Many collaborative and communicative environments use
notions of “space” and spatial organisation to facilitate and
structure interaction. We argue that a focus on spatial models
is misplaced. Drawing on understandings from architecture
and urban design, as well as from our own research findings,
we highlight the critical distinction between “space” and
“place”. While designers use spatial models to support inter-
action, we show how it is actually a notion of “place” which
frames interactive behaviour. This leads us to re-evaluate
spatial systems, and discuss how “place”, rather than
“space”, can support CSCW design.
Keywords: space, place, media space, virtual reality,
We live in a three-dimensional world. The structure of the
space around us moulds and guides our actions and interac-
tions. With years of experience, we are all highly skilled at
structuring and interpreting space for our individual or inter-
active purposes. For instance:
• The objects we work with most often are generally
arranged closest to us. Computer keyboards, current
documents, common reference materials and favourite
pieces of music might immediately surround us in an
office, while other materials are kept further away (in fil-
ing cabinets, cupboards or libraries).
• Physical spaces are structured according to uses and
needs for interaction. An office door can be closed to
give independence from the space outside, or left open to
let us see passers-by. People’s offices are more likely to
be sited near to the offices of their colleagues.
Observing the way that space structures actions and interac-
tions—the “affordances” of space [Gaver, 1992]—many
designers have used spatial models and metaphors in collab-
orative systems. The desktop metaphor of single-user
systems has been extended to a metaphor of desks, offices,
hallways and cities. These systems all facilitate natural col-
laboration by exploiting our understandings of space—the
properties of the three-dimensional world in which we live
and interact every day.
In this paper, we will critically explore the use of space as a
basis for CSCW design. We will argue that the critical prop-
erty which designers are seeking, which we call appropriate
behavioural framing, is not rooted in the properties of space
at all. Instead, it is rooted in sets of mutually-held, and mutu-
ally available, cultural understandings about behaviour and
action. In contrast to “space”, we call this a sense of “place”.
Our principle is: “Space is the opportunity; place is the
Place is a fundamental concept in architecture and urban
design, and we can learn from those disciplines how to think
about place in collaborative systems. Place derives from a
tension between connectedness and distinction, rather than
from three-dimensional structure, and we can see this at
work in a variety of collaborative systems.
We will begin, in the next section, by looking at the current
use of space in collaborative systems, and how it is exploited
to structure interaction. Next, we will introduce the related
notion of place, and compare their roles in existing systems
and consequences for future designs.
2 Space in Collaborative Systems
The use of spatial metaphors and spatial organisation has
become increasingly popular in a collaborative systems over
the past few years. We will describe some systems, and then
look at the properties they exhibit.
2.1 Spatially-based Systems
Collaborative Virtual Reality. Most demonstrably, experi-
ments with collaborative virtual reality systems, such as
DIVE [Carlsson and Hagsand, 1993] and MASSIVE [Green-
halgh and Benford, 1995], use virtual spaces to manage
distributed multi-user interaction. Both of these systems use
a “spatial model of interaction” [Benford and Fahlen, 1993],
in which participants’ awareness of each other, and opportu-
nities for interaction, are managed through spatial extensions
of their presence, attention and influence called “aura”,
“focus” and “nimbus”. These mechanisms are designed as
computational equivalents of real-world patterns of aware-
ness and interaction in these virtual spaces. Related
mechanisms extend these interactional spaces for collabora-
tive work, such as collaborative information retrieval
[Sawyer and Mariani, 1995], using spatial metaphors to visu-
alise users in an information landscape.
MUDs. At the other end of the technology spectrum, the
explosion of interest in the Internet has been accompanied by
a huge increase in the popularity of MUDs and MOOs [Cur-
Re-Place-ing Space: The Roles of Place and Space in
Steve Harrison* and Paul Dourish†
*Xerox Palo Alto Research Center
†Rank Xerox Research Centre, Cambridge Lab (EuroPARC)
Draft submission for CSCW’96—not for distribution.Last modified: 3/12/96
tis and Nichols, 1994]; text-based (or simple graphical)
interactive environments. Collaborative systems based on
these technologies [e.g. Curtis et al., 1995] have also empha-
sised the use of “real-world” spatial metaphors to support
collaboration. MUDs structure their virtual worlds into sep-
arate locations (“rooms”), and allow participants to move
from location to location, selectively participating in events,
activities and conversations. The spatial metaphor runs all
the way through the MUD model of action and interaction.
