Do what the virtuous person would do?

In the film The Descendents, George Clooney’s character Matt King wrestles — sometimes comically — with new and old choices involving his family and Hawaii. In one case, King decides he wants to meet a rival, both just to meet him and to give him some news; that is, he (at least explicitly) has generally good reason to meet him. Perhaps he even ought to meet him. When he actually does meet him, he cannot just do these things, he also argues with his rival, etc. King’s unplanned behaviors end up causing his rival considerable trouble.1

This struck me as related to some challenges in formulating what one should do — that is, in the “practical reasoning” side of ethics.

One way of getting practical advice out of virtue ethics is to say that one should do what the virtuous person would do in this situation. On its face, this seems right. But there are also some apparent counterexamples. Consider a short-tempered tennis player who has just lost a match.2 In this situation, the virtuous person would walk over to his opponent, shake his hand, and say something like “Good match.” But if this player does that, he is likely to become enraged and even assault his victorious opponent. So it seems better for him to walk off the court without attempting any of this — even though this is clearly rude.

The simple advice to do what the virtuous person would do in the present situation is, then, either not right or not so simple. It might be right, but not so simple to implement, if part of “the present situation” is one’s own psychological weaknesses. Aspects of the agent’s psychology — including character flaws — seem to license bad behavior and to remove reasons for taking the “best” actions.

King and other characters in The Descendents face this problem, both in the example above and at some other points in the movie. He begins a course of action (at least in part) because this is what the virtuous person would do. But then he is unable to really follow through because he lacks the necessary virtues.3 We might take this as a reminder of the ethical value to being humble — to account for our faults — when reasoning about what we ought to do.4 It is also a reminder of how frustrating this can be, especially when one can imagine (and might actually be able to) following through on doing what the virtuous person would do.

One way to cope with these weaknesses is to leverage other aspects of one’s situation. We can make public commitments to do the virtuous thing. We can change our environment, sometimes by binding our future selves, like Ulysses, from acting on our vices once we’ve begun our (hopefully) virtuous course of action. Perhaps new mobile technologies will be a substantial help here — helping us intervene in our own lives in this way.

  1. Perhaps deserved trouble. But this certainly didn’t play a stated role in the reasoning justifying King’s decision to meet him. []
  2. This example is first used by Gary Watson (“Free Agency”, 1975) and put to this use by Michael Smith in his “Internalism” (1995). Smith introduces it as a clear problem for the “example” model of how what a virtuous person would do matters for what we should each do. []
  3. Another reading of some of these events in The Descendents is that these characters actually want to do the “bad behaviors”, and they (perhaps unconciously) use their good intentions to justify the course of action that leads to the bad behavior. []
  4. Of course, the other side of such humility is being short on self-efficacy. []

Ethical persuasion profiling?

Persuasion profiling — estimating the effects of available influence strategies on an individual and adaptively selecting the strategies to use based on these estimates — sounds a bit scary. For many, ‘persuasion’ is a dirty word and ‘profiling’ generally doesn’t have positive connotations; together they are even worse! So why do we use this label?

In fact, Maurits Kaptein and I use this term, coined by BJ Fogg, precisely because it sounds scary. We see the potential for quite negative consequences of persuasion profiling, so we try to alert our readers to this.1

On the other hand, we also think that, not only is persuasion profiling sometimes beneficial, but there are cases where choosing not to adapt to individual differences in this way might itself be unethical.2 If a company marketing a health intervention knows that there is substantial variety in how people respond to the strategies used in the intervention — such that while the intervention has positive effects on average, it has negative effects for some — it seems like they have two ethical options.

First, they can be honest about this in their marketing, reminding consumers that it doesn’t work for everyone or even trying to market it to people it is more likely to work for. Or they could make this interactive intervention adapt to individuals — by persuasion profiling.

Actually for the first option to really work, the company needs to at least model how these responses vary by observable and marketable-to characteristics (e.g., demographics). And it may be that this won’t be enough if there is too much heterogeneity: even within some demographic buckets, the intervention may have negative effects for a good number of would-be users. On the other hand, by implementing persuasion profiling, the intervention will help more people, and the company will be able to market it more widely — and more ethically.

A simplified example that is somewhat compelling to me at least, but certainly not airtight. In another post, I’ll describe how somewhat foreseeable, but unintended, consequences should also give one pause.

