Designing Systems that Mesh with Social Processes
Social Computing Group
IBM T. J. Watson Research Center
We have designed, implemented, and deployed a system that we call Babble
. Functionally, Babble is an environment that supports threaded, persistent
conversation which can be carried on either synchronously or asynchronously.
Experientially, Babble serves as a 'trusted space' which can be used by
small to medium sized groups as a place to hang out, engage in social talk,
discuss work issues, ask questions, announce impromptu meetings, and so
A novel aspect of Babble is its social proxy, a minimalist visual representation
of participants and their activities vis a vis the conversation. The social
proxy depicts a conversation (shown as a large circle), with each participant
being portrayed as a colored dot (AKA 'marble'). The marbles of participants
who are "in" the conversation are shown inside the circle; those
who are involved in other conversations (from the point of view of the user)
are outside the circle. Finally, when a participant "speaks" (types
a comment) or "listens" (clicks, scrolls, or otherwise manipulates
the interface), their marble moves towards the center of the circle, and
then drifts outward with inactivity. In figure 1, below, a fairly active
conversation is occurring, with six of the eight people present currently
The general hypothesis guiding the design explorations embodied in the
Babble system is that making social information visible (e.g., people are
listening; a crowd is gathering; people are leaving) can play an important
role in supporting interactions among remote participants.
Our basic methodology is situated prototyping: we design, implement,
and deploy systems as soon as possible, and try to carry out as much prototyping
as possible in the context of real usage of our systems. Given our interest
in designing systems that support the social processes of groups, we see
situated prototyping as the only feasible way to proceed. In this instance,
we have been using the Babble system as part of our group's daily work practice
for a year and a half, and we deployed it to five other groups beginning
in July of 1998. We use a variety of techniques to evaluate its adoption
and usage, including surveys, interviews, participant-observation, and analyses
of conversation and activity logs.
Future Research Directions
- Social Translucence. We call the design approach we take in
developing Babble, "Social Translucence." The notion is that
making people and their activities visible to one another has two effects:
a) it enables a participant to be aware of others and their actions,
thus potentially fostering learning, imitation, empathy, etc., and b) it
enables participants to be aware that others are aware of them (i.e., 'I
know that you know that I know'), thus fostering feelings like responsibility,
accountability, and collective phenomena such as peer pressure, fads, styles,
which support the creation and enforcement of norms, conventions, and rules.
What roles do such social processes play in communities? How can they (or
should they) be supported? How do designers (or the inhabitants) make the
tradeoff between visibility and privacy?
- Social Proxies. The current prototype primarily shows information
relative to the group of people 'currently' involved in a conversation;
however we intend to both broaden the temporal scope of the proxy, thus
blurring synchronous and asynchronous interaction, as well as the spatial
scope of the proxy, portraying activity within a group as a whole, and
portraying activity within an entire organization (which we envision being
composed of a confederacy of independent Babble systems scattered through
Other Important Issues for the Field
- Coherence. What features of an on-line community support coherent
interactions? Can community infrastructures be designed to support coherence?
Are there particular activities that elicit coherence? In what ways can
coherence be manifested (e.g. over time, within a single activity, in shared
conventions that span activities)?
- Aliveness. In using Babble among ourselves, and in deploying
it to five other groups, we have the very strong intuition that some on-line
communities inhabiting Babble are, for lack of a better term, more alive
(or robust, or less fragile, or stronger). What are ways of trying to measure
this? To visualize this? To increase it? Do online communities have a life
cycle? Is it necessarily a failure if an on-line community comes to an
- Instructive Parallels. What conceptual frameworks, evaluation
methods, and design approaches are useful in understanding and designing
on-line communities? While framing this area in terms of "community"
invokes work on community from anthropology and sociology, there are a
variety of other approaches which seem relevant. For example, in our attempts
to understand "aliveness," we see in our experience analogies
to ecosystems, in which stronger ecosystems are typically those with more
diversity. Similarly, Jane Jacobs, William Whyte and other scholars of
urban systems, remark upon the need for diversity and the ways in which
different activities support (or inhibit) one another. We have also found
genre theory of use (e.g. [3, 4]), in its focus on the way in which technical,
social, and institutional forces shape interaction among groups, communities,
and disciplines whose members are distributed across time and space.
- Erickson, T. Smith, D. N., Kellogg, W. A., Laff, M. R., Richards, J.
T., and Bradner, E. "Socially
Translucent Systems: Social Proxies, Persistent Conversation, and
the Design of 'Babble.'" To appear in the Proceedings of CHI '99.
- Bradner, E., Kellogg, W. A. and Erickson, T. "Babble:
Supporting Conversation in the Workplace" [Paper for the CSCW
98 Workshop "Designing Virtual Communities for Work"], Fall 1998.
SIGGROUP Bulletin, Vol. 19, No. 3, December, 1998, pp 8-9. ACM Press.
- Erickson, Thomas. "Rhyme
and Punishment: The Creation and Enforcement of Conventions in an On-Line
Participatory Limerick Genre." To appear in the Proceedings
of the Thirtieth Hawaii International Conference on Systems Science.
(ed. J. F. Nunamaker, Jr. R. H. Sprague, Jr.), January, 1999.
- Erickson, Thomas. Social
Interaction on the Net: Virtual Community as Participatory Genre..
In Proceedings of the Thirtieth Hawaii International Conference on Systems
Science. (ed. J. F. Nunamaker, Jr. R. H. Sprague, Jr.) Vol 6, pp. 23-30.
IEEE Computer Society Press: Los Alamitos, CA, 1997.