Multimedia Communications. The same principles have also
been at work in other communicative systems. Like collabo-
rative virtual realities, these have drawn upon analogies with
the spatial organisation of the everyday physical world to
structure aspects of multi-user interaction. For example, the
original design of the Cruiser media space system [Root,
1988] used a metaphor of “virtual hallways” as an organising
principle for interaction and participation in an AV-mediated
communication system. The Vrooms system at EuroPARC
[Borning and Travers, 1991] used spatial proximity in an
interface to control connections; and recent work on the Tor-
onto Telepresence project has introduced multiple cameras
into a single media space node to reflect the notion of differ-
ent views from the office doorway or across the desk of a
colleague [Buxton, forthcoming].
The basic premise which lies behind these varied uses of spa-
tial models and metaphors is that, in collaborative settings,
designers can exploit our familiarity with the spatial organi-
sation of our everyday physical environments. In particular,
they wish to exploit the ways that space structures and orga-
nises activity and interaction.
2.2 The Features of Space
There are many aspects of the “real world” which can be
exploited as part of a spatial model for collaboration:
Relational orientation and reciprocity. The spatial organisa-
tion of the world is the same for all of us. “Down” is towards
the center of the earth, and “up” is towards the sky; we rec-
ognise “front” and “back”, and understand what that implies
for our field-of-view. Our common orientation to the physi-
cal world is an invaluable resource in presenting and
interpreting activity and behaviour. Since we know that the
world is physically structured for others in just the same way
as it is for ourselves, we can use this understanding to orient
our own behaviour for other people’s use. This is what lets
us point to objects, or use spatial descriptions to establish ref-
erence. Referring to “the document on top of that pile” or
“the person standing by the bookcase” relies on mutual spa-
tial orientation. Reference can also depend on our shared
experience of what it’s like to be in a space, such as when we
tell someone, “the door is on the left just as you come around
Proximity and action. In the everyday world, we act (more or
less) where we are. We pick up objects that are near us, not
at a distance; we talk to people around us, because our voices
only travel a short distance; we carry things with us; and we
get closer to things to view them clearly. Similar properties
are exploited in collaborative virtual spaces. Understandings
of proximity help us to relate people to activities and to each
other. When we see a group of people gathered around a
meeting table, we understand something about their activity,
and we know that another person standing off to one side is
likely to be less involved in their activity.
Partitioning. Following on from the notion of proximity and
activity is a notion of partitioning. Since actions and interac-
tions fall off with distance, so distance can be used to
partition activities and the extent of interaction. MUD sys-
tems, for example, use rooms or locations to partition
activity. MUD rooms provide a restricted view into the set of
interactions currently in progress in the system overall.
Presence and awareness. As we move around the everyday
world, it is filled not only with the artifacts, tools and repre-
sentations of our work, but also with other people and with
signs of their activity. The sense of other people’s presence
and the ongoing awareness of activity allows us to structure
our own activity, seamlessly integrating communication and
collaboration ongoingly and unproblematically. Similarly,
spatially-organised collaborative environments present
views of other people and their actions within the same envi-
ronment which represents activity and holds the artifacts of
3 Appropriate Behavioural Framing
The real-world value of the features listed above is that they
give critical cues which allow us to organise our behaviour
appropriately (such as moving towards people to talk to
them, or referring to objects so that others can find them).
Collaborative virtual spaces exploit aspects of space (spatial
mechanisms, such as providing identity, orientation, a locus
for activity, and a mode of control) which can be powerful
tools for the design. But these spatial metaphors carry with
them some decidedly non-metaphoric aspects—spatial
behaviours—that emerge from our everyday experience of
the physical world.
