Rachael Hodder helps to build a better, kinder, more compassionate world through design, mentorship, and writing. She is currently a User Experience Analyst at the University of Michigan Health System, where she work with software developers and educators to build applications that are shaping the future of modern medical education in the top-ranked University of Michigan Medical School.
IA Summit 2015 Main Conference Talk
Ted Nelson declared and Peter Morville later echoed, “Everything is deeply intertwingled.” A portmanteau of entwined and intermingled, intertwingled refers to the extreme embedded and woven nature of information. Information, by nature, is more like an ecology and less like the uber-rational, hierarchical forms that we have long worked with a prescribed in our work as architects. For this ecological paradigm, we need methods that are better suited to working with ecologies of meaning instead of methods that prescribe architectures of information.
Where do ecologies begin and (where) do they end? How do we identify them, let alone observe them in motion and work with(in) them? To answer these questions, I will introduce a linguistic and rhetorical research method that can help us, as information professionals, see the contours of ecologies of meaning in speech, text, and symbols. As you become more familiar with tracing ecologies, you will be able to approach your own projects from an ecological perspective. In web speak, once you see an ecology of meaning, you won’t be able to unsee it!
- Understanding of metaphors as nodes in ecologies of meaning
- Why this method is important for doing humane and compassionate info work (compared to other forms of research, e.g. quantitative-oriented methods)
- Ability to identify ecologies of meaning in texts and transcripts
- Ability to follow-up on the topics here to learn more information about I have used this method and how Lakoff and Johnson theorize metaphors.
Rachael Hodder: My talk today is about one method that I use to make sense when I find myself working in a new information ecology. I’m going to talk about metaphor tracking. This is a method of analysis that’s inspired by the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in the book “Metaphors We Live By.”
By tracking metaphors through discourse, we can trace systems of meaning and, in effect, make the mechanics of meaning visible. First, I’ll discuss some of the foundational assumptions that I have using this method. Then going forward, we’ll get to know Lakoff and Johnson’s metaphorical concept. I’ll show you how I used it to understand how Facebook understands itself.
The first foundational assumption I’m making here is based on the idea that language is infrastructure, courtesy of Andrew Hinton. I’ve chopped this down so that it’ll be a sweet aphorism, but I’ll fill in the context. For Hinton, the function of language and its real value in culture is that it allows us to extend our environments or even create new environments out of language.
Through language, we literally build and grow understanding. Indeed, as he writes, “language is the trellis that shapes the way our understanding of our environment grows.” Let that sink in for a second. Language is an infrastructure for understanding.
My second foundational assumption is borrowed from Lakoff and Johnson. If language is the infrastructure of understanding, then we should understand language as the part of information ecology that’s already observable to us. For Lakoff and Johnson, language is evidence of our basic conceptual systems.
In turn, our conceptual systems are fundamentally based in metaphors. This assumption is also partially founded in my background in rhetoric and discourse analysis. I would say technical communication, as well. If you’re in that field, Dorothy Windsor is a huge influence for me, but I couldn’t fit her into the presentation.
One last cautionary note before we continue. For folks not familiar with Lakoff and Johnson’s work on metaphor, this is a fast and fuzzy take. There are things that I’m skipping over. I do hope that you’ll be inspired to look them up and dig in yourself.
As I mentioned, we’re going to be talking about Facebook to understand metaphorical concepts and how they can help us trace information ecology through information environments. Let’s get into this example. Facebook is chock full of metaphors. One common misconception about metaphors is that it’s only a stylistic flourish lacking in substance.
The way that Facebook has deployed metaphorical concepts to make sense of itself is impressive. There have been few precedents in the consumer world for Facebook.
Likewise, when Facebook wanted to extend itself further by becoming a publicly traded company, they needed to build a coherent logic so that engineers, and business strategists, and product designers could grasp what the heck was possible with all that data and all of those APIs.
This information that I’m telling you right now isn’t metaphorical, but it is important context to understanding the value of the types of metaphors that Facebook uses. My goal in these next few slides is to show you how Facebook materializes a very real and tangible platform into existence with language out of just a warehouse full of servers and maybe some networking equipment.
Otherwise, the whole idea of Facebook platform is constructed solely out of language. Perhaps I’m being hyperbolic, but it bears noting that in the sample I’ll show, there’s nothing that imparts a sense of ephemerality or impermanence regarding Facebook platform.
First, here’s the metaphorical concept from Lakoff and Johnson. We tend to think of metaphors as single, isolated words, one word that explains another word. Lakoff and Johnson grow this or extend it to mean a metaphorical concept can be represented. Metaphorical concepts are systematic.
Through metaphorical systematicity, metaphors create coherence in language. If you read Lakoff and Johnson, this model grows in complexity, where different metaphorical concepts can share the same entailments and then branch out again to yet more entailments. Were we to diagram something more complex, the effect might resemble the tower in the background of this slide.
I should also specify that an entailment metaphor is a subcategory of the metaphorical concept. Because the metaphorical concept is present, therefore there’s this other metaphor. I’ll go to the next slide to hopefully clarify that example a little bit.
Here’s a simple example using Facebook. An entailment of the concept Facebook as a platform is a platform is a foundation. Reading it from the diagram, Facebook is a platform. Therefore, a platform is a foundation. That doesn’t quite make sense. Research in action, guys.
