This is a preliminary attempt to put the idea of “social translucence” into a pattern. Feel free to edit, critique, etc.
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In Virtual Spaces for Interactions, it is useful to have a uniquely identifiable but abstract representation for each individual. In addition, it is useful to have a representation about the overall level and nature of current and past activity.
People are all different. As humans, we want to treat each person differently and we feel better (more fully human; more appreciated for who we are) when others treat us differently. We feel more included in a group when statements are made that are clearly relevant to our previously expressed concerns. When we make a comment, we want to take into account the current audience. All this happens fairly naturally in small face to face groups because the voice and face of each person is a unique, easily associated set of stimuli that remind us who is present. In the virtual world, however, it is easy to forget who is there unless there is some representation of each individual. Unless special steps are taken, interactions in a virtual world can feel cold and impersonal precisely because we do not get the sense that comments are directed to us as individuals and we find it hard to direct comments to others specifically. It is also natural in a small face to face group to indicate by posture and gaze what subset of people a comment is being directed toward. It is also easy in a small face to face group to refer to another individual by gesture in order to indicate who is being spoken about.
In addition, since we have limited attention, and the level of activity in virtual communities varies, and we are largely social animals, we differentially prefer to engage in some community activity when others are present. This is often more rewarding because we will get a more immediate response and feel more connected. In real space, a glance can often tell us roughly how many people are present in a space and how active they are as well as what kind of activity they are engaged in. In many electronic venues this is not possible.
Teams and communities of people now want to connect with others who are too distant to make frequent face to face meetings feasible. This happens in work contexts, both within a company and among inter-related people in a supply chain across companies. This desire is present in family contexts, for entertainment purposes (e.g., Internet gaming), non-work commercial contexts (on-line auctions), Communities of Practice such as professional communities and Communities of Interests. As a result of the desire to communicate and feel connected to a larger community which cannot always be face to face, people typically use electronic means to stay in touch and to communicate. One common technical implementation is in the conference call. Another common technical implementation is a web-based forum. Another common technical implementation is an on-line synchronous interaction such as a chat or real-time game. Another technical implementation is the video conference. Another is the team room. In all these electronic contexts, there should be some easy way for people to direct comments and actions toward specific subsets of people and refer to specific subsets of people (including especially individuals).
People have many demands on their time and attention.
A primary determiner of our decision to engage in a particular kind of activity is knowledge about the presence or absence of others.
People like to be acknowledged as an individual.
Face to face interactions provide a natural set of salient cues to appropriate action.
Face to face interactions with people who are physically far away are expensive and time consuming.
Face to face interactions do not lend themselves to multi-processing. If you do multi-processing while communicating with others, it does not increase social capital and may decrease it.
For virtual teams and communities, provide an abstract social proxy that reveals the individuals present, the level of general activity, and the type of activity in a quickly decodable way. The same social proxy should allow one to easily direct remarks to a subset of the community and to refer to a subset of the community.
Babble: Here there is a “cookie”, a round circle that represents the current conversational context. Each person is represented by a colored dot. The dot moves in toward the center when the person is actively posting or reading (i.e., scrolling) and gradually drifts out when the person has not been active for awhile. A brief glance at the cookie reveals how many people are present and how many are currently active. Right mouse-clicking the social proxy allows one to send a private note or chat to an individual. This is only a partial solution, however, since refering to someone must be done explicitly in text rather than by reference to the social proxy or by gesture and similarly, if someone wants to say something directed at one person but perceivable by all, it must be done textually.
A consultant suggests that before a conference call, everyone writes the names of all participants on a sheet of paper in a circle. When a person speaks, the suggestion is to look at that person’s name. Common practice in a conference call (when there are more than a very small number) is to have everyone say their name at the beginning of their contribution. This is clearly a very partial solution since the participants of a conference call typically have no idea how active the other (non-speaking) members are being nor is there any on-going cue as to how many people are on the call.
AOL Chat Rooms: When choosing a chat room, a user can see how many people are in the chat room before deciding to go there and within seconds upon arriving, can tell by the speed of the scrolling text, how much activity is going on. It is possible to send private communications to a single person or to “ignore” certain people (that is, not have their comments appear). However, directing public comments to a particular person or making reference to someone must be done explicitly in text.
In Babble, people tend to use the social proxy for a number of different purposes. One of the most interesting is to use the information that a person is active to “waylay” them; that is, phone them or stop by their office when they know they are “in.”
A potential problem with an abstract social proxy: In the case of AOL chat rooms, since they are not persistent, the social proxy probably exaggerates the difference in interest levels for different topics. That is, a topic that begins to get a little bit popular gets more popular. A room with only a few people will attract few visitors. Similarly, in the AOL story contests, people can see for each story, how many comments have been made. People tend to read and comment only on stories that have a lot of comments.
On the other hand, this is not that different from what sometimes happens in the real world in social phenomena. Everyone wants to see a U2 concert, partly because they are good and partly because everyone knows that everyone else wants to see a U2 concert. Popular kids tend to have people gather around them and therefore, more people want to gather round. At Union Square in Manhattan, people judge the goodness of street performers — and therefore which one to watch — by how large a crowd is there.
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