sociableCHAT History

sociableCHAT is based in part on ideas that were developed at the Sociable Media Group at the MIT Media Lab, as well as research in the field of online social interaction. The projects presented below have influenced the design and functionality of sociableCHAT.

Chat Circles –

The original concept of a circle-based abstract graphical chat system was developed by Fernanda Viegas with the Chat Circles project. This chat system represented each user as a small circle in a basic graphical chat environment. It explored two important features that were new:

  • Each message posted to the chatroom had a hearing range such that the post could only be seen if a user was close enough to the poster.
  • A user’s visual size in the chat room (the size of their circle) was directly related to the length of the chat message that they had just posted.

These two concepts were introduced in order to provide conversational affordances to the online chatroom that were similar to the those affordances people enjoy when chatting with each other in the real world.

The importance of these affordances in an online environment were not fully understood until people started using Chat Cirles. Interestingly, people “got” them immediately, and they became key features to enabling fluid online social interaction, especially for people who were unskilled in chat room use.


ChatScape, developed by Matt Lee, took the idea of Chat Circles further by creating a generic graphical chat application server and client library, and by exploring the use of autonomous agents and expressive gestures within the online environment. One of the most interesting ideas explored by ChatScape is that of “behaviors”. Within the ChatScape environment, a person could easily define motions and chat messages that would be enacted automatically by the person’s ChatScape representation on the person’s behalf. An example of this is the “avoid” behavior that would cause a person’s representation to run away from another person’s representation.

ChatScape behaviors allow a person to interact with others at a higher conceptual level (ex. “follow that person” or “be excited”) than other graphical chat environments, providing support for some of the types of autonomous social cues we take for granted in real world interaction.

Babble –

Babble, developed at the Social Computing research group at IBM Research, bridged the domains of chat and message boards. The Babble interface allows a person to move fluidly between real-time text conversation and message posting. In this system, there is no real difference between these two modes of interaction.

In Babble, conversations play out both in text form, and in visual form via the “cookie”, which is a simple, time-based map of the participation of conversants. Using the cookie, it becomes easier to understand who is an active participant in a conversation, and to understand how each person’s interactions evolve over time.

Coterie –

Coterie, developed by Dana Spiegel, a visualization of the conversational dynamics of an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channel. Social patterns, easily observable in real-world interpersonal interaction, are present in our interactions online in text chat.

Through Coterie, viewers can see the social patterns that are encoded in the textual interactions between online chat conversants. Using the chat messages posted to an IRC channel by users, Coterie builds models for individual and chat room-level interaction based on real- world sociometric models. Coterie also automatically separates out conversations using a conversation model based on a word usage algorithm.

This information is then presented to the viewer through a novel display based on models for real-world small group interaction, which allows the viewer to see historical patterns of user interaction, such as a user’s verbosity, as well as channel-level patterns, such as conversational cohesiveness.

Coterie was the first graphical chat environment that was completely autonomous. The on-screen behaviors of each person in a chat room were automatically driven by their conversations and their interactions. People didn’t have to move around a graphical chat room; this was done for them by Coterie’s advanced motion system and interaction models.