  1. You might say we tried to build in a warning for anyone discussing or promoting this work. []
  2. We argue this in the paper we presented at Persuasive Technology 2010. The text below reprises some of what we said about our “Example 4” in that paper.
    Kaptein, M. & Eckles, D. (2010). Selecting effective means to any end: Futures and ethics of persuasion profiling. Proceedings of Persuasive Technology 2010, Lecture Notes in Computer Science. Springer. []

Motivations for tagging: organization and communication motives on Facebook

Increasing valuable annotation behaviors was a practical end of a good deal of work at Yahoo! Research Berkeley. ZoneTag is a mobile application and service that suggests tags when users choose to upload a photo (to Flickr) based on their past tags, the relevant tags of others, and events and places nearby. Through social influence and removing barriers, these suggestions influence users to expand and consistently use their tagging vocabulary (Ahern et al. 2006).

Context-aware suggestion techniques such as those used in ZoneTag can increase tagging, but what about users’ motivations for considering tagging in the first place? And how can these motivations for annotation be considered in designing services that involve annotation? In this post, I consider existing work on motivations for tagging, and I use tagging on Facebook as an example of how multiple motivations can combine to increase desired annotation behaviors.

Using photo-elicitation interviews with ZoneTag users who tag, Ames & Naaman (2007) present a two factor taxonomy of motivations for tagging. First, they categorize tagging motivations by function: is the motivating function of the tagging organizational or communicative? Organizational functions include supporting search, presenting photos by event, etc., while communicative functions include when tags provide information about the photos, their content, or are otherwise part of a communication (e.g., telling a joke). Second, they categorize tagging motivations by intended audience (or sociality): are the tags intended for my future self, people known to me (friends, family, coworkers, online contacts), or the general public?

Taxonomy of motivations for tagging from Ames & Naaman

Taxonomy of motivations for tagging from Ames & Naaman

On Flickr the function dimension generally maps onto the distinction between functionality that enables and is prior to arriving at the given photo or photos (organization) and functionality applicable once one is viewing a photo (communication). For example, I can find a photo (by me or someone else) by searching for a person’s name, and then use other tags applied to that photo to jog my memory of what event the photo was taken at.

Some Flickr users subscribe to RSS feeds for public photos tagged with their name, making for a communication function of tagging — particularly tagging of people in media — that is prior to “arriving” at a specific media object. These are generally techie power users, but this can matter for others. Some less techie participants in our studies reported noticing that their friends did this — so they became aware of tagging those friends’ names as a communicative act that would result in the friends finding the tagged photos.

This kind of function of tagging people is executed more generally — and for more than just techie power users — by Facebook. In tagging of photos, videos, and blog posts, tagging a person notifies them they have been tagged, and can add that they have been tagged to their friends’ News Feeds. This function has received a lot of attention from a privacy perspective (and it should). But I think it hints at the promise of making annotation behavior fulfill more of these functions simultaneously. When specifying content can also be used to specify recipients, annotation becomes an important trigger for communication.


See some interesting comments (from Twitter) about tagging on Facebook:

(Also see Facebook’s growing use and testing of autotagging [1, 2].)


Ames, M., & Naaman, M. (2007). Why we tag: motivations for annotation in mobile and online media. In Proceedings of CHI 2007 (pp. 971-980). San Jose, California, USA: ACM.

Ahern, S., Davis, M., Eckles, D., King, S., Naaman, M., Nair, R., et al. (2006). Zonetag: Designing context-aware mobile media capture to increase participation. Pervasive Image Capture and Sharing: New Social Practices and Implications for Technology Workshop. In Adjunct Proc. Ubicomp 2006.

Source orientation and persuasion in multi-device and multi-context interactions

At the Social Media Workshop, Katarina Segerståhl presented her on-going work on what she has termed extended information services or distributed user experiences — human-computer interactions that span multiple and heterogeneous devices (Segerståhl & Oinas-Kukkonen 2007). As a central example, she studies a persuasive technology service for planning, logging, reviewing, and motivating exercise: these parts of the experience are distributed across the user’s PC, mobile phone, and heart rate monitor.

In one interesting observation, Segerståhl notes that the specific user interfaces on one device can be helpful mental images even when a different device is in use: participants reported picturing their workout plan as it appeared on their laptop and using it to guide their actions during their workout, during which the obvious, physically present interface with the service was the heart rate monitor, not the earlier planning visualization. Her second focus is how to make these user experiences coherent, with clear practical applications in usability and user experience design (e.g., how can designers make the interfaces both appropriately consistent and differentiated?).

