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[liveblog] Judith Donath on designing for sociality (“Social Machines”)

Judith Donath is giving a book talk to launch The Social Machine. I read it this weekend and it is a rich work that explores the ways in which good design can improve our online sociality. I’m a fan of Judith’s and am looking forward to seeing what 25-minutes’ worth of ideas she selects to talk about tonight, given the richness of her book.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Judith begins by saying that the theme of the book is the importance of online social interaction and designing for it. Our interfaces may look sophisticated but they’re primitive when it comes to enabling social interaction. She uses a Mark Twain story ["Was the World Made for Man?"] about an oyster’s point of view to remind us that online design isn’t really all that evolved. One big issue: We can’t see the interactions.

We like being with other people, Judith remindsd us. We like seeing how they look, feeling the energy in a room, etc. This is hard to perceive when you’re looking at screen. Our computers connect us to tremendous crowds, but we don’t see the level of activity or the patterns. She shows a work from 25 years ago when she spent a summer in Japan. Her friends were in Boston on computers. The “who” command let her see who was online and how active they were; it was an old-style computer print-out of a list. She came back from Japan trying to design a more useful display. In the early 1990s she came up with “Visual Who,” a text-based visualization of the people online, filterable by interests, etc. She shows some other ways of displaying social network maps, but such maps aren’t yet integrated into the social network interfaces. Maps like these would help manage Facebook’s privacy settings, she ways. Or we could use them as an interface for keeping up with people we haven’t interacted with in a while, etc.

Legibility is a huge issue, she says. Information is non-spatial, so it can be hard to parse. Judith points to the Talk pages where Wikipedia pages are discussed and edited. Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg did a visualization (History Flow) of the edits on the Chocolate article. This lets you see what’s controversial and what isn’t. They then took the same data and looked not at every edit, but sampled it at fixed times. It’s a much smoother diagram. That shows the reader’s experience, while the first version showed the writers’ version.

Now Judith talks about “Beyond Being There” (a paper by Hollan, Nielsen, Stornetta, et al.). We can do things with these tools that we can’t do face-to-face. (The fact that we’re in public looking at our cell phones indicates that we’re getting some meaningful social connection that way, she says.) Judith shows the interface to “Talking Circles,” [pdf] an interface for audio conferences. It consists of colored circles. When someone speaks, their circle’s inside moves with their voice. Circles that are near each other are able to hear each other. As they move away, they can’t hear each other. So you could have a private conversation over this digital medium.

These interfaces change the social dynamics around a space. E.g., the “Like” economy induces some to use Intagram to try to gather more likes. Judith points to the Karrie Karahalios and Viega’s Conversation Clock“, a table top that shows who spoke when and who overlapped (interrupted) another. E.g., the fact that we’re all being watched (or think we are — Judith references the Panopticon) shapes our behavior. She points to the EU’s decision that Google has to remove links upon user request.

Judith points to a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, who looks young in a painting done when she was 65. If you think about data as portraying someone, you become aware of the triangle of subject, audience, and painter, each with their own interests. (She says that two years ago another portrait of Elizabeth from the same time and studio shows her looking very old indeed.)

When you think about doing portraits with data, you have to ask how to make something expressive. She points to “The Rhythm of Salience,” a project she created using an existing conversation database. She picked out words that she identified as being about the individuals. At heart, a portrait takes what’s representative of someone, exaggerates it, and shows the salience. She shows the Caricature Generator by Susan Brennan. You can do the same thing with words, e.g. Themail by Fernanda Viegas and Scott Golder. People save their email, but generally they don’t use their archives. People are more interested in keeping the patterns of relationships than in the individual emails. So, Themail shows a histogram of the month-to-month relationship with anyone in your archive. The column shows the volume of messages, but the words that compose the bars show you the dominant words. [I didn't get that exactly right. Sorry]

She ends by showing Personas by Aaron Zinman (and Donath). You type in your name and spits back a little portrait of you. It searches Google for mentions of your name and characterizes it.

All of these raise enormous questions, she says.

