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1. Introduction: Design Shapes Society

Published onApr 27, 2020
1. Introduction: Design Shapes Society
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The Making of a Community Map

In 1991, the Web had not yet been invented and the Internet was much less social than it would become years later. Still, it was far from uninhabited, and the centralized, multiuser computers that were then common functioned as social centers, places where people came to check their email, read news, and see who else was around.

At the MIT Media Lab, where I was a graduate student at the time, the central computer was called “media-lab,” and its users were a superset of the people who inhabited the Media Lab building; all the current students and faculty were on it, as were some alumni and other associates, who might be anywhere in the world. You could run a command called “who” to see who was logged in and for how long had they been idle. If you were working at the lab late at night, it was a good way to see who else was around, or if you were there during the day, to see if a colleague was easily reachable.

I spent the summer of 1991 working in Japan. It was fascinating, but also lonely. The company was in a far suburb of Tokyo and few of my coworkers spoke English. When I logged in to media-lab to check my email, I would also look at who else was active on the machine. When it was mid-afternoon for me, it was the middle of the night in Cambridge, and only one or two night owls would be present. But on nights that I worked late, I could watch the tide of distant log-ins rise, as people arrived to work in the Lab’s morning.

Running the “who” command printed a list of names and their idle times, but it did not give an intuitive feel for the flow of activity. What I really wanted was a window that would show me who was online and who was active. I wanted it to be very much like a real window onto a central plaza, which one might look out of occasionally to see who was passing by.

When I returned to Cambridge, I began designing this window—and immediately faced the problem of how to arrange all the names. The most obvious and easy solution would be to arrange them in alphabetical order. But this was unsatisfactory: such a layout would provide no context about the people—their role in the lab, whether they were residents or distant affiliates. Furthermore, such an arrangement was too reminiscent of the list of names on a committee program or memorial. Another solution would be to arrange the names by hand. I could use a floor plan of the lab and place all the residents in their offices, with the other affiliates floating in space outside. But this would be a tremendous amount of work, and would require constant updating as new people joined. Plus, the nonresident community was large—in the thousands—and growing, with many members I did not know. Where to place all of them? Instead, I decided to write a program that would automatically place each person in a meaningful location on the screen. To do this, I needed a database containing relevant information about everyone who had a media-lab account.

<p>Figure 1.1: Judith Donath, <em>Visual Who </em>(1995). Roles and relationships mode, two anchors. This mode, shows all members of the community (names changed for privacy). Brightness shows strength of ties to the anchors.</p>

Figure 1.1: Judith Donath, Visual Who (1995). Roles and relationships mode, two anchors. This mode, shows all members of the community (names changed for privacy). Brightness shows strength of ties to the anchors.

The mail-alias file, which contained all of the Media Lab’s group email lists, was just this sort of database. Email was integral to the lab’s culture. When someone joined the community, he or she received a media-lab email address and was added to the appropriate official lists: there were lists for staff, faculty, and students. Each research group had its own mailing lists, as did the softball team and those interested in cryptography. People planning a ski trip made a mailing list for it, as did those who worked on a research project together and those who shared a love of cooking or tennis or esoteric computer music. Over time, each person created a self-portrait in mailing lists, telling of his or her interests, responsibilities, and roles at the Media Lab.

With the mailing list data, I created Visual Who,*1 an interactive visualization that depicted this community. Starting with a few user-chosen mailing lists as anchors, it grouped together people who had—at least as expressed in their choice of email lists—much in common (Donath 1995).

Visual Who did not impose a single, definitive picture of the community; instead, it allowed people to interactively explore the roles and relationships of its members by choosing different mailing lists as the visualization’s anchors (see figures 1.1 and 1.2). People enjoyed using it. Seeing who unexpectedly shared your interests was fun, as was learning more about newcomers and others you might otherwise know only as a username on a mass mailing.

<p>Figure 1.2: Judith Donath, <em>Visual Who</em> (1995). Roles and relationships mode, three anchors.</p>

Figure 1.2: Judith Donath, Visual Who (1995). Roles and relationships mode, three anchors.

Once you had found a satisfactory arrangement, you could use Visual Who as a window onto the community’s activity (see figures 1.3 and 1.4). This mode showed only people who were logged in to media-lab, displaying their names brightly if they were active and dimly if they were idle. In the middle of the day, the “window” shimmered with people coming and going; late at night it was dark, with only the occasional user checking in.

