NYC SIG-CHI Panel Presentation on January 18th

posted on Jan 17 in Design, Social Software

I will be appearing on January 18th from 6:30pm-8:30pm on a panel at the next NYC SIG-CHI meeting. I will be discussing wireless networks and building software for wireless broadband use. I’ll be concentrating my talk on NYCwireless and the software that I and others have built to make use of our Wi-Fi networks. I’ll also talk a bit about social software and how wireless technologies play a role in bringing social software into more natural social situations.

The panel should be fun. Scott Weiss of Usable Products will speak on quantitative research for mobile devices. Josh Rubin, formerly with UPOC and now on his own, and John Devanney of MOMENT will also be speaking. I expect there will be much open discussion about the different aspects of mobile design.


Metropolitan New York Library Council
57 East 11th Street, 4th Floor (between Broadway and University Place, near Union Square)

Beyond Blogs and Social Networks Conference

posted on Nov 13 in Social Software

I will be attending the Strategic Research Institute’s Beyond Blogs and Social Networks Conference on December 1-2 in Jersey City, NJ. This seems like an interesting conference that will cover how businesses can make use of Social Technologies:

Online networks and communities are the new meeting grounds. They are considered the new power lunch tables and the new golf courses for business life in the U.S. Companies are using the Internet-powered services to tap into the collective intelligence of employees, customers, and outsiders, transforming their internal operations.

Businesspeople are starting to use online communities and blogs as a way to find business clients, new partners, and jobs, through virtual contacts they make online.

Instead of conducting focus groups or other potentially time-consuming research, blogs allow executives to monitor consumer feedback and reactions to almost anything—in almost real time. Blogs, which are essentially online journals, now dominate companies’ PR strategies, which may also include RSS feeds and podcasting. They are part of a ‘social software’ toolkit that includes blogs, relationship management software, file-sharing, advanced contact managers, virtual communities, web conferencing and instant messaging.

They’ve even set up a blog that seems to have some interesting suggestions.

MIT Media Lab 20th Anniversary

posted on Oct 25 in Social Software, News

The MIT Media Lab celebrated its 20th anniversary this past weekend. I had the pleasure of being invited to my alma mater’s event, where many Media Lab alum’s came back to find out what’s new at the lab, and of course participate in the great food and drink.

I also had the pleasure of meeting the newest group of SMG’ers (Sociable Media Group grad students), as well as some students who were at SMG when I was there. Judith also held a great cocktail party in her (new to me) house, where many old and current students came.

I’ve posted a Flickr photo set

Gossip Serves a Purpose in Community Development

posted on Sep 3 in Design, Social Software

There is an article in the New York Times on August 16, 2005 that talks about how the phenomena of gossip, long considered merely the background noise of social interaction which serves no real purpose, has recently been shown to solidify the social rules of a society. According to the article, which is based on research by David Sloan Wilson, a professor of biology and anthropology at the SUNY Binghamton,

”[Gossip] circulates crucial information about the behavior of others that cannot be published in an office manual. As often as it sullies reputations, psychologists say, gossip offers a foothold for newcomers in a group and a safety net for group members who feel in danger of falling out.

‘Gossip appears to be a very sophisticated, multifunctional interaction which is important in policing behaviors in a group and defining group membership.’”

These findings validate some of my research over the past 10 years in community behavior and interaction. It is often the smaller, more frequent, and possibly brief conversational interactions that define how a community relates to itself. Gossip, as it turns out, has almost a viral quality about it, whereby passing gossip from person to person carries almost no cost. Gossip can be the fastest means of transmitting an idea or thought from person to person within a group. It is essentially how ‘memes’ make their way through a society.

Gossip can also be a good indicator for social relationships. People who gossip with one another tend to have closer bonds, and the sharing of “secret” information, which is how most gossip is viewed, tends to reinforce personal relationships. (Though of course one can be branded when he or she gossips too much, there is a subtle balance between information passing and being a constant Gossip, and those people who avoid being branded are merely somewhat more careful in their gossiping behavior than others.) Looking at networks of social relationships often reveals that there is a concurrence between gossip and the closeness of a social bond. Conversely, tracking the flow of gossip through a community will often give a relatively accurate view of the underlying social network.

When creating online communities, it is often beneficial to enable the type of social interaction and communication that gossip requires. Having such a capability makes the online community both easier to become a part of, as well as provides a support structure for its members.

