Designing Systems that Mesh with Social Processes

CHI 99 Online Communities Workshop
Position Paper

Tom Erickson and Wendy Kellogg

Social Computing Group
IBM T. J. Watson Research Center,

Research Summary

We have designed, implemented, and deployed a system that we call Babble [1]. 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 on.

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 participating.

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.

Research Methodology

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

Other Important Issues for the Field

Selected Publications

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.