In the physical world, we live amid an abundance of sensory detail. We are attuned to the appearance and behavior of other people, their facial expressions, changing fashions, and the ebb and flow of crowds. But online, these social patterns are harder to perceive. They are hidden in the abstract archives of data from activities, updates, and conversations. It is hard to sense the scale and composition of online groups and to form nuanced impressions of individual people.

<p>Figure 1.3: Judith Donath, Visual Who (1995). Activity mode, 4:00 a.m. This mode shows only members who are present. Brightness indicates recent activity.</p>

Figure 1.3: Judith Donath, Visual Who (1995). Activity mode, 4:00 a.m. This mode shows only members who are present. Brightness indicates recent activity.

Visual Who was compelling because it provided viewers the ability to see social patterns more easily online, such as who had similar interests and which topics appealed to different groups. It also provided a feeling of co-presence, revealing that the barren-seeming machine was actually a vibrant and inhabited space. The information that Visual Who used was always there in the computer, just not in a sensory form; the visualization transformed the abstract data into a visible, navigable scene.

This visualization is just the beginning. Using Visual Who, we can see that there is activity online, but not what it is; we can see names, but little about the people they represent. What ideas are discussed in the email lists, and what are the patterns of response and reputation that emerge within them? How can we use the histories of conversations and the data that accumulate about a person to create sensory and comprehensible online societies? What other ways are there of depicting the relationships within a large group of people?

<p>Figure 1.4: Judith Donath, Visual Who (1995). Activity mode, 1:00 p.m.</p>

Figure 1.4: Judith Donath, Visual Who (1995). Activity mode, 1:00 p.m.

We are at the beginning of a revolution in human communication. The online world has the potential to connect each individual to millions, if not billions, of others. This is an unprecedented scale for forming communities, for meeting people, and for working together. Elements of this revolution are already part of daily life: people work and learn in distributed groups, with colleagues and fellow students scattered across the globe, their meetings taking place for the most part online. They rely increasingly on online people, many of them strangers, to be the gatekeepers to news, to help make decisions about everything from which toothpaste to buy to which laws to support.

Yet at this stage the social dimension of the Internet remains primitive. The interfaces are still clunky and our online social experience is visually dull, far from the vibrant and subtle richness of face-to-face interaction. Current interfaces for conversation and social navigation are awkward; they are designed around office work, with metaphors based on filing and typing. We have little sense of the presence of other people, their character and intentions, where they congregate and what they do.

The online world may evolve into an extraordinary new form of human society, where people make discoveries collectively, produce important works, and form friendships and other connections at a vastly unprecedented scale. But it is not there yet. Humans are fundamentally sensory and social beings: for the online world to achieve its promise, we need to design interfaces that work with how we see and respond to the world around us.

Design Goals for Online Spaces

Designing online spaces requires balancing three fundamental goals:

Be innovative: Explore extraordinary possibilities.

Be legible: Bring clarity to a complex and abstract environment.

Be socially beneficial: Support the emergence of desirable social norms and cultures.

We want innovative designs that explore the potential of a densely populated world with immense troves of data but no physical bodies. At the same time, we want designs that make this world comprehensible to us; we are, after all, embodied creatures whose cognition is based on physical experience. Perhaps most importantly, we want designs that encourage people to contribute to their community, (usually) by participating, cooperating, and being honest.

Innovation: Exploring Extraordinary Possibilities

Physical limits shape our everyday, unmediated interactions. Most informal conversations are among six or seven people at most; beyond that size it is difficult to hear everyone. Larger gatherings, such as classes, meetings, and big rallies, need some form of amplification, whether modern megaphones or the ancient practice of the crowd chanting back the speaker’s phrases.2 Face-to-face discussions require the participants to be in the same place at the same time. If someone needs to be elsewhere, his or her role in the conversation ends.


Science fiction versions of the distant future feature people projected as moving, speaking, 3D holograms, appearing just as if they were standing there, aside from some obligatory jitter and glitches.