Q&A [extra special abbreviated version]

Q: [me] Is this change good? Or pathological? You show an incredibly fluid environment; is this changing our f2f relationships?

A: Jane Jacobs wrote the Life and Death of Great American Cities not to judge cities but to make them better. My book tries to show ways we can use design to make our social relationships better. Right now we deal with one another differently f2f and in the real world. In 10 years, that distinction will be much less pronounced. E.g., as Google Glass type products and better interfaces will have much more important affects on f2f. That’s why it’s important that we think about these issues now.

Colin Maclay: And as danah boyd says, for the youth it’s not offline or online life. It’s just life.

Q: What’s the difference between info that you put up and info about you that others post and use?

A: There’s very little use of pseudonymity online. Usually it’s your real name or you’re anonymous. Judith shops online for most of her stuff, and she reads reviews. But she doesn’t write reviews in part because she doesn’t want her deodorant review to come up when people google her. That’s where pseudonyms come in. Pseudonyms don’t guarantee complete anonymity but for everyday use they enable us to gain control over our lives online.

Q: Nicholas Negroponte: You were doing social networking work decades ago. Why is it taking so long for the evolution we’re waiting for?

A: The Web set design back tremendously. The Web made it easy for everyone to participate, but one of the costs was that the simplicity of the interface of the Web made it hard to do design or to have identities online. It slowed down a lot of social design. Also, the world of design is extremely conservative because companies imitate one another.

Q: GPS is causing a generational difference in how we navigate space…

A: Tech is often designed subconsciously so that there are insiders and outsiders. [I've overly shortened this interchange.]

Q: Email vs. text messaging?

A: There are fashions. Also, IM has its uses…

Q: How can sites guarantee what they intend to provide, e.g., privacy? How can they ensure trust? E.g., people have figured out how to take screencaptures of snapchat, subverting the design.

A: Design doesn’t guarantee things. But we should have spaces where we have good enough privacy. We need better interfaces for this. Also, many things you see online don’t let you have a sense of how big your audience is or how permanent will be what you say. Some of the visualizations I’ve talked about give you a sense of the publicness of what you’re saying.

Q: Pseudonymity does reign supreme on Reddit. And whatever happened to Second Life, which seems to address some of the issues you talked about.

A: About every 7 years, a new avatar-based space comes out, so we’re about due for the next. Our original work with Chat Spaces was in response to The Palace. I’m not a big fan of that type of graphical chat space because they’re trying to reproduce the feeling of being f2f without going “beyond being there. ” E.g., a student [?] wrote a paper on why there are chairs in Second Life. Good question. Q: What about skeuomorphism? That metaphor holds things back. Is it just an art to come up with designs that break the old metaphors?

A: The first part of the book deals with that question. There’s a chapter on metaphor. If your metaphors are too heavy handed, they limit what you can do. E.g., if you use folders, you have to figure out which one to put your email in. If you used labels (tags), you wouldn’t have to make those decisions. A lot of the art of design is learning how to use metaphors so you can do something more abstract while still being legible, and how you can bend the metaphors without breaking them.

Q: How does Internet balkanization affect your viewpoint and affect designers?

A: How do we use language and images to bridge cultures? Designers have to understand what images mean. It’s an enormously difficult problem. It’s crucial to try to be always cognizant of one’s own cultural issues. E.g., Caricatures look different depending on your cultural norms. In the book, I did not write about caricatures of Obama in white and black publications, butepending on what norm you use, you get different results about what’s salient.

Q: If you could give people a visualization of how they behave in negotiations, that could be useful when people get stuck.

A: The Conversation Clock’s design has done some work on this. Who’s saying no? Who’s interrupting. It’s difficult for people to notice.

Q: The iPhone has just moved away from skeuomorphism. Do you know how long it takes for us to move away from this?

A: Much of this has to do with style and fashion.

Read the original blog entry...

More Stories By David Weinberger

David is the author of JOHO the blog ( He is an independent marketing consultant and a frequent speaker at various conferences. "All I can promise is that I will be honest with you and never write something I don't believe in because someone is paying me as part of a relationship you don't know about. Put differently: All I'll hide are the irrelevancies."

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