What the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Reveals about Hashtags, Search, and Context

After the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge had made it’s way through the celebrity circuit these past few weeks, videos of my friends doing it started showing up in my newsfeed. Then came the haters who criticized the phenomenon as “narcissism masked as altruism”. While I generally found these criticisms to be excessively cynical, I couldn’t help but take them as a motivation to re-imagine the way we gather information about our surroundings and make decisions in this technology driven world. The result is a design concept I’d like to call “Context Cards”. Let’s discuss.

Mr. Clean Participates in Movember

Capturing context is not trivial

I was reminded of an embarrassing moment two years ago when a friend asked me if I knew what the whole Movember thing was all about. Admittedly, I thought it was just something all the cool kids were doing (I had never bothered looking into it because I look like a rat if I grow my mustache out). Well, it turns out that Movember Foundation is a real entity that has raised well over $100 million of charitable funds worldwide to date. But I had no idea then, and as I ponder the Mr. Clean Movember ads shown above, I can see that it is very easy for messages to get lost.

Hashtags as a method of capturing context

Upon first glance, hashtags appear to be a great way to pass on a message. Marketing agencies include the same hashtag in their posts, and that system works, right? But then let us consider a hypothetical situation where Jane Smith has encountered the #ALSIceBucketChallenge hashtag for the first time, and doesn’t know what it’s all about.

Twitter hashtag example

What does she do? Let’s assume her first instinct is to click the hashtag, which leads to my first point: When you click a hashtag, you don’t really get linked to related information – you get linked to arbitrary information that just happens to have the same hashtag. This is an important distinction. But don’t take my word for it, look at the screenshot below and see for yourself:

Results from Twitter hashtag lookup: ALS Ice Bucket Challenge - Twitter

It’s just a bunch of random people’s tweets about this thing Jane still doesn’t understand. Remember Facebook before they launched hashtags? People had already started using them in posts; the hashtags simply weren’t linked to anything. Then one day Facebook launched hashtags officially, and low and behold – nothing happened. People just kept using hashtags all the same, and barely ever clicking on them. Why? It’s because unless you’re a reporter examining the public’s reaction to something, they don’t provide much more value. Hashtags are just preset links to unintelligent search results.

Internet Search as a method of capturing context

So Jane gets fed up, and decides to use a search engine instead. This is what she finds:

Results from Google search: ALS Ice Bucket Challenge - Google

Just look – the absolutely most relevant possible thing on the internet is the first result! And the description text actually sheds light on what the hashtag represents… there’s just no comparison. So after reading through the search results, Jane Smith is now satisfied. But then she begins to think, “Man, that was a lot of work. I wonder why I had to leave Twitter to get this information. No wonder the message gets lost in translation sometimes…”

“Context cards” as a method of capturing context

The overarching observation here is this: hashtags and internet search are actually related concepts, the friction between which results in loss of context. In response to this, I propose something called “Context Cards,” portrayed below:

Context Cards

The idea is that a preview of the hashtag’s internet search results are displayed directly below it. Any uncertainties or inquiries I have can be immediately be satisfied by the context card. The friction is eliminated, and context is provided.

If you think about it, this is not a foreign concept. Imagine if every time a YouTube video is posted to Facebook, all that shows up is the link to the video but not the video itself. Imagine how much more friction there would be in deciding whether or not to watch a video posted to your newsfeed, and how much less engaging the experience would be. But recall that embedded media was not originally a feature of Facebook – it was feature they added later on to add context to the links that were being posted. And today, we have an opportunity to do the same thing for all words authored into a post, not just media links.

Capturing context; tomorrow and beyond

Why is such a seemingly minute detail so important? I think when it comes to user interfaces that are used billions of times per day, the smallest decisions can influence hundreds of millions of hours of global productivity, which equates to triillions of dollars of economic impact. In other words, yes, it does fucking matter.

When augmented reality arrives en mass, the sort of micro-decisions that we make hundreds of times per day as we interact with our devices will turn into thousands of times per day as we interact hands-free with the world. Imagine this – Jane Smith is walking down the street and sees someone dumping an ice bucket over their heads. Before she even has a chance to open her mouth, Siri’s AI modules have already detected her surprise, identified the scene unfolding in front of her as the #ALSIceBucketChallenge, and presented a context card to Jane’s heads up display. So as you can see, in the future, context will continue to matter by orders-of-magnitude more than it does now.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has already raised over $40 million world wide in the past ~3 weeks. Imagine what the outcome might’ve been if all the Jane Smith’s in the world were given better context?

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