The role social networks play in affording a space for hateful and violent content has been put on disturbing display in recent times as these diatribes are directly connected to unimaginable acts of inhumanity. It’s hard not to see the throughline from these online forums to real-world atrocities. But researchers are exploring how the design of these platforms can have a meaningful influence on fostering more positive feelings online. Specifically, gratitude.
City University of London researchers recently published a study—“I Can’t Express My Thanks Enough”: The “Gratitude Cycle” in Online Communities—in the Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, and it looks at how people online experience gratitude and how better understanding this can pave the way for design updates that lend themselves to healthier engagement with one another.
The researchers conducted Semistructured Critical Incident interviews with eight users of varying online communities, which included the likes of Facebook, Quora, TripAdvisor, and Mumsnet—a UK discussion forum for parents, according to the study. There were four male users and four female users and they were aged between 24 and 44-years old. These interviews, which were about 45 minutes each, drew out 17 “memorable” examples of gratitude in these communities. The researchers also deduced from their study what they characterized as a “gratitude cycle,” which they described as a “detailed, holistic understanding of the experience of gratitude online that can inform the design of online community platforms that aim to motivate users to perpetuate the cycle.”
According to the study, common ways in which people experienced an act of gratitude was through responses to people’s posts with relevant information or support. One of the interviewees, for instance, said that she sent some friends in Japan a wedding gift and she was touched when the friend posted a photo of the gift on Facebook, wrote a long public thank-you post, and sent her a private message praising her thoughtfulness. Another thanked someone on LinkedIn for their Vlog post and asked that they continue to post their videos “He was motivated not only because he valued the content,” the study stated, “but because the VLogger had questioned whether he was to continue producing Vlogs, as he was struggling to do so alongside his job.”
Stephann Makri, a lecturer and admissions tutor at City, University of London’s Centre for Human-Computer Interaction Design, who co-wrote the paper, told Gizmodo in an email that online community platforms like Facebook and Twitter “should support more meaningful expression and acknowledgment of gratitude” such as the examples detailed above, and went on to detail a few ways in which this might be achieved.
First, Makri said that platforms should do more than simply “lightweight” buttons, citing the ‘like’ and upvoting buttons commonly seen on social networks, and instead let users add why they are grateful. He said that customizable templates could allow for this type of engagement.
Makri also said that platforms could move away from “volume-based reward mechanisms” like, again, upvoting, as well as likes and retweets, and instead reward users for the quality of their posts by letting users both flag posts they found especially useful and giving them space to elaborate on why they felt that way.
“There’s also room for online community platforms to better support gratitude expression ‘while the iron’s hot,’” Makri said, suggesting push notifications for when someone is most likely to feel peak gratitude, such as right after they ate at a restaurant, calling it a “Remind me to thank” function that could prevent users from neglecting to express gratitude “after the initial ‘warm and fuzzy’ feeling has subsided.”
Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive nor definitive list of changes platforms could adopt to encourage and perpetuate a more gracious online community. Rather, the study serves as a lens into what these types of interactions already look like and how they can illuminate social networks on the relationship between the design of their features and the inclination for a user to engage with another user in a positive way.
As it stands, many of the social networks with the most users and the most fervent devotees are doing the bare minimum when it comes to intervening with and preventing virulent content. And when it does come to positive reinforcement for engagement, it’s oftentimes to simply meaningless social currency to keep people on the platform longer; more of an empty gesture than a satisfying takeaway of gratitude. That feeling of “like” buttons being a failed experiment has been expressed by the very engineers who created them for Facebook and Twitter.
This study functions as preliminary research on a subject that’s been largely ignored. It’s a very rough roadmap when it comes to exactly how these companies should reinvent their platforms to create healthier communities. But it’s just a small step, and there’s probably no surefire design choice that’s a sweeping solution to encouraging all users to act with graciousness, but it’s a way of thinking that is desperately warranted at a time when forums are being described as a “cesspool of hate.”