Motivating Workers By Giving Them a Vote

posted on Sep 3 in Design, News

The Wall Street Journal has a great article about a company, Schlumberger Ltd., that has created “communities of practice,” or groups of employees with similar professional interests, which cross the traditional corporate hierarchy. Schlumberger, an oil-field-services company with 52,000 employees in 80 countries, has done this to address a company-wide issue of knowledge management.

The creation of internal online communities based upon professional interests and merit clearly indicates that information and its application by skilled professionals is becoming a company’s the most valuable asset. In my research, it has often been the case that information does not flow along corporate hierarchies, but rather follows a more organic path that can be traced by following the professional and social relationships of the employees of a company.

One of the best things about Schlumberger’s online communities is that the company has generated incredible value while spending only $1 million per year running them in an company that generated $11.48 billion in revenue last year.

The company’s CEO, Andrew Gould, also clearly sees the value in such online initiatives: “Technical professionals often are motivated by peer review and peer esteem.”

Wi-Fi Thank You Updated to 2.3

posted on Jul 18 in Software, Wi-Fi Thank You

Wi-Fi Thank You has been updated to version 2.3. This version brings 2 big improvements:

  1. Proper international support – now you can select a country (USA is the default), and enter the proper city/region information for your location
  2. Initial Google Maps support – now you can see all of the Thank You’s plotted on an interactive Google Map. Click on a Thank You, and the Thank You message will appear.

You can see a map of Thank Yous here:

Designing Visualizations of Social Activity: Six Claims

posted on Jul 17 in Social Software, Design

Erickson, T. Designing Visualizations of Social Activity: Six Claims, The Proceedings of CHI 2003: Extended Abstracts. In press. New York: ACM Press, 2003.

This is a wonderful paper by Thomas Erickson of IBM’s T.J. Watson Social Computing Group that puts forth a set of six “claims” on how to successfully design Social Activity Visualizations. The six claims are:

  1. Everyone sees the same thing; no customization
  2. Portray actions, not interpretation
  3. Social visualizations should allow deception
  4. Support micro/macro readings
  5. Ambiguity is useful: suggest rather than inform
  6. Use a third-person point of view

Though Erickson discovered these claims through his work on “Babble”, a wonderful, if not widely used, conversational interaction support software, many of them have deeper significance for the general field of Social Visualization.

The first step in understanding why these claims are true is to recognize that the design of a successful Social Visualization and interaction interface must build upon users’ physical world expectations. One of my favorite, if not obvious, statements about social software systems is that they aren’t doing anything fundamentally new—we are, after all, social beings and have been for millenia. You must always question how a person would perform an action or expect to interact in a physical world situation, and then attempt to translate that action or expectation into an online equivalent.

Indeed, if we look at some of these claims from a deeper, human interaction level, their validity becomes apparent. Take for example claim #1. In a simple physical world interaction, person A sees and is seen by person B, and vice versa (interaction between people prevents one of those people from hiding). Additionally, they both see their environment, and except for a slight perspective change, it appears the same to both. This leads to a set of assumptions that each person can make about the other, such as “they can see when I fidget”, or “they can see that we are in a crowded place”. The fact that both people see the same thing is important because they both use their environment to make decisions on how they interact with the other person. Online, there isn’t much to see. So when you present an environment to a group of people, and you expect that they will use that environment to interact with each other, it seems prudent that you build in this “sameness of vision”

I like to consider that Erickson’s claim #1 is a component of the “social contract” that we each accept whenever we interact with one another. Part of that social contract is that I can see and interact with you only if I allow the same behavior from you. I can’t walk around the world completely invisible, and expect that I should be able to see everyone else, but not allow them to see me (this is a common mistake in online interaction systems). The social contract is about reciprocal relationships of information. I can have access to certain information only if I give up that information (or some similar information) to others.

Similarly, for claim #5, we must look at what people do with social information. Erickson says that “accurately presenting information is not the point of a social visualization; its primary role is to provide grist for inferences.” Consider again what people in a physical world environment do with social information. Walking into a room, its important to know only generally how many people are there (one, a few, a couple dozen, hundreds, thousands, etc.). Once we know generally how many people are around us, we change our interaction style to reflect this information.

