Whitney Erin Boesel’s most recent post addressing the potential “regentrification” of Myspace helps to illuminate a further point that we should bear in mind whenever we’re considering the implications of a site – or an interface – redesign/reboot: it’s not a sweeping, instantaneous change that’s rooted entirely in the present, and its users almost never perceive it that way. This can help to explain the frequent emotional intensity with which users often respond to redesigns.
“Reboots” are, in many cases, last-ditch attempts to revive something’s usefulness and vitality. Reboots of movie franchises, comic series – and reboots of websites. The latter is especially interesting given what it involves: every reboot is a risk in that it might lose fans and might not gain enough new ones to replace them, but given how personal a lot of us feel our social media spaces to be, a website reboot can feel like someone’s come in and redecorated your house without asking for your input.
It shouldn’t be surprising to us that people have such powerfully knee-jerk emotional reactions to redesigns of their digital space. As David Banks has pointed out, we have profound emotional attachments to our interfaces with our digital spaces, whether those interfaces are websites or operating systems. While our feelings of ownership when it comes to digital corporate property may be problematic, and we may prefer to rationalize our essentially emotion-based feelings by couching our objections in terms of overall functionality, what’s really going on is far more complex, and has to do with the entwined nature of our perception of digital and physical space. As David writes:
When someone takes control over something we hold as intimate, we feel infringed upon. Something that should be under our personal control has been altered without our explicit consent and that makes us feel vulnerable…The EULA might say everything belongs to the company, but you are your profile. Changing your desktop experience or your profile layout is tantamount to some stranger running up to you and giving you a haircut against your will.
It’s been noted by some in web design circles that when it comes to site redesigns, a significant percentage of users always seem to respond with negative backlash when they find their digital space altered – and this has to do not only with a recognition of the state of the present, but with a suddenly looming and potentially out of control future. In the link above, Cennydd Bowles observes that (emphasis mine):
A favourite site has an emotional connection for us: we like it, it likes us, and we can depend each other. We fear the disruption of that equilibrium: a redesign raises the question of whether the site will grow in a direction we don’t want to follow.
This is somewhat self-evident, but I think it’s also worth being very specific about. Digital spaces possess dimensions of a linear temporal existence, though in many respects they are atemporal: they exist in our present and extend their potential existence backward into the past and forward into the future. This gives their redesign temporal weight. For a user, the implications of this are profound. Not only has the user’s space changed, but now any number of other changes seem possible. Imagination of the future has the potential to become something fraught with discomfort and even fear.
I used to be a Livejournal user, and I recall when Livejournal made the move toward enabling its users to link their LJ accounts to their Twitter and Facebook accounts. This, in conjunction with some other site changes, created a strong user backlash that centered around the feeling that LJ’s overlords were attempting to make the site “more like Facebook”. The resounding response of the angry userbase was that they already had Facebook accounts and didn’t want their two separate spaces to become more like each other. They didn’t like the perceived direction in which Livejournal was heading; this was actually what seemed to make people more upset than the site changes in isolation from anything else. The other factor that seemed to be primary in their anger was a sense of a loss of control. Some LJ users admitted that the changes themselves didn’t bother them, but the way in which the changes were rolled out – with no user input – was profoundly troubling to them.
In short: User angst regarding interface redesigns is about anxiety in the future as much as it is dissatisfaction with the present.
This brings me back around to the idea of gentrification. Again, it’s perhaps fairly self-evident, but still worth being explicit about: Gentrification of physical space is a process, not a snap change from one state to another. It’s a process in which people exist, and their perceptions regarding the direction of that process might or might not affect in what direction that proceeds. Further, their temporally-laden perception of their changing space may be the source of – or in some cases the alleviation of – their anxiety. When we examine how a userbase response to a change in their digital space, we need to be sensitive regarding what specifically they’re responding to – the sum total of the changes themselves, or something more?
So far, response to Myspace’s redesign has been pretty positive – but I note that many of these positive responses seem to come from tech blogs and other sources that feel more external to Myspace’s actual userbase. A cursory scan through Twitter turned up a number of posts about the redesign, but most frequently from old users who said they were considering returning if the reboot took off (which is clearly one of Myspace’s primary goals). It’ll be interesting to see how the existing userbase responds – and to what exactly they’ll respond.