The social life of powerpoint

A few years before he wrote Blink, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article about the social life of paper [Gladwell, 2002]. Published in the New Yorker, the article argued that paper enables a certain kind of cognitive thinking and social process. This is because paper has a set of affordances that facilitate such social and cognitive behavior. For example, paper is tangible – we can pick up a document and flip through it at our own pace. Bits of paper can be arranged spatially to mean something (e.g., the piles on my desk). Paper can be annotated. I recognize what Gladwell is saying on a personal level. My desk is full of piles that go away only to make way for other piles.

The cognitive style of PowerPoint

In a similar manner, digital documents afford a particular way of thinking and cognitive processing. Often this cognitive style is invisible – something we live and work with, but which is rarely articulated. In an influential essay, Edward Tufte described the cognitive style promoted by PowerPoint as “problematic” to put it mildly, and “evil” to use his own words [Tufte, 2003].

Tufte’s landmark essay is often cited in conversations about presentations in general and PowerPoint in particular. For many (present author included) Tufte’s critique has had a lot of impact. Instead of rejecting PowerPoint, we have become cognizant of the lazy cognitive style that Tufte describes and more thoughtful about the way we create and structure presentations. A whole industry has developed around the good design of PowerPoint slides. Some have turned to Keynote as an alternative – though Tufte finds that equally problematic [Tufte, 2006].

“for Tufte PowerPoint dilemmas are cognitive problems, to be fixed by better alignment of the slides with our cognitive capacities”. [Wakeford, 2006]

Any analysis of the cognitive affordances of digital document is incomplete without understanding their social affordances. In a series of essays on tagging [Sinha, 2005(2)], I argued that the cognitive and the social are two dimensions that need to be considered in parallel for many technologies. The cognitive style and ease of a technology impacts the social processes and vice versa. This essay is about the social aspects of PowerPoint sharing – a topic that has received less attention than the cognitive aspects. It is also about the insights that lead to the building of Slideshare and some observations after two months of launch.

Imagined communities around documents

“documents are much more than just a powerful means for structuring and navigating information space — important though that is. They are also a powerful resource for constructing and negotiating social space. It is the latter quite as much as the former that has made the documents of the World Wide Web so popular.”[Brown & Duguid, 1996]

Gladwell certainly did not invent the idea that documents have a social context, and that the way that they are shared is as important as the information in the document. In fact, some historians [notably Benedict Arnold in Imagined Communities, 1991] credit the mass sharing of print documents in regional languages as a key factor in the rise of the modern nation-state.

Researchers have also argued that web documents (hypertext) are important as much for the role they play in constructing social space as for the information they transit [Brown & Duguid, 1996].

PowerPoint documents are a particularly social type of document, in that they are typically used to share information with others, whether real-time during a presentation, or asynchronously when the slides get passed on.

“…Tufte, in his distress about the effects of incorrect presentation of evidence, fails to acknowledge the social nature of PowerPoint slides”. [Wakeford 2006]

A deep ambivalence about PowerPoint usage

Wakeford points out that while PowerPoint usage pervades both the research and the corporate world, many are ambivalent about using it, and end up “feeling alienated from what they end up producing”. She traces much of the discomfort and ambivalence to the way that slides become the object of social transmission and the impoverished nature of this transmission. Her analysis (elaborated below) is the best articulation of the unease and ambivalence felt by ethnographers and other groups that use PowerPoint.

Slides as objects of social transmission

Slides as the sole object that gets passed around: In academic settings, PowerPoint slides might correspond to an article that also gets distributed, but in corporate settings, PowerPoint functions as “the final output”. Even in academic circles, the slides are often the most requested object. But PowerPoint is not ideal as the object of social transmission. It gets passed around on usb drives or email, but it leaves behind the context of the work or the subtext that the author would have added during his / her talk.

“Set of slides become seen as the object that can be transmitted without being attached to the context of their production.” [Wakeford, 2006]

Slides lose the analytic background of the research: For example, Wakeford described how important it is important for ethnographers to keep the analytic background of their work visible. Some graphics toolkits for ethnographers keep intact this data part of the presentation.

“The corporate ethnographer puts themselves in between the slide and the audience and in this way makes the PowerPoint slides into evidence” [Wakeford 2006]

Traditionally photographs and other artifacts, and most of all, the researcher’s descriptions provide evidence of ethnographic research. But when the slides get passed on by themselves, they have to serve both as evidence of ethnographic research as well as form the ethnographic analysis. Readers do not have any access to the context of the work or the subtext that the author would have added in.

