What can designers do to save the internet (and democracy)?

The unexpected effects of your design

One clean-cut definition of design is a plan to a definite, desired outcome. The designer’s role usually ends there — and the designed solution finds a life of its own.

Users will make all sorts of different uses of your design outcome. Experience tells us that this process is radically unpredictable.

A simple example: back in 1997, “weblogs” made personal journals popular. After 20 years, they have changed journalism, and WordPress sites alone have over 400 million monthly readers.

There is a heated debate whether the ease of access to information we have today — every search in Google takes less than a second to give us answers, plus the huge amount of distractions the web brings us — has shortened our attention span and is even rewiring parts of our brain, as Nicholas Carr describes in his praised book The Shallows and his original article, back in 2008 in The Atlantic, Is Google Making Us Stupid?.

Perhaps Google has designed a new way to access information and may have affected the way we interpret information. There’s a clear and significant — yet unexpected — outcome.

Similarly, technology has enabled a radical transformation on public debate. Twitter has become the loudspeaker of most modern governments. Everyone is able to join the conversation, in real-time. And more: you can show your support to opinions and voices by liking, sharing or commenting.

Now, put all these unforeseen consequences together: what happens when everyone can discuss a topic, simultaneously, but nearly nobody will take the time to dig deep into the discussion?

If anyone can own a blog (and call it “the news”) how can you tell what is fake from what is real? Nearly 60% of people in Hungary, Poland and Italy believe that social media companies will take care of cleaning up fake news. This goes lower in Sweden (34%) and way higher in Russia (84%). The fact, however, is that Mark Zuckerberg explicitly said that Facebook will not fact-check political ads — campaigns which, at times, spread false information.

Welcome to the world of today, its incredible design products and their massive design bugs.

The exploits that are eating the world

A new design may create one solution and unpredictable outcomes. Some of these outcomes allow users to create, produce and live better in ways that the original designer did not think of. One could say these are consequences of good, open-ended design. The unexpected relevance that blogs or YouTube gained are two evident examples.

Some unforeseeable outcomes, on the other hand, allow harmful behaviors to flourish. One could say they are caused by design bugs.

Let’s get back to the idea of the public debate. Anyone can call a blog “news”. Nobody will pay attention to the details. Complexity starts to be erased from everyday debate. Agreement becomes difficult. Facts become boring, and trolling becomes a spectacle. Opinions get polarized. Whoever has more likes and shares, wins. Sounds familiar?

I am sure it does, no matter where in the world you are. The trouble goes a bit deeper, though. And that’s because all these phenomena are quickly assimilated as a “new normal”.

This so-called normal affects the core of our belief systems, like the validity of science, the credibility of journalism, or the type of information we deem as “truth”. That is serious business because it means our most basic pillars are disturbed — and suddenly we have anti-vaxxers, bullies, climate deniers and flat earthers making the truth and facts a matter of opinion. They’re not.

Who’s fault is it?

Is this all happening because of design bugs? I wouldn’t say they are the cause of the phenomena. There are a lot of angry people out there. They have just found a way to exploit the bugs to convey their anger — and, at times, use those as means to their own ends.

As designers, we have affected huge technological transformation in the world. Businesses, information, entertainment, health, science, transportation, relationships, democracy. These multiple disruptions have made a lot of people angry. Take, for instance, these two very physiological needs: food and sex.

A worldwide study from January, 2020, has shown that food delivery platforms (UberEats and the likes) are going to grow 7.5% annually, until 2024. By 2024, platforms will make more money out of deliveries than restaurants. At the moment, the relationship with restaurants is far worse than “it’s complicated”: since 2018, restaurants in New York have signalled that some of these apps are taking over 40% of their revenue per order. Margins had shrunk over a third. In the long run, we may expect some form of balance between the two business models. Restaurant owners are angry.

Tinder has made dating so efficient that the result is mind-boggling: in the “economy” of Tinder, the bottom 80% of men are competing for the bottom 22% of women. On the other hand, the top 78% of women are competing for the top 20% of men. The “dating” distribution is more unequal than the wealth distribution in Venezuela. Some men are pretty angry.

While markets and competition tend to self-regulate, relationships are not governed by the same invisible hand. The Tinder economy may demand a natural balance, with particular consequences.

Along with food and relationships, there’s more change. Furious cars and fast fashion are not sexy anymore. Ethnic slurs are not acceptable. Workplace harassment is no longer “part of the culture”. Homophobia is not OK. Carbon footprint is a thing. So, where does all the anger and resentment go?

They often find their way to these and many other design bugs, features and system loopholes that can be exploited. While no one can prevent innovation from creating loopholes, it is important to see who’s actually willing to fix them.

What can designers do?

Designers can actually do a lot to prevent exploits. Every new user interface generated, and every new user experience created, and every new service designed becomes part of what is, in fact, “current practice”.

You may check the list of possible ideas at Idean's Spotlight here, where the full article has been published.