“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” ― William Morris

Social Flow

Posted: February 20th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Inspiration, Interaction Design | Tags: , , | No Comments »

I’ve been re-reading the excellent Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience again and I highly recommend you all do too. In it, author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes his research into how people get into ‘flow’ states, that is states of enjoyable activity where you immerse yourself completely in what you are doing and stay deeply focussed. We’ve all done it at some point, missed our train stop when reading a book, sat down to do something then looked up and it’s the middle of the night and we forgot to eat and so on.

Mihaly argues that modern western society is full of flow destroying activities ripe with passive pleasure, such as television, rather than engaged enjoyment, for example knitting. These activities, while fun at first, lead to a longer term malaise as they do not involve us actively setting our own goals and following them through, which is core to the flow experience. Sports on the other hand are rife with flow, as they exist in their own world with strongly defined goals and excellent feedback to tell you that you’re there and getting better. Experts in the art and music world start to look for more complex experiences, moving from rock bands to classical or jazz, and then setting their own goals to analyse the music and deeply immerse themselves into that world.

What’s amazing about this concept is it works on a many different levels, you can even feel good about your day simply by writing a list of small tasks that need doing (goals) and ticking them off (feedback). Longer lasting, sustainable flow happiness comes from creating more complex experiences within overall goals, for example when you start taking photos you’re proud to create something that’s in focus, but as you spend more time immersed in the subject that is no longer sufficient – more complex internal goals must be met such as composition, lighting and the story being told.

So let’s look at something like mySpace in this light; you can start by signing up (most likely because your friends are there), you fill in your profile and you’re ready to go. This is a simple goal, easily achieved, and now you can start finding your friends – another simple goal. As you look around you realise that your page s pretty dull, so you go away and learn how to customize your page to make it your own (or steal someone else’s page you like). Eventually you have your ideal web home, and are confident to tweak it when you like. Now your personality is represented, you and your friends can comment/message each other as much as you like, and you can work out whether or not to go on a date with that kid with the cool but weird photos who messaged you (my advice is no, unless one of your meat-space friends knows them well and they’re cool). So almost all of mySpace’s activities allow you to set your own goals, or choose from social goals already set, and get rapid feedback from your friends and yourself on how you’re doing – a great flow experience. No wonder everyone spends so much time on there.

My next personal goal: how to engender flow into the next site I build. Sounds like an interesting challenge, with plenty of good feedback.

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