Robert squinted and shrugged, squinted again. And then suddenly he got it right: his visitor was standing in the middle of the bedroom. … It was his first real three-dimensional success. … Robert stood and stopped to the side, looking behind the visitor. The image was so solid, so complete. Hmm. And yet the visitor cast shadows contrary to the real lighting. I wonder whose fault that is? (Vernor Vinge, Rainbow’s End, 106)


Online, we can change this, by creating virtual spaces where hundreds of people can converse comfortably and conveniently. These interactions differ significantly from our face-to-face conversations. For example, online participants usually type rather than speak. In spoken conversation, words are ephemeral, disappearing into the past as soon as we utter them, but in text conversations, they exist indefinitely. This introduces new concerns about privacy, for a statement’s meaning and impact change when someone reads it at a later time and in a different context. Most significantly, the medium is computational, allowing us to analyze text, visualize patterns, and in many other ways enrich and transform the communicative experience.

In an influential paper entitled “Beyond Being There,” Jim Hollan and Scott Stornetta (1992) argue that the goal of new communication media should be to provide an experience different from, and potentially better than, face-to-face interaction. They contend that mediated interactions that attempt to mimic immediate presence will always be inferior to the real thing, whereas an innovative interface can provide unprecedented communicative abilities.

Technologists have put much effort into creating systems such as specially equipped videoconferencing rooms that attempt to mimic the experience of actually being with another person. Although there is something magical about seeing someone who is actually thousands of miles away appear in front of you, it is also mundane. Given the tremendous bandwidth and advanced technology necessary to create the illusion of presence, is the impression of ordinary “being there” the best we can do? My goal with this book is to go “beyond being there,” to explore new types of interactions and situations that are possible only because they occur within a computational medium.

Online social interaction goes beyond being there when the amount and type of information we have about each other differs from ordinary life. Sometimes we get less information online. For example, lack of identity information is quite unusual in face-to-face social gatherings: it is only at masquerade balls that we do not see each other’s faces. Online, however, anonymous interaction is common, and verified identity is the relatively rare and valuable condition. Other mediated interactions are different because there is more information. Unlike the ephemeral worlds of our face-to-face conversations, much of what we write online persists indefinitely in various electronic storehouses. We may at times want designs that highlight and emphasize information unavailable face to face, such as the histories of our conversations; at other times, we may want to omit things that ordinarily we can see, such as the race or gender of our conversational partners.

If we evaluate online interactions using face-to-face conversation as the ideal, they will inevitably come up short. Email, for example, has no gestures, no tone of voice, and no facial expressions. With those as criteria, it seems an impoverished medium. Yet email also enables anonymous interaction so we can converse without revealing our race, gender, or identity; it allows for asynchronous discussion, which frees us to read and respond at our convenience. Looking at how email differs from face-to-face experience shows how much it enriches our conversational repertoire.

Whether email’s features make it preferable to in-person conversation depends on the situation. Anonymity is seldom desirable in ordinary social interactions, but it can be literally life-saving for whistle-blowers and political dissenters (Kling et al. 1999; Marx 1999), and whereas the immediate, nuanced back-and-forth of live conversation is better suited for complex negotiations, asynchronous media allow us to participate in many discussions, devoting time to each as we can. The goal in designing new social media is neither to imitate in-person encounters nor to replace them, but to complement them, to add new communicative options to suit our varying needs.

Legibility: Bringing Clarity to Abstract Worlds

As we create systems that explore the extraordinary possibilities of the online world, we also want to keep them legible, to aim for clarity as well as innovation.

We are embodied beings, who have evolved in the physical world; our thoughts and imagination are rooted in the sensory experience of our physical surroundings. Online, there is no body; there is only information. We comprehend abstract ideas by reframing them in metaphoric terms that ultimately derive from physical experience (Lakoff and Johnson 1980). A key role of interface design is to translate the abstract data of the computational domain into metaphors and sensory representations that we can understand.

The design needs to be based on an understanding of human cognition. Our minds create narratives out of sensory input. We see faces in the moon, mythical figures in the stars. We connect sequential events into stories and group similar objects into clusters. Presented with an interface, we interpret meaning from the color and shape of its lines, the rhythm of its interactions, and the juxtaposition of words and pictures. To ensure that the meaning we read is the intended one, the interface designer needs to understand the implicit meanings we find in shapes, colors, and interactions and use this knowledge in creating landscapes of words and bodies of data.