In any case, what I’m trying to point out here is that these metaphors are systematic and, through sub-categorization, form a coherent meaning. Because we know that Facebook is a platform, and we know that platforms are foundations, and we know that a foundation is a surface, we can make some assumptions about how Facebook as a platform functions.
Here, we’re looking at a slice of Facebook’s third-party developer documentation. This, in particular, is from 2011, published just months before Facebook’s initial public offering. This isn’t actually published live any more, but you can find it using the Wayback Machine on the Internet Archive.
I’m not sure if this information is contextual, but I do think it’s interesting. I wonder what changed for Facebook to remove this sort of documentation.
While I found this chunk of documentation on social design among traditional API documentation, it’s important to say that this isn’t a technical document. It doesn’t include API calls or different things that would tell developers how to hook into a pool of data within an API. It describes a design methodology.
I suspect this is aimed at third-party product developers, venture capitalists, or other investors to entice them to build on the foundation that Facebook is providing with their platform.
I’ve highlighted the metaphors that seem meaningful in relationship to the platform metaphor. Those are highlighted in blue. We’re seeing lots of building going on here, building conversations, building identities. Building is an entailment of the platform metaphor. Facebook is a platform, and the platform must be built.
An additional entailment is the verb “on.” The platform must be built on. This is an orientational metaphor, because there’s actually no platform there.
Also note the use of “create.” You can create identity, create conversation. This, I think, is part of the metaphorical concept of build. Here, they’re both doing the same work of saying you can build this, you can create that out of these materials we’re giving you.
In the next slide, I’ll distinguish between three general types of metaphorical concepts that I observed in this document. I’m going to break down this big hunk of blue metaphors into some other colors to make it a little bit more clear what’s going on.
Since making the visual that you see here, my analysis has evolved a little bit. Still, in the service of describing this method and how I use it, I’ll describe what we’re looking at rather than what I think lately.
In blue, I’ve highlighted metaphors that impart a sense of physicality or tangibility. You’ll see build, platform, model broken down as an adjective, and patterns. These all impart that physicality that I’m talking about.
In pink, I’ve identified some orientational metaphors. Curate. Further, so extend in a certain direction. Core elements, which places something at the center. This idea of designing from the inside-out, which is a whole other presentation in this idea of social design.
There’s also a few yellows in here. Those a boundary-setting metaphors. I also have one item in an orange color, which, unfortunately, looks a lot like yellow. Poor planning on my part. It’s in the bottom left corner underneath “utilizing community.” It’s the term “Facebook profile data.” Notably, it’s the only thing here that’s not a metaphor and refers directly to data.
I thought that was really interesting. I have questions around that. If I were actually doing content strategy for Facebook or were able to talk to them, I might ask an interview question or something based on this sort of idiosyncrasy that I’m seeing.
Facebook was using a lot of language that is normally used to refer to concrete things and spaces when, in reality, there is no there or that in Facebook. It’s bits and bytes. At best, there are warehouses full of servers and some networking infrastructure.
One of the things that Lakoff and Johnson point out that’s sort of an affordance of metaphor tracking as a research method is that while bringing into focus some ideas about a metaphorical concept, you can use it as a gestalt and see what’s not in focus. Something to ask while looking at documentation of this nature is what’s being concealed?
By Facebook using language that is enmeshed in ideas of construction and definition, what is being drawn out of focus? In this case, metaphor can function, as I noted, as a gestalt.
By looking at what kind of concepts metaphors are used to illuminate about something, in this case the foundational, structural, tangible aspects of the Facebook platform, we can start to think about what they conceal.
Whether or not I’ve convinced you that metaphor tracking is indeed a worthwhile research method for information architecture, I do want to be transparent about some of the risks involved. Really, risks involved in choosing any one research method.
Using only metaphor tracking is like using only one sense to drive a car. It’s unwise to be sure, but at worst it’s destructive and reckless. Use metaphor tracking in combination with other methods of research. Like I mentioned, I can imagine scenarios where doing this sort of work before a site visit or ethnographic interview might help you develop better meteor questions to ask people.
Utilizing a diverse set of methods to understand and trace information ecologies will only help you develop a more holistic understanding of your research domain.
Let’s bring this thing back around to the front. Language is infrastructure. That’s a beefy metaphor in itself, if you’re reading it as a metaphor. For every ivy-covered trellis of understanding, there’s a big damn misunderstanding. Like civic infrastructure, language can introduce environmental upset.
Attempts to build new environments or augment existing ones can have catastrophic consequences that might not be visible until long after a decision has been made. Making the effort to understand the infrastructure of an existing information ecology before steamrolling it and imposing a better one is an act of compassion for that existing ecology.
To be less metaphorical, it’s an act of compassion towards those people, that culture, the community, and everything that comes after it. Compassion needs to be central to our work if we’re working in information ecologies.
In closing, let’s make complexity visible to stakeholders. Maybe tracing metaphors can help them see complexity more clearly. Let’s make room at the table for the end user by understanding the infrastructure in their lives and how they understand. Let’s use our unique understanding of culture as a living and breathing ecology to promote healthy, sustainable information ecologies.
Let’s honor complexity. Thank you.