In this post, I want to connect this very interesting and relevant work with some other research at the historical and theoretical center of persuasive technology: source orientation in human-computer interaction. First, I’ll relate source orientation to the history and intellectual context of persuasive technology. Then I’ll consider how multi-device and multi-context interactions complicate source orientation.

Source orientation, social responses, and persuasive technology

As an incoming Ph.D. student at Stanford University, B.J. Fogg already had the goal of improving generalizable knowledge about how interactive technologies can change attitudes and behaviors by design. His previous graduate studies in rhetoric and literary criticism had given him understanding of one family of academic approaches to persuasion. And in running a newspaper and consulting on many document design (Schriver 1997) projects, the challenges and opportunities of designing for persuasion were to him clearly both practical and intellectually exciting.

The ongoing research of Profs. Clifford Nass and Byron Reeves attracted Fogg to Stanford to investigate just this. Nass and Reeves were studying people’s mindless social responses to information and communication technologies. Cliff Nass’s research program — called Computers as (or are) Social Actors (CASA) — was obviously relevant: if people treat computers socially, this “opens the door for computers to apply […] social influence” to change attitudes and behaviors (Fogg 2002, p. 90). While clearly working within this program, Fogg focused on showing behavioral evidence of these responses (e.g., Fogg & Nass 1997): both because of the reliability of these measures and the standing of behavior change as a goal of practitioners.

Source orientation is central to the CASA research program — and the larger program Nass shared with Reeves. Underlying people’s mindless social responses to communication technologies is the fact that they often orient towards a proximal source rather than a distal one — even when under reflective consideration this does not make sense: people treat the box in front of them (a computer) as the source of information, rather than a (spatially and temporally) distant programmer or content creator. That is, their source orientation may not match the most relevant common cause of the the information. This means that features of the proximal source unduly influence e.g. the credibility of information presented or the effectiveness of attempts at behavior change.

For example, people will reciprocate with a particular computer if it is helpful, but not the same model running the same program right next to it (Fogg & Nass 1997, Moon 2000). Rather than orienting to the more distal program (or programmer), they orient to the box.1

Multiple devices, Internet services, and unstable context

These source orientation effects have been repeatedly demonstrated by controlled laboratory experiments (for reviews, see Nass & Moon 2000, Sundar & Nass 2000), but this research has largely focused on interactions that do not involve multiple devices, Internet services, or use in changing contexts. How is source orientation different in human-computer interactions that have these features?

This question is of increasing practical importance because these interactions now make up a large part of our interactions with computers. If we want to describe, predict, and design for how people use computers everyday — checking their Facebook feed on their laptop and mobile phone, installing Google Desktop Search and dialing into Google 411, or taking photos with their Nokia phone and uploading them to Nokia’s Ovi Share — then we should test, extend, and/or modify our understanding of source orientation. So this topic matters for major corporations and their closely guarded brands.

So why should we expect that multiple devices, Internet services, and changing contexts of use will matter so much for source orientation? After having explained the theory and evidence above, this may already be somewhat clear, so I offer some suggestive questions.

  1. If much of the experience (e.g. brand, visual style, on-screen agent) is consistent across these changes, how much will the effects of characteristics of the proximal source — the devices and contexts — be reduced?
  2. What happens when the proximal device could be mindfully treated as a source (e.g., it makes its own contribution to the interaction), but so does a distance source (e.g., a server)? This could be especially interesting with different branding combination between the two (e.g., the device and service are both from Apple, or the device is from HTC and service is from Google).
  3. What if the visual style or manifestation of the distal source varies substantially with the device used, perhaps taking on a style consistent with the device? This can already happen with SMS-based services, mobile Java applications, and voice agents that help you access distant media and services.