So, what is being supported by spatial collaborative models
is a way of ongoingly managing activity in collaborative set-
tings. We call this appropriate behavioural framing. The
implied rationale is that if we design collaborative systems
around notions of space which mimic the spatial organisa-
tion of the real world, then we can support the emergent
patterns of human behaviour and interaction which our
everyday actions in the physical world exhibit. In other
words, spatially-organised systems will support spatially-
Our argument here is that this model is too simplistic. It
needs to be examined and studied further before it can be put
to use in systems design.
4 From Space to Place
The properties outlined above define the notion of “space”
which we will use in this paper. Space is the structure of the
world; it is the three-dimensional environment, in which
objects and events occur, and in which they have relative
position and direction. The properties of space are those
which derive from that definition, as we showed above.
We argued that features of space have been exploited by
system developers in the attempt to regain the sense of
appropriate behavioural framing which we observe and
encounter in the real world. However, in everyday action,
this appropriate behavioural framing comes not from a sense
of space, but from a sense of place. Our key principle
describes the relationship between the two: Space is the
opportunity; place is the understood reality.
So, what is place and what does it do for us?
4.1 Place and Behavioural Framing
Physically, a place is a space which is invested with under-
standings of behavioural appropriateness, cultural
expectations, and so forth. We are located in “space”, but we
act in “place”. Furthermore, “places” are spaces that are val-
ued. The distinction is rather like that between a “house” and
a “home”; a house might keep out the wind and the rain, but
a home is where we live.
A conference hall and a theatre share many similar spatial
features (such as lighting and orientation); and yet we rarely
sing or dance when presenting conference papers, and to do
so would be regarded as at least slightly odd (or would need
to be explained). We wouldn’t describe this behaviour as
“out of space”; but it would most certainly be “out of place”;
and this feeling is so strong that we might try quite hard to
interpret a song or a dance as part of a presentation, if faced
with it suddenly. It is a sense of place, not space, which
makes it appropriate to dance at a Grateful Dead concert, but
not at a Cambridge college high table; to be naked in the bed-
room, but not in the street; and to sit at our windows, peering
out, rather than at other people’s windows, peering in. Place,
not space, frames appropriate behaviour.
Conversely, the same location—with no changes in its spa-
tial organisation or layout—may function as different places
at different times. An office might act, at different times, as
a place for contemplation, meetings, intimate conversation
and sleep. So a place may be more specific than a space. A
space is always what it is, but a place is how it’s used.
4.2 Place is
One reason that it can be hard to see the separation between
place and space is that, in our everyday experience, places
largely exist within spaces. (Later, however, we will describe
some space-less places.) A place is generally a space with
something added—social meaning, convention, cultural
understandings about role, function and nature and so on.
The sense of place transforms the space. As a space, the brick
porch outside EuroPARC where smokers gather is uninvit-
ing; but it is valued as a place for relaxation and gossip. It’s
still a space, even though place is what matters.
Since our world is spatial and three-dimensional, notions of
space pervade our everyday experience. Everything in our
world is located in space, and so “place” is tied up with it too.
It is part of the very metaphoric structure of our language.
Tuan  points out that even spatial relations are loaded
with meaning, with “high” being good and “low” being bad.
Lakoff and Johnson  label this an “orientational meta-
phor” and give a long list of examples. Spatiality runs
throughout our experience and our thought. Places derive
much of their meaning, then, from their spatiality.
However, the sense of place is dependent on much more than
simply the spatial organisation of our surroundings, and
more than the three-dimensional arrangement of artefacts.
Places also call up cultural understandings which help us to
frame our behaviour.
4.3 Place in Social Analysis
Analysts of social action have been concerned with notions
of place, and with the settings which convey cultural mean-
ing and frame behaviour. Goffman  uses a theatrical
metaphor, where “frontstage” and “backstage” distinguish
different modes of behaviour and action in interpersonal
interaction. He points explicitly to “regions” as one of the
elements which contributes to the framing of these different
styles of action. However, behaviour can be framed as much
by the presence of other individuals as by the location itself;
in other words, the “place” is more than simply a point in
Giddens  adopts the term “locales” to capture a similar
sense of behavioural framing. Again, these are more than
simply spaces; he observes, “it is usually possible to desig-
nate locales in terms of their physical properties... but it is an
error to suppose that locales can be described in those terms
alone.” For Giddens, again, the critical feature of these set-
tings is the way in which “features of settings are [...] used,
in a routine manner, to constitute the meaningful content of
interaction”. In other words, what these analysts point to in
human action is the how it is framed not only by spaces, but
by the pattern of understandings, associations and expecta-
tions with which they are infused.