In the world of information, a rich trove of data is more valuable than a reference to gold and diamonds. To appreciate its value, though, we need the ability to perceive it. Visualizations that make data such as a good reputation or a history of insightful comments easily perceivable may use metaphors such as gold stars from the physical world to convey their meaning, but the actual value derives from the underlying data.

Interfaces and visualizations add an inescapable level of editorializing as well as making information understandable.3 An interface that highlights “constructive” participants measures this quality with subjective metrics. It might use the number of posts someone made, the percentage of their posts that people responded to, or the tone—angry or supportive—of their writing. Each measure would yield different results and represent different values. Even something as innocuous as displaying conversations by threads rather than sequentially sends a subtle message, encouraging the introduction of new topics by prominently featuring the initial message. Designers need to be cognizant of the values they disseminate, and users need to recognize how design encodes subtle messages.

Social Benefits: Shaping Online Culture

Communication technologies can transform society for better or worse. One can optimistically envision a future in which the xenophobic barriers of racism and sexism collapse as people make contact with diverse groups, and in which an increasingly well-informed populace engages in democratic discourse and uses its collective intelligence to solve the great problems facing the twenty-first century. But one can also foresee dystopian scenarios in which a repressive government uses the trails of information we all leave behind to control dissent and intimidate citizens. Other predictions, less dire but still undesirable, show a future in which shallow virtual relationships overshadow real ties and real responsibilities, where a pale and puffy populace lives vicariously through their make-believe avatar alter egos. Although we cannot foresee all the social ramifications of this revolution in communication, we can make educated predictions and design accordingly.

Some of the forces that determine how closely the future resembles these scenarios lie outside of the technology itself: governments can enact legal safeguards or they can spy on their citizens; religious leaders can guide their followers toward tolerance or terrorism. However, the creators and users of technology can also have a tremendous impact on how the future unfolds.

To achieve a future in which online interaction breaks down cultural barriers and solves big problems, we need to design interfaces that encourage people to take responsibility for their words and to engage with each other more cooperatively—far too many of today’s discussions descend into vicious acrimony. The requisite trust and cooperation depend on participants knowing more about each other, but we are understandably wary of the digital footprints we leave. The designer’s challenge is to balance these competing values.

Good design is situation specific. You can make a romantic restaurant with candlelight and tablecloths, a place that serves multicourse meals that take many hours to consume, where people talk in quiet voices, display their best manners, and spend large amounts of money. You can also construct a family restaurant featuring bright lights, unbreakable crockery, easy-to-clean plastic menus, and food served quickly and cheaply. One is not better than the other; rather, their suitability depends on whether the customer is seeking a perfect evening with a date or an easy meal with young children.

Similarly, the design goals of online sites can vary widely. In the online world, cooperation is usually a virtue, but when designing games, inciting ruthless competition may be the goal. Many sites forbid anonymous participation because it enables irresponsible behavior, but anonymity is sometimes desirable: a forum for people to speak freely about dangerous topics without fear of reprisal must be able to assure them that their identity is secret. At the same time, if a site wants to encourage rash and outrageous behavior, enabling anonymous action can provide exactly the sort of disinhibition it wants to foster. This book generally assumes that encouraging social interaction and cooperation is the goal, but the examples also include sites and artworks deliberately designed to provoke disorder or discomfort.

To shape online culture, we must be able to identify elements and features that encourage or daunt particular behaviors and uses. The restaurateur chooses between bright lights or candles, washable surfaces or fine linen, open communal tables or hushed, quiet spaces. Online, we choose among features such as the availability of anonymity or long-term personas; whether people gain prominence for being funny, knowledgeable, or supportive; whether they can see with whom they are speaking or how their audience reacts. It is important also to note the word “encourage.” The interface creates an environment that is conducive to certain types of experience and activity, but it does not control the users.

The users of social technologies are a diverse group, drawn from an increasingly large percentage of the population. They may be conservative church-going Americans, Iranian dissidents, radical militants, prankster teens, or sentimental grandmothers. They may be highly successful professionals or barely literate slum-dwellers. Their social goals, and the technologies that best suit them, are likewise quite diverse. People socialize online to bond with existing acquaintances as well as to meet new ones. They may be seeking fame, publicity, and attention, or looking for a low-key, efficient way to obtain advice. Their actions may be innocuous or criminal. Each individual, who might simultaneously be a spouse, coworker, boss, parent, sibling, friend, and customer, can single-handedly embody a multitude of goals and intentions.

