I’m Tim Gorichanaz, and this is Ports, a newsletter about design and ethics. You’ll find this week’s article below, followed by Ports of Call, links to things I’ve been reading and pondering this week.
Friendship is one of things that life is all about. We know that friendship quality is a predictor of life satisfaction and longevity, for instance. And yet rarely do we prioritize it. The U.S. Surgeon General has recently declared our country is in a crisis of loneliness; similar statements have been made in the United Kingdom and other nations. We haven’t prioritized friendship in our own lives, and neither have designers.
To be sure, friendship is considered in some realms of design. Designers of university housing and coffee shops, for example, are more likely to consider how the arrangement of elements will enable friendships and human interactions to form.
As our interactions increasingly go digital, how can we keep friendship in mind while designing?
Architecture for Friendship
Even in architecture, friendship wasn’t much of a consideration until the middle of the 20th century. I have to assume that people in traditional societies built with friendship in mind; this is probably one of the things that we forgot about when we began to systematize our knowledge and then had to rediscover.
In early studies of architecture for friendship, one of the key foci was proximity. The general assumption was that if people encounter each other, they’ll be more likely to become friends.
I’m sure you can imagine that encountering another person is necessary to lead to friendship, but not sufficient. You can probably think of many repeat encounters—with people in shops, at the bus stop, neighbors, coworkers—that never led to friendships. So there must be something more.
This is the question that Robert Sommer and Gwynneth Witney set out to explore in the 1950s. The result became Gwynneth Witney's master’s thesis, but I came across it in the article “Design for Friendship” in a 1961 issue of The Canadian Architect.
In this project, Sommer and Witney studied friendships in a mental hospital—where people spent their time, and who reported having the most friendships. What they found challenged the prevailing idea that proximity was the main ingredient for friendship.
In the hospital, people mainly hung out in their bedrooms, the walkways, or the common room. It turned out that the people who spent the most time seated in the walkways reported the fewest friends. They were physically close to everyone who passed by, but these encounters were fleeting, almost by definition—it’s a walkway, after all.
The takeaway from this research was that spaces that are most conducive to friendship are arranged so that everyone in the space is focused on a central area. The paragon example they give is a hearth. You probably know the feeling of sitting around a fireplace or campfire. Even as everyone can’t help but stare at the fire, the situation enables conversation in an almost magical way.
This finding was echoed in another research project from around the same time, a study of friendships in university housing at MIT. That project looked at the social results of a housing project in which multiple buildings were arranged around a central courtyard. While most of the houses opened onto the courtyard, the planners decided to turn some of the buildings the other way, facing them instead toward the street. Their reasoning was that this would make the street look “lived on,” and hopefully more lively. Perhaps it did—from the perspective of passing cars. But what the researchers found was that the people who lived in the houses facing the street had fewer friends, while many people living in the houses facing the courtyards reported being friends. “We do almost everything together,” one of these residents said.
The structure here is interesting to me. In a room, having a shared focus helps enable friendship. That same principle applies at a larger scale: the arrangement of buildings. I wonder how far up and down the scale the same principle might apply.
Designing for Friendship Online
When I think of friendship in the digital world, the first thing that comes to mind is Facebook. For almost twenty years now, “friend” has been the term for a connection on the world’s largest social network, whether it's a spouse, a childhood friend, or someone you met at a conference once. They’re all “friends.”
My sense is that this phenomenon has largely blocked us from considering friendship in any deeper way when it comes to digital technology.
There’s plenty of research on the psychological and sociological aspects of how friendships form online, but not as much on how interface design choices can inhibit or encourage friendships. Even when we want to design to enable friendships, it’s hard to figure out what friendship may even mean, beyond clicking Like and Share.
One finding in this space is that showing people things they have in common with other users can encourage friendship formation—mutual hometowns, interests, education and so on. On one view, this is just a matter of sharing information; and people with information in common may become friends. But in the context of the findings about how friendships form in physical spaces, I wonder if the power of displaying things in common is really a shortcut to creating a shared focus in digital space.
How else might we create objects for shared attention in the digital world?
Personalized, infinite-scroll news feeds seem to be the opposite of shared attention. They fragment attention. They are more like walkways in Sommer and Witney’s mental hospital. Lots of proximity, and perhaps many surface-level interactions, but not particularly conducive to friendship. It’s interesting that, given the stagnation of Facebook and Twitter, the news feed model may be entering its sunset.
So what’s a better solution? Platforms such as TikTok present one item at a time, which users can discuss in threaded comments. I’m not sure if the comments go particularly deep or how friendships may or may not form there (and how this contrasts with friendships formed via Facebook and Twitter)—but it’s an interesting question.
Surely there are better solutions out there, waiting to be developed—and there’s clearly a need.
Ports of Call
I’m traveling this week and haven’t been very plugged in. I did start reading Gone Girl (I’ve never read it or seen the movie), but that probably doesn’t qualify as a port of call. Consider this a direct voyage back to whatever you were doing before you started reading!
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While reading the portion regarding the university housing experiment, I thought about different ways universities encourage developing friendships, such as joining fraternities and sororities where students nearly do everything together to cultivate lasting deep friendships and relationships and joining clubs and activities that echo similar sentiments. I think this correlates to the study analysis that stated that "doing everything together" and "having a shared focus" encourages and invites friendship.
I believe there are levels to friendships that become apparent online and in person through the interactions between individuals and the amount of effort given within interactions. The facebook example mentioned regarding creating connections by sending and receiving friend requests demonstrates a sort of watered-down meaning of "friend" indicating that there are levels to friendship.
A possible solution to designing for friendship online is targeting the different levels of friendship.