Monday, November 27, 2006

Sensing activities in MUC

I have discussed before why conversation spaces are not places themselves, but rather for people to make places in them. In physical places as well as virtual ones, adaptation and appropriation of the associated technology by users is a critical element in the emergence of a sense of place and appropriate behavior. In short, the sense of place cannot be inherent in the system itself.

Within a place, social navigation is navigation through information collections on the basis of information derived from the activity of others. In the real world, we act where we are. We talk to people around us, because voices can only be heard at a short distance; we get closer to things to view them clearly. Understanding proximity helps us relate people to activities and to each other. When we see a group gathered around a meeting table, we understand something about this peoples' activity, and we know that another person standing off to one side is likely to be less involved.

Just like in real life, place aware presence systems should allow users to move to areas where others are clustered, to join the crowd and see what's going on. Since actions and interactions fall off with distance, so distance can be used to partition activities and the extent of interaction. I have described here how the use of "social proxies" can be used as abstract artifact to induce additional social information. Amongst the "social proxies" that have been studied, I find the Bable experiments particularly interesting as it could be applied to multi user conversations, such as the MUC rooms available on many XMPP servers. The proxy's role is to provide cues about the presence and activity of participants in the current conversation. It is graphically represented by two concentric circles similar to the drawing herewith. The outer circle symbolizes the conversation room border, the inner circle the conversation subject. Every participant is represented by a colored dot. The way it works is that participants in a particular room are shown within the proxy outer circle. People in other rooms are positioned outside the circle. When people are active in the conversation, meaning they either "talk" or "listen", then their dots move towards the inner circle, and then gradually drift back out to the edge when their activity decreases. What is interesting is the way test users have reported their experience of using this type of proxy:

…our users report the social proxy is engaging and informative. They speak of seeing who is "in the room," noticing a crowd "gathering" or "dispersing," and seeing that people are "paying attention" to what they say (when other dots move into the center of the proxy after they post).
On the practical implementation side, XMPP provides a number of extensions that can be put to use to enhance existing MUC implementations to support this type of social proxy. Beyond the specificity of the social proxy, the expected enhancement falls under what I have been writing about as presence feedback.
  • XEP-0085 associated with message stanzas moving averages over time calculated at the MUC room level could provide sensible indications about the "talking" activity of every participant. A "listening" activity indication could be derived from the automatic presence status generated by the client.
  • XEP-0163 could be used at the MUC room level to notify the MUC clients of each participant's dots relative position changes to be displayed on the client interface. If we limit the proxy geometry to a Cartesian representation, we could easily derive an appropriate format for the associated data similar to the Geo Location XEP.
  • Other MUC rooms' global activity could also be provided to further accentuate the overall places context. Obviously, the notion of proximity could also be put to use to induce the notion of semantically related room discussion contexts.
In the end, I believe it is not overly difficult to assemble all these XMPP extensions together in a MUC implementation and, as a result, give a better sense of other people's presence and the ongoing awareness of activity into the conversation space. All in all it would be an interesting step toward better structuring our activity in the rooms, and better integrating communication and collaboration.

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