Slides as collaboration devices: Think about the last time you presented your work using PowerPoint. Maybe a colleague requested the slides and sent you feedback about it or blogged some comments about it. Perhaps that was the beginning of collaboration. As the object that is transmitted, PowerPoint should be considered as a knowledge transfer and collaboration device.

“Although for Tufte, the PowerPoint slide set is the focus of attention, I was constantly aware that the presentation was actually much more about generating and sustaining engagement.” [Wakeford, 2006]

PowerPoint events: Wakeford talks about PowerPoint slides as an object that is performed rather than just transmitted. A real life PowerPoint event constitutes the speaker, the slides, audience present (and connected through audio conferencing), and any technological infrastructure. It occurs in a social context allowing for feedback, annotations, and comments from others. People can reference other documents, refer to other PowerPoint events. When transmitted, PowerPoint is divorced from all this “messiness of the social”.

What should a social space for slide sharing look like?

So what is the social life of PowerPoint? Created on the desktop. Passed around on usb keysticks, sent by email and sometimes uploaded to a website as a pdf or ppt document. Why does it get passed around? Because PowerPoint is meant for sharing. When you create slides, you always have someone in mind to share it with. It might be the students in your class. Or your colleagues who heard your talk. Or the blogger who wants to do a review of your talk.

Comments and tagsSlideshare was conceptualized around the social life of PowerPoint. For a while, we observed how sharing of presentation takes place and realized that simple web-based sharing would have immediate use for many. But sharing does not occur in a vacuum – it needs a social arena for give and take and slides need to maintain context. On the web, the event constitutes the slides, tags, comments, notes, links to other presentation, link to author’s other slideshows, blog posts by people present, and any audio and video recordings.

Embedding can provide social context: Embedding a slide in a blogpost/website is a powerful means to retain context. For example, Mor Naaman from Yahoo Research does exactly that in this blogpost where he talks at length about his research about Tag Maps, and embeds the slide within. The text provides the context. Readers can react both to the blog post and the slideshow as a unit.

Full screen mode remains within the web experience: Even the full screen mode in Slideshare is simply a web popup – you can still access other browser windows remaining in context within the web experience (we deliberately stayed away from the full screen mode in PowerPoint which takes up the complete screen and isolates you from the rest of the desktop and the web).

Slides as microcontent: One of our observations had been that that slideshows need a permanent home on the web, so that people can link and refer to it. Additionally, we had observed that people like to comment on individual slides, not just on slideshows as a unit. We enabled this by treating slides as microcontent. Each slide has its own url – it can be linked to and commented on.

Embedding, tags, comments etc. encourage the messiness of the social to become a part of the same space as the slides, rather than create a context that is divorced.

And the social life of PowerPoint goes on…

Since launching Slideshare, we have learnt much more about the social life of PowerPoint. We have learnt about the teacher who wants her students to upload their assignments on to Slideshare so that she can discuss it with parents. Or the minister who upload sermons in PowerPoint. Or the researchers who uploaded more than a 100 slideshows – in the course of a day. Or the designer who gave us some usability feedback on Slideshare by uploading a slideshow to Slideshare. Or the gardener who creates guides on “how to do create gardens” and shares them with prospective clients. Or the person who releases a weekly bulletin in PowerPoint.

Slideshare creates a space in which slides can exist within the messiness of the social. We think it marks the next iteration of presentation documents one which embraces social sharing.


1. Malcolm Gladwell (2002). The social life of paper. Looking for method in the madness. New Yorker. March.

2. Edward Tufte (2003), The cognitive style of PowerPoint: Pitching out corrupts within. Graphics Press, LLC. Chicago.

3. Edward Tufte (2006) in note on Ask ET message board. Nov 10th.

4. Nina Wakeford (2006). PowerPoint and the crafting of social data. EPIC 2006 Proceedings.

5. Rashmi Sinha (2005). A cognitive analysis of tagging. Essay published on Accessed on Nov 30th 2006 at

6. Rashmi Sinha (2005). A social analysis of tagging. Essay published on Accessed on Nov 30th 2006.

7. John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid (1996). The social life of documents. First Monday. March 1996.

8. Benedict Anderson (1991). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism.

2 thoughts on “The social life of powerpoint

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