to admit to a mistake? Why can’t people just apologize when they ought to? The question brings me back to a seminal book by the American anthropologist Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum And The Sword, which set out the principal difference between America’s guilt culture (a culture that necessitates golfer Tiger Woods apologizing to an entire nation about his marital infidelity) versus Japan’s shame culture (a culture that favours self-harm and suicide over losing face in public). While both are extreme, I do believe our collective leaning on social media is now culturally American, in that it demands a public apology to resolve situations, which people find hard to do. The UX systems of our social media do not make it any easier.

It is Punt’s goal to explore designs that help build understanding, find resolution to conflict, and offer paths for restorative justice. His other terrific solution is on the flip side: offering forgiveness with a Forgive Button. “This is another pro-social behaviour, because receiving forgiveness is positive reinforcement that… makes us more likely to admit a mistake in the future."

Punt’s design suggestions are deeply rooted in UX. “Not only is it a lot easier to press an ‘I made a mistake’ button than it is to choose what kind of walk-back you want to type out, it makes the acknowledgement of the mistake more unequivocal…and its special status encourages others to use the feature," he argues, adding that admitting a mistake is not just a bag of words but a special case of human interaction that needs UX prominence to align to its importance in human society. Crucially, says Punt, “As with all things UX, features that are easier to use wind up being used more, and features used more wind up changing the culture and norms of how the product is used." Do think for a moment how different our Instagram landscape would be today had the number of likes for each post been hidden from inception rather than only after Instagram’s new shift. Would you have had as many semi-naked Urdhva Dhanurasanas on the beach and as many perfect plates of food?

The path to a less hostile and aggressive social media might indeed lie in a simple Forgive Button. What I would love to learn more about is a UX design that allows us to press Mea Culpa and the Forgive Button one after the other—a design that allows us to first forgive ourselves.

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