Eckles, D., Wightman, D., Carlson, C., Thamrongrattanarit, A., Bastea-Forte, M., Fogg, B.J. (2007). Self-Disclosure via Mobile Messaging: Influence Strategies and Social Responses to Communication Technologies. Adjunct Proc. Ubicomp 2007.
Fogg, B. J., & Nass, C. (1997). How users reciprocate to computers: an experiment that demonstrates behavior change . In Proceedings of CHI 1997 (pp. 331-332). Atlanta, Georgia : ACM Press.
Katagiri, Y., Takeuchi, Y., Nass, C., & Fogg, B. J. (2000). Reciprocity and its cultural dependency in human-computer interaction. In Affective Minds: Proceedings of the 13th Toyota Conference, Shizuoka, Japan, 1999 (pp. 209-214).
Moon, Y. (2000). Intimate Exchanges: Using Computers to Elicit Self-Disclosure from Consumers. Journal of Consumer Research, 26(4), 323-339.
Nass, C., and Moon, Y. (2000). Machines and Mindlessness: Social Responses to Computers. Journal of Social Issues, 56(1), 81-103.
Schriver, K. A. (1997). Dynamics in document design: creating text for readers. New York, NY, USA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Segerståhl, K., & Oinas-Kukkonen, H. (2007). Distributed User Experience in Persuasive Technology Environments. Persuasive Technology 2007, Lecture Notes in Computer Science. (pp. 80-91). Springer.
Sundar, S. S., & Nass, C. (2000). Source Orientation in Human-Computer Interaction Programmer, Networker, or Independent Social Actor? Communication Research, 27(6).
  1. This actually is subject to a good deal of cross-cultural variation. Similar experiments with Japanese — rather than American — participants show reciprocity to groups of computers, rather than just individuals (Katagiri et al.) []

Producing, consuming, annotating (Social Mobile Media Workshop, Stanford University)

Today I’m attending the Social Mobile Media Workshop at Stanford University. It’s organized by researchers from Stanford’s HStar, Tampere University of Technology, and the Naval Postgraduate School. What follows is some still jagged thoughts that were prompted by the presentation this morning, rather than a straightforward account of the presentations.1

A big theme of the workshop this morning has been transitions among production and consumption — and the critical role of annotations and context-awareness in enabling many of the user experiences discussed. In many ways, this workshop took me back to thinking about mobile media sharing, which was at the center of a good deal of my previous work. At Yahoo! Research Berkeley we were informed by Marc Davis’s vision of enabling “the billions of daily media consumers to become daily media producers.” With ZoneTag we used context-awareness, sociality, and simplicity to influence people to create, annotate, and share photos from their mobile phones (Ahern et al. 2006, 2007).

Enabling and encouraging these behaviors (for all media types) remains a major goal for designers of participatory media; and this was explicit at several points throughout the workshop (e.g., in Teppo Raisanen’s broad presentation on persuasive technology). This morning there was discussion about the technical requirements for consuming, capturing, and sending media. Cases that traditionally seem to strictly structure and separate production and consumption may be (1) in need of revision and increased flexibility or (2) actually already involve production and consumption together through existing tools. Media production to be part of a two-way communication, it must be consumed, whether by peers or the traditional producers.

As an example of the first case, Sarah Lewis (Stanford) highlighted the importance of making distance learning experiences reciprocal, rather than enforcing an asymmetry in what media types can be shared by different participants. In a past distance learning situation focused on the African ecosystem, it was frustrating that video was only shared from the participants at Stanford to participants at African colleges — leaving the latter to respond only via text. A prototype system, Mobltz, she and her colleagues have built is designed to change this, supporting the creation of channels of media from multiple people (which also reminded me of

As an example of the second case, Timo Koskinenen (Nokia) presented a trial of mobile media capture tools for professional journalists. In this case the work flow of what is, in the end, a media production practice, involves also consumption in the form of review of one’s own materials and other journalists, as they edit, consider what new media to capture.

Throughout the sessions themselves and conversations with participants during breaks and lunch, having good annotations continued to come up as a requirement for many of the services discussed. While I think our ZoneTag work (and the free suggested tags Web service API it provides) made a good contribution in this area, as has a wide array of other work (e.g., von Ahn & Dabbish 2004, licensed in Google Image Labeler), there is still a lot of progress to make, especially in bringing this work to market and making it something that further services can build on.


Ahern, S., Davis, M., Eckles, D., King, S., Naaman, M., Nair, R., et al. (2006). ZoneTag: Designing Context-Aware Mobile Media Capture. In Adjunct Proc. Ubicomp (pp. 357-366).

Ahern, S., Eckles, D., Good, N. S., King, S., Naaman, M., & Nair, R. (2007). Over-exposed?: privacy patterns and considerations in online and mobile photo sharing. In Proc. CHI 2007 (pp. 357-366). ACM Press.

Ahn, L. V., & Dabbish, L. (2004). Labeling images with a computer game. In Proc. CHI 2004 (pp. 319-326).

  1. Blogging something at this level of roughness is still new for me… []