Thursday, June 30, 2005

Manipulation and Liberation

A couple of days ago, I attended a workshop on writing for the web, since I manage a couple of websites. It was a good workshop, and I learned some important web-writing principles, most of which I violate in this blog (but I already knew that). For example, it is not good to have big blocks of text on the web. Physiologically, people actually read differently on screen from how they read on paper, and usually do not want to read big blocks of text. Breaking up the big blocks by using titles, subtitles, boldface type, and short paragraphs (and of course, pictures) is very helpful. And I do try to apply such principles to the web pages I maintain (though there is room for improvement) -- but I do regard blogs as different. So, I don't mind others' blogs having big blocks of text, and I know that I am one of the very worst offenders in this respect.

But, that's not really what I wanted to write about today. One point that especially struck me in the workshop, and disturbed me a bit as well, was that the presenter referred to a book entitled Don't Make Me Think, by Steve Krug (Que Books, 2000). Our presenter (Merry Bruns) described this book as pointing out that the whole point of web design is to pull people in without their having to pause in puzzlement over how to find what they need. It should be obvious. People should be able to naturally find their way to what interests/helps them without having to think about it. She admitted that this is about control. In designing web pages this way, you end up controlling how viewers use the web pages.

I found this a little troubling, but very illuminating.

What I found troubling was the very notion of engineering things so carefully that you end up controlling someone else's mental processes. The very expression "don't make me think," appeals to mental laziness, and exploits it. It's a way of blocking awareness, but is so clever that the person whose awareness is blocked believes that it was really their choice, and they really don't mind -- in fact they are helped rather than harmed by having their awareness blocked. Yet, even all of this is not conscious, but dwells just under the threshold of consciousness.

I think there is much in our (U.S.) culture that operates this way. Advertising manipulates our thinking in subtle ways like this. The design of stores manipulates human behavior in subtle ways. We are being controlled, and the manipulation is so effective that we are even convinced that we make all of our choices with full consciousness and intentionality.

In my classes, we sometimes talk about cultural influences on thought and behavior, and often the issue of violence on TV comes up. Students always start off by defending the violence on TV, saying it is harmless, and also saying that the reason there is so much violence on TV is because "we want it; we like it; we watch it." Then the fun begins. I ask them questions like, "How many of you actually do specifically like watching violent scences on TV? Do any of you avoid seeing movies when you hear there is a lot of violence? Would you watch other kinds of programs if there were more choices? What would you watch? What would you really like to see?" It turns out that those who specifically like watching violence are very few. Most put up with it in terms of how its presence supports the overall plot, but once they really start thinking about it, they admit that although violence does rivit one's attention, that doesn't mean they actually like watching it. Or, if they do, it is in order to learn something else.

Once my students have seen that in our admittedly small sample size there are very few who actually like how much violence there is on TV, then we revisit their earlier assumptions: "Why did you initially think that there is so much violence because people like it?" and they begin to realize that that belief, which may in fact not be true at all, has itself been thrust into their belief system without their evaluation or consent, and has shaped their perception of human nature (humans are violent by nature and are attracted to watching violence). They get very uneasy at this point, wondering how much else that they believe, that seems like "common sense," may in fact be questionable.

The more we can learn about how beliefs seep into our thinking unevaluated, the more hope there is that we can liberate ourselves from their subtle but powerful influence on us.

So, the amazing question that emerged for me after this web writing workshop was this: can teachers and writers use these very same principles of subtle thought-control to liberate our students and readers from such subtle manipulation?

If so, is it ethical to do this? To manipulate people into claiming their liberation?

Actually, I don't think it is possible to manipulate people into claiming their liberation, because the point of liberation is having choice. People can still choose not to accept their full liberation, their full freedom. (Unfortunately, I see this happening all too often in my teaching.) So where liberation is genuine, it happens through awareness, choice, and consent.


  1. Hi there,

    It's Merry Bruns herself-I just now bumped into your blog by accident!

    I'm not sure where you heard me speak about web writing, but I generally do like to let people know about books I like, and I do like Steve Krug's book, "Don't Make Me Think", very much, primarily because he packs a lot into small space (and doesn't charge $45 to do it).

    I understand your feelings about the "control" word-and I absolutely agree with you about user "laziness" implied in the book's title. "Control" was probably too strong a word for me to have used. It's more like, learning the web writing techniques that enable you, the web editor, to "guide" people seamlessly towards things you wish to highlight on your site, in your navigation, or on the page itself.

    However, the user always, always has ultimate control over his or her movements on your site. That's the great joy of the web, and why I instantly found I preferred it to TV. The web hands all control over to the user, and is the media opposite of (TV-like) passivity.

    We make the choices about:
    -where to go
    -what navigation to browse
    -which pages to read
    -and we can and do leave anytime we wish.

    In closing, please feel free to contact me-I'm old enough to have a pretty broad perspective on communications, and enjoy chatting
    about the changes the Internet has wrought in our cognitive patterns.

    BTW, your blog is elegant and interesting-I'll be back.


    Merry Bruns

  2. Thank you so much for finding this and responding! I only just now have found your comment (I thought I'd get e-mails when people comment, but have recently realized that I only get notification when people respond to my most recent post. So now I periodically go back and look through to see if there are new comments to earlier postings).

    Anyway, I appreciate your thoughts very much. And I agree with you that web users really do have much more control over what they do than TV watchers do, which is why I like the web so much too.

    And, further, I appreciated very much your presentation on writing for the web, and your advice about not making viewers have to work too hard to find what's important on your page. It does make it easier and better for everyone if web pages are designed so well that web viewers can quickly and easily make accurate judgments of relevance.

    Thanks again for commenting!