Why Confidence Has Become More Important Than Ever, and Why We Need To Break Algorithms

Confidence.

An enjoyable, positive emotion that feels good. It’s an emotion that yields a greater self-worth, more happiness and enjoyment, greater strength and capabilities, freedom from social anxiety, and of course — more beneficial and enjoyable interactions with others. Confidence is the personality trait that has the power to influence how much we are effected by internal emotions as well as external factors.

Millennials (18–34) are trending toward a transient, socially-connected lifestyle where their social interactions are mediated more and more through online social media services. The benefit of these services is that they allow the millennial to dive deeper into their milieu, but simultaneously make
 it more difficult to venture outside of their social environment by making it so risk averse and comfortable. While it has becomes easier to know the ins-and-outs of your tribe, it has also become “riskier” or “uncomfortable” to explore different social groups, and learn how to speak their language.

Still from The Breakfast Club

There is a catch-22 here, online social media services (Snapchat, Tinder, Instagram, Twitter, etc.)increase the probability of the user encountering diverse millennial social groups more frequently, affording the millennial the ability to create more ties, thus increasing their social network. But these services also make the user more selective with whom they are interacting with. You don’t have to be in detention any more to meet and learn about people from other tribes, you can do it with the touch of your fingertips. Unfortunately, these services also make it harder to meet them at all.

Confidence can also yield a state of open-mindedness, and an open-minded millennial is one who is able to navigate the nuances of differing hyper-specific social groups, ultimately creating a higher permeability for the millennial among these groups.

What if millennials could be conditioned to be more confident when approaching situations new to them, and interacting with strangers outside of their milieu, offline? This ultimately means millennials need to seek the very experiences that these deep learning services definitely won’t suggest or point to.

Drawing from Kocaballi’s “Embracing Relational Agency In Design Process”, design approaches dealing primarily with social interaction should not only recognize but support the existence of the multiple personalities embodied in one individual. In addition, they should also support the possibility of multiple enactments of one individual within a network of other human and non-human actors interacting with each other and exhibiting different capacities for action. For this reason, a collection of experiences were designed to condition confidence. Each individual is constantly exploring their behavior, their identity — who they know themselves to be — in every conscious moment. Approaches must take into account the fluidity of one’s personality and journey of self-discovery.

My graduate thesis provided a collection of tools that help to facilitate socially risky experiences. These tools create situations, giving individuals the opportunity to participate in a socially risky experience. The behavior around the objects are merely a catalyst for exploring the relationship between social risk and lifestyle choices, presenting the opportunity for self-awareness, self-reflexivity, and self-knowledge to surface.

The safety of online social media services is comforting, but being risk averse isn’t fun (Honestly, who wants to spend an hour swiping left and right on a smart phone?). By breaking down the fear around taking a social risk by making it fun, taking social risks becomes more manageable — whether it be asking someone on the bus out on a date, getting to know the new guy at work, or how to introduce yourself to a stranger at a cafe.

One important bit I picked up from my research is that emerging technology doesn’t change our behavior, it changes the way we interact.

Before not texting a crush back, there was not answering the phone. Before that, it was not answering the door. But, I was still left with this question:

As the frequency of millennial social interactions mediated through technology increase, how can they prepare for an algorithmic future when their initial online interactions are based on their curated selves?

Because of social media’s emergence during a millennial’s (18–34) formative years, there is a confluence between millennial offline and online identities. Social media came around at a time where we were working toward defining some of the fundamental aspects of our identities. For some, this may still be true.

When thinking about how algorithms are employed in social media, they make it easier to go deeper into who they know themselves to be, but don’t leave much room for exploration. For example, Twitter probably won’t suggest Bobby to follow the Mets fan from Brooklyn unless he starts to display Mets fan behavior on that network. Predictive suggestions also make it harder to learn new things about themselves.

Confronting social risks in real life is what most effectively teaches you about you. These experiences become critical in breaking the perpetual narcissism that deep learning algorithms symptomatically promote.

