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Can we solve big problems on digital post-it notes?

Updated: Mar 23, 2022

Marshall McLuhan famously said the medium is the message. This quote suggests that we need to pay attention to communication channels - books, magazines, radio, TV, social media platforms - for the impact they have on shaping content. For example, when it comes to Facebook and misinformation, we not only need to think about content moderation as a solution, but also examine and make changes to the very structure of the platform itself. That got me thinking about the ways in which communities are coming together to work on big social problems like AI ethics.

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time in online forums lately where we’re trying to unpack some really big questions. We’re looking at issues of algorithmic bias and accountability, racial equity, justice and inclusion. We’re doing a lot of this work using digital post-it notes found in tools like Google’s Jamboards, Miro, Mural and other online collaboration tools.

I’m a big fan of physical post-it notes.

My office supply budget line for last year was primarily consumed by purchasing post-it notes in a wide array of colours, shapes and sizes. I’m surrounded by tiny colourful reminders of tasks, ideas, motivational quotes, upcoming events and other things to get done.

The post-it note as a medium has some obvious limitations. There’s only so much one can say on a post-it note. There are also things you should not try to say with a post-it note. I’m thinking of the infamous “he broke up with me on a post-it note” scene from Sex and the City. Mediums that favor pithy messages may not be the best ones to address complicated subjects.

In online spaces that use digital post-it notes, the font size contracts as your message expands. But, in order to be somewhat legible, it’s understood that you’re not going to try and write a novel on that tiny square of digital real estate. Thus, we write the equivalent of a tweet, a headline, a catchy phrase. Or maybe just one word with no further context, leaving things open to interpretation.

There’s also the issue of what we do with these post-it notes. The ability to easily move them around is a design affordance that enables us to quickly sort and categorize ideas. It’s much easier to regroup post-it notes than to cut and paste text or to rearrange a list of items on a handwritten flip chart.

Thus, we are taught to group post-it notes and find the common themes. This happens both in the real world and in online settings. Sometimes we sum up and label the theme for each cluster. The orphan outliers containing unique contributions are often abandoned. It can be beneficial to cluster items but there’s a level of conformity and reductionist thinking that takes place when we move quickly towards commonalities.

There are other values embedded in the use of digital-post it notes. They privilege the written word and those who can express their thoughts concisely. These collaborative spaces disadvantage participants who are connecting on a mobile phone with only one tiny screen or people whose online setup is not conducive to managing multiple tabs or windows.

Online collaborations also have a performative aspect to them. We type our post-it on the communal screen for all to see. We may be inspired (subtlety influenced?) by others as we seek to contribute our own pithy post-it. We may censor our ideas to spare ourselves the angst of seeing those ideas become the abandoned orphans. Conversely, we may thoughtlessly post whatever is top of mind, going for quantity over substance. After all, it’s just a digital post-it note - completely disposable.

Bigger picture, there are questions about the corporations behind these tools that are increasingly used as our digital commons. To what degree do corporate agenda inform the values embedded in the digital tools being used to influence how people collaborate? How are our ideas and behaviours being shaped by these tools and how does that inform the work of social change? This of course, is in addition to any concerns around data and privacy.

At the end of a session, there is the post-it note mosaic that is the result of our shared experience. It not only captures the work but also serves as a metric of the work itself. We can sit back and revel in the visual evidence displayed as a multitude of tiny colourful squares. Look how much work we’ve done! How much engagement we’ve driven. Surely we must be making progress.

By Katrina Ingram, CEO, Ethically Aligned AI _______

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Ethically Aligned AI is a social enterprise aimed at helping organizations make better choices about designing and deploying technology. Find out more at © 2022 Ethically Aligned AI Inc. All right reserved.


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