Sunday, November 26, 2006

Visibility, Awareness, and Accountability

I have already presented the concept of "social translucence" while discussing the benefit of adding "place" based information to presence for a better regulation of mediated communications. A "socially translucent" system enhances two important dimensions of communications. First, by making social information visible it enables participants to be aware of what is happening, and to be held accountable for their actions as a consequence of public knowledge of that awareness. Second, the fact that the real world is translucent to social information, and that people have a sophisticated understanding of the consequences of the visibility of their social interactions helps structuring interactions in a mediated communication.

While the "social translucence" perspective is unique, it is not the only concept to be concerned with making the activities of communication systems' users visible to others. Since ten years, a considerable research work has been targeted at video-mediated communication (Finn et al., 1997), and has led to the concept of "awareness". A number of researchers have constructed systems attempting in various ways to provide cues about the presence and activity of their users (Benford et al., 1994). These researches have highlighted three design approaches to representing social cues in a digital system: the realist, the mimetic, and the abstract.

  • The realist approach tries to project social information from the physical domain into or through the digital domain. This work is exemplified in teleconferencing systems and media space research.
  • The mimetic approach tries to reproduce social cues from the real world as literally as possible in the digital domain. The mimetic approach is exemplified by graphical games and virtual reality systems. It uses virtual environments and avatars to mimic the real world.
  • The abstract approach involves portraying social information in ways that are not closely tied to their physical analogs. It could uses abstract sonic cues to indicate social activity, or abstract visual representations. This approach also includes the use of text or simple graphics to convey social information.

Large deployment and adoption of systems based on the realist or mimetic approaches have faced substantial pragmatic hurdles, such as their cost, the required infrastructure, and the constraints of users support. On the other hand, I believe that the abstract approach has not received sufficient attention, particularly with respect to graphical representations. Text and simple graphics have many powerful characteristics: they are easy to produce and manipulate; they persist over time, leaving interpretable traces; and they enable the use of technologies such as search and visualization engines. In this last category we find "social proxies" such as those depicted here.

A social proxy is an abstract dynamic graphical representation that portrays socially salient information about the presence and activities of a group of people participating in an online interaction. It is one technique for providing online, multi-user systems with some of the cues so prevalent in the face to face world. Social proxies are intended to be visible to all those portrayed in them, thus providing a common ground from which users can draw inferences about other individuals, or the about the group as a whole.

Typically, a social proxy shows participants in a particular "place", as well as some of their activities in that "place". The choice of which aspects of activity are visible, and which remain private, depend on the particular context. Social proxies have four basic characteristics:

  • A social proxy typically consists of two components: a large geometric shape with an inside and an outside that represent the online "place", and much smaller shapes positioned relative to the larger shape that represent participants.
  • The presence and activities of participants in an online "place" are represented by the location and movement of the smaller shapes relative to the larger one. The relationships and movements of the visual elements have a metaphoric correspondence to the position and movement of peoples in a similar face-to-face situation.
  • Social proxies are public representations, and everyone looking at a social proxy for a given "place" sees the same thing. It is not possible for participants to customize their views of a social proxy. This is important because I know that if I see something in the social proxy all other participants can see it as well. This is what supports mutual awareness and accountability.
  • Social proxies are represented from a third-person perspective. Looking at a social proxy, every participant sees itself represented in it in the same way other participants are represented. This enables learning. A participant can see how its actions are reflected in its personal representation, and thus begin to make inferences about the activities of others.

The shared nature of a “social proxy” is critical. The knowledge that activity depicted in the social proxy is visible to all participants makes it “public”, and transforms it into a resource for the paticipants. It is this visibility that supports people accountability for their actions, and underlies the social phenomena, such as feelings of obligation, peer pressure, and imitation, that enable coherence in groups interactions.

On the Internet we are socially blind, and our attempts to communicate are often awkward. Even when others are clearly present, as in a chat room or on a conference call, it is difficult to see who is present, who is paying attention, or who wishes to speak. Things that require little effort in real world "places", such as taking turns when speaking; noticing when someone has a question; seeing who is responding to whom, require a lot of effort in online "places", when they at all are possible. I think introducing "social proxies" in widely used presence enabled applications, such as IM or VoIP clients, would allow us to progress on the way of a better sensitivity to the actions and interactions of those around us in virtual "places".

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