4.4 Place in the Built Environment
Place, as we have described it here, is a central concern for
architects and urban designers. For example, Whyte 
provides detailed descriptions of the life of the street in a
modern city. His comprehensive descriptions of the use of
the street-side plazas highlight the issues between places
which “work” and those which do not; whether or not people
want to be there. Similarly, while Christopher Alexander’s
 “patterns” ostensibly describe principles of physical
design, the focus is less on the structure of buildings and cit-
ies, and more on the living which goes on in them. He
comments, “Those of us who are concerned with buildings
tend to forget too easily that all the life and soul of a place,
all of our experiences there, depend not simply on the phys-
ical environment, but on the pattern of events which we
experience there.” [Alexander, 1979]
So, architects and urban designers are concerned not simply
with designing three-dimensional structures (spaces), but
with places for people to be. For them, the idea of place
derives from a tension between connectedness and
Connectedness is the degree to which a place fits with its sur-
roundings, maintaining a pattern in the surrounding
environment (such as color, material or form)—or respond-
ing to those patterns, even if it does not maintain the patterns
explicitly. It is when these relationships are broken down
that we say that something is “out of place”.
One measure of placeness is the degree to which a place rein-
forces—or even defines—the pattern of its context. But to be
a place is also to be distinct from its context. How is it pos-
sible for a place to be both “part of” and “apart from” its
context? The tension is addressed by defining the distinctive-
ness of a place in terms of the surrounding context— and
This model of place, in the tension between connectedness
and distinction, will turn out to be a valuable way to think
about and design places in computational space as well as
physical space. First, though, we will present work from
media spaces, to illustrate the distinction between place and
space, and to ask, how do we make spaces into places?
5 Making a Place in Media Space
We have experimented with these ideas of space and place in
research over the last ten years into “media spaces” [Gaver
et al., 1992; Bly et al., 1993]. Media spaces integrate audio,
video and computer technology to provide a rich, malleable
infrastructure for workgroup communication across time and
space. This work—especially recent reports bringing a long-
term perspective (e.g. Harrison et al., forthcoming; Dourish
et al., in press), presented in examples below—vividly illus-
trate the distinction between place and space.
It’s no accident that these experimental audio-video environ-
ments are called Media Spaces, not Media Places. Placeness
is created and sustained by patterns of use; it’s not something
we can design in. On the other hand, placeness is what we
want to support; we can design for it. Media spaces were
intended to provide the structure from which placeness could
arise, just as places arise out of the space around us. They
were not designed as places themselves, but for people to
make places in them.
To understand how this works, we need to spend some time
thinking about how people turn a space into a place.
5.1 Adaptation and Appropriation
One critical element in the emergence of a sense of place and
appropriate behaviour is support for adaptation and appro-
priation of the technology by user communities. This applies
to physical places as well as technological ones. We make a
house into a home by arranging it to suit our lives, and put-
ting things there which reflect ourselves. People make places
in media spaces with just the same ideas of adaptation and
appropriation. Like tacking pictures to the walls, rearranging
the furniture or placing personal artifacts around a room,
these are the ways that people can turn a space into a place.
5.1.1 Example: Linking Public Spaces
As an example, consider the very different experiences of
two seemingly similar uses of video to link public spaces,
one at Xerox (reported by Olson and Bly ), and one at
Bellcore (reported by Fish et al. ).
Both experiments linked public spaces in R&D office envi-
ronments with audio and video, to foster informal
communication. However, the groups had very different
experiences of the successes and failures of their connec-
tions. The Bellcore researchers were disappointed with their
results, concluding that “the current VideoWindow system
lacks something due to factors we do not understand” [Fish
et al., 1990, p.9]; the PARC researchers concluded “the
media space offered something wonderful to those of us who
experienced the Palo Alto-Portland link” [Bly et al., 1993, p.
