Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Few Thoughts on the Equation

"Nass and Reeves have spent the last decade working in the area of social responses to technology. We brought them into our team, and they have shown us some amazing things." - Bill Gates, Chairman and CEO, Microsoft Corp.

In the words of Nass & Reeves' Media and Social Roles section of the book, there are a few things left to be uncovered. This book did uncover a great deal of interesting information, but buried beneath a bunch of superfluous text is not a way to crisply deliver something that's supposedly the best thing since sliced bread. It's unfortunate that the study results would be tarnished by a senselessly lengthy read.

The Media Equation, by Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass, was a book explaining the connection between media and people, specifically how little different people treat computers versus other people. There is a lengthy discussion of the aspects of this reality and their exuberant findings (as we are so forcibly reminded without end in the text). These include manners, personality, emotion, social roles, and form. In short, Reeves and Nass explain that there are numerous ways to influence design through tweaks of the expectation of the user and the computer interface. We, as they suggest, have several instincts that influence our actions that only after some rational thinking won't switch over, even things such mundane as stereotypical assumptions based on voices (old or young, woman or man, etc.).

I found the book itself to be completely too long, either it would have been better for the authors to include diagrams or other visual aids to complete the visualization required to process their information (they might've taken their own advice here, in this case) or to have organized the information into more digestible (and memorable) passages than one like the following:
We found no differences, however. The same voice produced the same evaluation, regardless of which machine played it. Moving a voice from one machine to another did not change the identification of the actor making the comments. - Page 176

Passages like the one above, make it read worse than either a good book or a good paper; it confuses between the two. The text itself sleepwalks through the procedures and while there is inevitably provides interesting results, the task to find them makes it incredibly tedious and nearly not worth it.

My favorite portion was actually the chapter on specialists (Chapter 12). The study there was easy to understand, curiously true when brought to real-life cases. Even the line used in the chapter's first paragraph bears credence (or lack thereof, depending on whom you ask) to their theories as to whom to listen to:
All reviews, however, even if positive, are not created equal. A sophomore in one of our classes said that we had told him amazing things about media. But we left his name off the book jacket in favor of a prominent person who had said exactly the same thing. What's the difference between a sophomore and a CEO? And what do the people quoted on the jacket have, even if you don't recognize their names, that others don't? - Page 143

In the end, the CEO quoted above was just as wrong as the student mentioned in the book. Everything about this book wasn't rosy. Like the company's CEO, things exclaimed as great one minute can very well be not so wonderful the next. It depends on how relevant or irrelevant the feature or discussion becomes.

I commented on the blogs of Adam Griffin, Lei Gu, and Brad Twitty.


  1. You say the book is too long because it confuses between a good book and a good paper, but I think that the passage you list is a requirement because if it is not stated then people will question whether that could be a cause. Since it is not a primary focus, they do not go into detail, but they put a sentence to show that they at least attempted to try that. This gives their experiments more legitimacy since they are trying to have more things that they know are not the cause.

  2. That's a fair response. You're correct as to their reasoning. I'll do a better job next time I have a beef with one of the books.

    Thanks for your input, Brian.

  3. I didn't really mind the book's length, although I felt the latter half of the book was a bit rushed, or at least read a bit different from the first half. Perhaps they tried to limit the book length as not to make it too long of a read. Well, on to the next book!