There is a component of claim #5 that also includes claim #4. Erickson doesn’t speak about a user’s attention when using a Social Visualization, but the movement of attention from micro to macro and back is important. When you enter a room in the physical world, you take in a macro view of the number and type of people there. You then move into a micro view to determine if you know any of them. So in this example, ambiguity is useful for enabling us to gloss over details we don’t care about (like the specifics of exactly what all 212 people in a room are wearing), but being able to direct your attention to a specific micro view that enables you to interact with your 2 friends is similarly useful.

Van Alen Institute Roundtable

posted on Jun 3 in Social Software, Design

I was invited to participate in a Van Alen Institute roundtable discussion today about Mobile City, which is in preparation for an art exhibition titled “The Good Life Exhibition” to take place in the Spring/Summer of 2006. At the table were a number of great minds, including people from Parsons School of Design, the University of Minnesota Design Institute, Pentagram, and others:

  • Jan Abrams, Director, Design Institute, University of Minnesota, VAI Trustee
  • Michael Bierut, Partner, Pentagram
  • Dana Spiegel, Executive Director of NYCwireless and an MIT Media Lab alumnus
  • Steven Johnson, author, Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter (2005), Emergence (2002); Interface Culture (1999), and Mind Wind Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life (2003)
  • Katie Salen, Director of Graduate Studies,Design and Technology, Parsons School of Design and Author of Rules of Play: Game Design (2003)
  • Jane Harrison, Principal, ATOPIA
  • Kevin Slavin, Co-founder + managing director area/code
  • Benjamin Aranda, Partner, terraswarm

It was a terrific discussion, and I hope that my participation helped Van Alen in preparing for the exhibition.

We covered a number of topics, including transportation, wireless technologies, and gaming, and though I thought my participation would mostly be useful for discussions about wireless, it turns out that we talked more about socialization and interaction than anything else.

Of particular interest to me was a discussion about a project that Pentagram is in conjunction with NYC Taxis. We started out talking about how to reconnect riders and their drivers, in a way that is similar to how that relationship used to exist when Taxi drivers were mostly wise-cracking, interactive Brooklyn and Bronx residents. Now that the vast majority of Taxi drivers are immigrants, there seems to have been a shift (though I don’t think its due to their nationality) away from passenger/driver interaction towards a disconnected server/client relationship, where there’s virtually no interaction through the wall of Plexiglas.

As we were talking about some of the reasons why this shift has taken place, Steven suggested that it was partly due to the prevalence of mobile technologies. This immediately clicked with me, and I suggested that part of the reason why the uptake of cell phones by taxi drivers was so significant was specifically because they are immigrants. Let me explain:

  • As new immigrants, taxi drivers are trying settle in their new homes.
  • One of the things that makes this easier are the friends and family that they interact with, who are also immigrants, and may have helped the driver come to the US.
  • This process of settling is important since it eases the significant culture change that is experienced. Driving a taxi, most taxi drivers virtually no one who would be part of this social support network during the day (or night).
  • A connection back to their family and friends (some or most of whom are other taxi drivers) makes the job more livable, since taxi drivers spend most of their day in their cabs.

In the same way that Instant Messaging in the workplace makes work a little more livable and comfortable, since you can interact with your friends and family, cell phones serve the same purpose in taxi cabs.

During this discussion, specific ideas about how to create works for the Taxi Cab project were requested. One of the interesting hypotheses that I suggested is to create a visualization that shows taxi drivers and the people they talk with during the day via cell phone. Placing this on a map, I suggested that what you might find is that taxi drivers tend to drive the areas that they know, which is also the areas that their friends know. This would manifest itself visually on a map as “gangs” of taxi drivers, where the gangs are made from social connectivity. This would make a fascinating display, and would answer some of the questions about how taxi drivers learn and integrate into their new city.

Wi-Fi Thank You Updated to 2.0

posted on Mar 22 in Social Software, Wi-Fi Thank You

I recently updated Wi-Fi Thank You with a new design and new application logic. Now, in addition to looking good, Wi-Fi Thank You is easily extensible. We have lots of plans for this software, including integration with Google Maps, automatic geocode lookup, and the ability to register a hotspot in order to manage all of the Thank Yous that your hotspot generates.

This new version of Wi-Fi Thank You was built using Ruby on Rails, which allowed us to build the entire web application in a matter of days. The new site should also be completely XHTML compliant, and should rely on CSS stylesheets for all of its design.