(Interview) Jonathan Beilin And Erhardt Graeff On Information Flows Between Culture And Communities Online

In the shade of the Austin Convention Center, we spoke to Jonathan Beilin and Erhardt Graeff of the Web Ecology Project the day after their SXSWi Panel, “Seven Years in Online Dating.”

This year’s SXSWi produced interesting dialogue on the future of ideas, technology and innovation.  We were able to talk to some smart speakers there and glean insights on several topics.

In the shade of the Austin Convention Center, we spoke to Jonathan Beilin and Erhardt Graeff of the Web Ecology Project the day after their SXSWi panel, “Seven Years in Online Dating.” The Web Ecology Project is a Boston-based research group that focuses on using large-scale data mapping to study information flows between culture and communities online.

Jonathan, at the beginning of your online dating profile, you write, “I’m very busy.”  Is that a good idea?

Jonathan Beilin: Yes, I’ve found that that’s a good tag to have because lots of people want to ask me what I’m doing.  It’s a good conversation starter.

Have you reaped dividends on OKCupid by having so much of your public persona viewable elsewhere, and by being an easily Googleable person?

JB: I’ve found that by being an easily Googleable person, people tend to trust me a lot.  A lot of people will say that I’m the first person they’ve met in real life off of OKCupid because there’s this huge paper trail of me online.  So it would be very easy to arrest me should I do anything illegal.

How important is design to a site’s ability to get registrants? It amazed me that MySpace was so successful with such a bad design.

JB: Well, design is important because there’s still a demographic difference between MySpace and Facebook, and there are people who feel that adding a really tacky background and cheesy music to their page is a form of expression that’s not allowed on Facebook.  Other people really appreciate the consistency and clean design of Facebook, and that segregates your user base.  And that is, in some ways, desirable.

Erhardt Graeff: We’ve seen a lot of people moving from MySpace to Facebook, and not just because of what we call “The Death of MySpace,” as people move away, but as people grow older.  They’ll start a lot younger on MySpace, getting used to that area that allows for more creativity in how you portray yourself and your profile, but then everybody else is on Facebook, and you’re more about the communications that happen between people and less about the demonstration of creativity.  And maybe you’ll keep some of that, on some other place online, but then Facebook is where everybody else is, and there’s something calming about that, about everyone having the same look.  I think when you get to an older age, even older teenagers, that design aesthetic feels good to them.

I think Match.com won an award for their design, for best designed online dating site.  It’s almost like a shopping cart, the way it’s set up.  Maybe that design is really good and wins awards in the online dating community because it works for better monetization of the platform.  Whereas OKCupid is a little more flat-profile and looks a little more like Facebook, so it’s easy for people to port right over to OKCupid if they’re already used to Facebook-type things and feel comfortable with that design.  What’s a “good” design is incredibly tough to say because a lot of times these sites will cater to niche communities and maybe there’s a whole design aesthetic that they need to appeal to there.

How do y’all feel about how “geek” has become a marketing tool and buzzword, as opposed to something that traditionally signified unpopularity?

JB: I think the problem is that the words geek and nerd don’t mean that much anymore.  There’s actually a large linguistic debate to be had about this.  If anything becomes worth marketing to, it needs to define some appreciable demographic.  So once upon a time, when nerd and geek were being used in a derogatory fashion -

They still are.

JB: Vaguely, but with the rise of movies like Juno and Superbad, the geeky, awkward kid who has weird interests has become – they’re mainstream movies, they make hundreds of millions of dollars, and that sort of behavior is seen as being maybe weird or different, but it’s not as stigmatized.  But the bigger problem is that nerdery and geekery used to be about very specialized bits of interest and some amount of creativity attached to it.  Like being a computer nerd used to mean that you could program a little bit, but now people who just use the internet and play games are computer nerds.  And that’s a much more consumer-oriented, versus creative-oriented, usage of the technology.  Same thing for “music nerds” who just read blogs all day but don’t play an instrument.

Jonathan, tell me about the game controller you designed.

JB: I recently worked with an independent video game collective called Babycastles.  They had a night where people got together and made custom game controllers, and I wanted play with the idea of playing video games being easy, and invert the button.  Typically with the button, you exert effort to create input, but I wanted to make a controller where you had to exert lots of effort to prevent any input from happening.  So I got a heavyweight clamp that people had to squeeze really hard, just to prevent buttons from being pushed.

What are the lessons one could draw from designing online dating platforms, to other online endeavors?

EG: I think there’s a lot of useful data that can be taken from the online dating sphere when people are hoping for an intimate connection with somebody and using certain private communications, because there’s a balance between public and private life that they’re trying to maintain, and that’s something that is carefully curated in an online dating site because you’re trying to attract a mate.  So in that process, you’re thinking very hard about how you want to come across, and every little thing that you get from the other person is a specific signal to you as to how they’re feeling.  So if all designers are in tune with what’s happening on online dating sites to that degree, it could be a helpful insight.

JB: “One thing that’s interesting about online dating is that other social networking platforms are focusing on having online representations of existing social networks, whereas dating websites are explicitly about expanding one’s social network.  If you look at typical use cases on Facebook and LinkedIn and so forth, it’s mostly people messaging each other and friending each other who already know each other either in real life or with a couple degrees of separation.

I think there are lessons to be learned from dating websites, especially on business-related websites like LinkedIn to introduce people who could be working together, in terms of basic things like keyword matching on LinkedIn profiles.  Because right now, the two ways of finding other people on LinkedIn are through huge lists of various degrees of connections without any filtering or sorting to make any sense of it, or going through through the job postings, and it doesn’t match people to jobs that you might post.  It’s suboptimal, and the same matching algorithms that are used in online dating could be applied to business websites.

EG: We’ve already seen that to a certain degree with Friendster, because Friendster was originally a dating site.  And really, that set the template for social networks like Facebook going forward, with these profiles that feature prominently your cultural interests – music, movies, food, etc.  They’ve already been learning lessons from the online dating platforms out there, and I’m sure that’s going to be a closely connected set of design spaces from here on.

OKTrends presents some interesting data.

JB: One thing that I really like about the OKTrends reporting is that it’s culled data that was collected before people even knew that OKTrends was going to occur.  So it’s a particularly natural sampling.  In some cases, it happens to match expected results from other studies that have been performed more generally in real life.

As an OKCupid user, does it make you feel good to be on the site, knowing they are collecting this data?

JB: I guess I feel like maybe my participation in the site is somewhat less frivolous, if I’m at least contributing to a data set.

Thanks, Jonathan and Erhardt!

Web Ecology Project

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