The architecture of information:

Last week I had the privilege of attending the UX Week conference in San Francisco. One of the things I like best about going to a conference is meeting new people. Alas, talking with people I don’t know can be challenging. It’s often not until we find we have something in common that the conversation starts flowing. (It’s easier when you’re a presenter and the other person saw your talk; then you have that in common.)

This is even more difficult when interacting in information environments. At least when communicating in physical environments, we have rich cues that give us a bit more background about the person: how they dress, the tone of their voice, their demeanor, etc. You get no such cues in information environments; often all you see is the person’s name, perhaps a thumbnail of their photo, and a few words they’ve written. It’s thin material to build a conversation upon.

I sense this is the issue Facebook is tackling with a feature it’s currently testing called “things in common.” According to a report in CNET, this feature will add contextual information to people’s names when they post in public conversations: it’ll highlight the things you and that person have in common. So for example, if both of you attended the same school, that fact will appear under the person’s name. The feature will only show information people have made public and will respect audience and privacy settings.

Facebook gets much grief in the media (often with good reason) for its cavalier attitude towards personal information. That said, this feature sounds like a good thing overall. The more I can know about the people I’m interacting with, the more likely I am to start our relationship from a position of trust — to give them the benefit of the doubt. And if the other person is expressing a position that’s different from mine, I’ll probably be less likely to cast them as evil or stupid immediately if I know we come from the same hometown or have similar interests.

I wonder what (if any) unintended consequences could arise from something like this. Would it be weird if the information is asymmetrical? (I can see where the other person is from, but they can’t see where I’m from.) If so, I may assume a degree of familiarity that could be creepy from their perspective. In any case, this new feature sounds like an interesting way of adding richness to an interaction between two strangers. I’m looking forward to experiencing it.