Even the most sophisticated Deep Learning / A.I. programs tend to not be capable of such exploration because they are programmed for quite the opposite task, they want to learn your habits quickly and efficiently. If a deep learning program is able to acknowledge an individual’s desire for this exploration, it might not work all that great — seeing a Facebook ad for Men’s Indoor Tanning Lotion isn’t necessarily going to make the user want to go tanning unless indoor tanning is something he experiences first.

These deep learning algorithms are precise, but an algorithm is only as good as what it can see. How could these algorithms be accurate to millennial wants and desires If millennials don’t even know themselves as well as they can?

For my graduate thesis at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I examined some millennial social experiences and creating socially risky objects based on these experiences. When facing a socially risky situation, you are put in a position where you reflect on your values. This situation could reveal nuances of your personality that you didn’t even know about yourself.

It was important to ground these objects in face-to-face interaction. Using the “object-hood” of these physical objects, they operate as a spectacle within a group/public context, encouraging interactions with strangers. An app on my phone is nearly invisible to others — social apps are good at telling me about who is 5 miles away from me, but this isn’t helpful when it comes to breaking the ice with someone sitting right next to me on the bus.

We can learn a lot about ourselves by facing socially risky situations in group/public contexts. I designed three different approaches to making offline social risk taking feel more manageable for millennials, with the main goal being to insight moments of self-knowledge, self-actualization and self-reflexivity for the individual through their real-life interactions with other people.

By making social risk taking manageable, the experiences designed for my thesis attempted to break down any fear around offline social interaction. Not only do these experiences seek to remind millennials of the potential affordances of real life interactions, but also make these interactions feel easier — and — with the introduction of some risk — fun and exciting.

This project ultimately seeks to condition a millennial to feel more confident in social situations, thus creating a millennial that is able to navigate the nuances of offline social interactions.

The first project was a 3D-Printed Tattoo Marker that ran the motor on a short random timer between 3 and 5 seconds. I was interested in seeing the nuances of how people would respond to the timer. But more importantly, I was hoping to tap into Maslow’s concept of a “peak experience”. The marker itself creates tension between ephemerality and permanence — becoming a metaphor for the relationship between two people, revealing ones’ range and willingness of trust and commitment.

This marker makes something perceived as risky more manageable due to the limited time duration. The “rip it off like a band-aid” idiom is appropriate here — maybe after getting a tattoo from this marker, going up to stranger you find attractive or asking a stranger for help won’t seem so scary.

The next approach was, comically enough, inspired by an Aziz Ansari bit. The Sexting Roulette Kiosk is a discursive approach reflective of the difficulty of texting a crush or the latest hook-up, the Sexting Roulette Kiosk sends anonymous pre-coded sexts to a user-input number, but only if you are drunk enough. The more inebriated the user is, the more “extreme” the sexts become.

This object seeks to break down the barrier around the fear of texting someone you are interested in by sending them a pre-coded anonymous sext, subversively facilitating interactions (who sent the sext?). The tangibility of the object becomes a spectacle within a public/group context, encouraging interactions with strangers as the device is used.

People who weren’t drunk enjoyed using other drunk people (sometimes they didn’t even know them) as proxies to send sexts to whoever their love interest currently was, boyfriends, girlfriends, wives, even grandmas. While it did encourage interactions with strangers, the fun part was the stories that came after. For example, one user sent a sext to her boyfriend who was on a bus with his hockey team. Her boyfriend was convinced someone from his hockey team sent it, and the interaction ended up creating a bonding experience between him and his team before the game. I found older, married couples tended to delete them immediately, fearing possible repercussions if the sext was found by their partner.

The final approach was inspired by Snapchat, channeling the experience into analog form.

Snapcards feature a phone number that disappears within 24 hours, displacing some of the risk onto the receiver of the card. These cards act as an icebreaker between two strangers in passing without having to commit to a conversation. The individual who gives the card is able to rationalize possible rejection due to the possibility of the ink fading before the receiver could put the number in their phone. This makes rejection feel more manageable, effectively increasing ones’ willingness to ask someone out.

It’s easy to blame technology for our woes, but technology is a tool—at the end of the day, it’s up to us how we want to use it. While I still love algorithms, this project reminded me to take them with a grain of salt. It’s only when we learn how to break them, we can learn how to use them.