“Where the Action Is”4

The urban sociologist William Whyte spent years observing how people walk, sit, work, and live in the city. His fundamental observation was that “what attracts people most, in sum, is other people”; and he went on to say, “If I labor the point, it is because many urban spaces are being designed as though the opposite were true” (Whyte 1988, 10). We undervalue how much we like and need to be around other people, simply observing them and trying to make sense of the changing social world around us.

Our awareness of what the people around us are doing ranges from focused attention to peripheral awareness. When engaged in an intense discussion, we are acutely aware of the other’s movements and words, possibly to the exclusion of much else. At other times, while working on a task or casually chatting, we are also tangentially aware of the people and movement around us. Places have a typical level of activity that ebbs and flows throughout the day, and we become accustomed to their ordinary rhythms, noticing any unusual disruptions or silences. Hearing a colleague’s voice in the distance, we register her presence, perhaps subconsciously when we have no particular concern with her; however, if we would like to speak with her or her presence is unexpected, this distant awareness can shift to more focused attention.

Online, many sites provide little indication of the thousands of people who may be present. But some do make people and their activity visible, and this social information has been very useful for their users. For example, instant messaging applications show who among one’s contacts is online and whether they are active or idle. A study of teen users found that they were quite sensitive to how their presence and absence registered to others, learned each other’s activity patterns, and diligently provided reasons for unexpected moments of unavailability; here, social awareness shaped the evolution of the community’s social mores (Grinter and Palen 2002). Streams of updates, such as one sees on Facebook and Twitter, also provide a vivid sense of activity, though the non-contributing readers remain invisible.

Yet, these interfaces are rudimentary, showing presence with a list of names or scrolling updates. Reading a list of names is fine when you have a goal in mind—for example, looking for someone to chat with—but it does not provide ongoing, lightweight social awareness. A more visual approach to depicting presence—a window onto a virtual world rather than a list of names—can give the viewer insight into a community’s patterns at a glance.

A window, such as that created by Visual Who, provides awareness, but also separation; windows are for observation, not immersion. We want this sometimes—for instance, when we are working—for, though we like to see the comings and goings of our colleagues, we may also want silence in order to concentrate better, and to see but not be seen, the better to avoid distractions. But at other times, we want to participate, to be part of the conversation, to “reach out and touch someone.” Ideally, an interface should make possible seamless transitions between being peripherally aware of ambient social information and becoming actively engaged with others in the virtual space.

The Social Machine

People invent new social technologies for a variety of reasons. Their intention may be to improve society, to make a profit, or some combination of both. This book will focus on the social goals: creating mediated spaces for people to meet, play, work, and argue; designing tools to help people express themselves and make sense of others in the mediated world; and understanding the social impact of different design decisions. The fundamental goal is to benefit the individual and the community.

My hope is to inspire designers to be both more radical and more thoughtful in their creations—to push the technologies farther and create innovative forms of communication, but also to think more deeply and knowledgeably about the likely social impact of their designs. For users—that is, anyone who communicates online—I hope to clarify how technologies shape our impressions of people and influence our behavior. This knowledge will help us better navigate the online world, whether in deciding what information to make public or keep private, choosing what medium to use in a particular situation, or assessing the veracity of other people’s stories and identity claims.

The online world is a synthetic universe—entirely human-made and designed. The design of the underlying system shapes how we appear and what we see of other people. It determines the structure of conversations and who has access to what information. Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” Architects of physical cities determine the paths people will take and the vistas they will see. They affect people’s mood by creating cathedrals that inspire awe, schools that encourage playfulness, and jails that evoke dread. Architects, however, do not control how the inhabitants of those buildings present themselves or see each other—but the designers of virtual spaces do, and they have far greater influence on the social experience of their users. They determine whether we see each other’s faces or instead know each other only by name. They can reveal the size and makeup of an audience, or provide the impression that one is writing intimately to only a few, even if millions are in fact reading. They can make words ephemeral, disappearing forever once they leave the screen, or eternal, by permanently archiving them, amassing a history of a person’s views and reactions.

This book is about the design of these interfaces, written for both the creators and users of new social technologies. It is a guide to understanding how existing systems influence behavior and a manifesto for designing radically new environments for social interaction.

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