We believe that one critical factor contributing to the very
different patterns of use is this ability to participate, adapt
and appropriate. In these experiments, the differences had
their roots in the technology used. The Xerox link used rela-
tively inexpensive cameras, which were mounted on
wheeled tripods. Anyone could pick them up, move them
around and play with them—and many people did. On the
other hand, the Bellcore system used a prototype wide-scan
camera array and video projection system. The equipment
was designed to simulate copresence as closely as possible,
with high-quality video and audio, and life-size images.
However, the result was that the forbidding equipment, com-
plex and delicate to configure, could not be appropriated by
its users. It wasn’t theirs, and they could not make it theirs.
This separation between users and technology could be seen
to inhibit the community’s adoption of the technology.
It is only over time, and with active participation and appro-
priation, that a sense of place begins to permeate these
systems. The sense of place must be forged by the users; it
cannot be inherent in the system itself. Space is the opportu-
nity, and place is the understood reality. Just as space
provides the underlying opportunity for a media space,
place-making provides its realities.
Since the sense of place takes time to develop within a com-
munity, we look for it in studies of long-term use. A number
of studies of “virtual shared offices” linked by video and
audio over the long-term (periods of two or three years) point
to the emergence of place-centric behaviours and character-
istics [Adler and Henderson, 1994; Dourish et al., in press].
We found that new patterns of behaviour emerged, not only
between the “direct” participants—those whose offices were
linked by the media space—but also, critically, by others in
physical or organisational proximity. We will discuss this
further in our section on “Hybrid Spaces”
6 Place as a Cultural Phenomenon
We have been developing the idea of a sense of place—a
communally-held sense of appropriate behaviour, and a con-
text for engaging in and interpreting action. This is
essentially a cultural phenomenon.
These understandings develop within cultures, and learning
them is part of our assimilation and socialisation. Like new
members of any culture, new arrivals in our media spaces
learn the cultural norms and mores of the media space envi-
ronments, as part of their enculturation into the workplaces
and organisations where they are situated. These norms vary
from place to place. For example, Dourish  details the
varying views of media space activity in different research
environments, and shows how these have influenced the
development of the technologies. Similarly, as cultural
understandings drift, change and are forged anew, we see the
sense of appropriate behaviour change as well.
One illustrative example of cultural understandings of
appropriate behaviour in media spaces lies in the varying
approaches which have arisen around concerns of privacy
6.1 Privacy Concerns in Media Spaces
Quite rightly, much time and effort, including much of our
own, has been devoted to these concerns (e.g. [Dourish,
1991]; [Bellotti and Sellen, 1993]; [Clement, 1994]). It’s
important to note, though, that the solutions to these prob-
lems, which arise in situ to address local concerns, are
different in every setting [Dourish, 1993]. Concerns about
privacy, about the balance between control and availability,
and potential approaches to tackling the problems, are not
absolute. They arise in a mesh of cultural, personal and
organisational issues in different locations, and so we see the
nature and scope of solutions vary widely to reflect this.
We don’t raise this to dismiss concerns with privacy in mul-
timedia environments—far from it—or even to classify them
as purely “local” problems. Instead, we want to draw atten-
tion to the relationship between ways of acting and behaving
and the patterns of cultural associations.
The kinds of ideas generally raised in discussions of privacy
in media spaces are, themselves, cultural understandings.
Privacy has been a major concern for critics of media space
and designers of related projects. However, in general, the
debate has not been conducted with a rich view of the mean-
ing of privacy. A place-centric view emphasizes important
distinctions: privacy is not the same as private events, nor is
it a direct consequence of private places; and in contrast,
being seen or even heard is not absolutely and inevitably
6.1.1 The Social Construction of Privacy
There are many dimensions to the notion of “privacy”—con-
venience, turf, control of embarrassment, and control of
information. But let us start with the kind of privacy that
most people think of first, a relatively recent invention in
European cultures. Consider the bedroom. Today, we com-
monly think of the bedroom as a private place. We believe
that the activities we associate with it should be visually and
acoustically segregated from other people and other activi-
ties. The bedroom is a place of intimacy, and is emblematic
of the concept of privacy.1 This was not always so. The bed-
room dates from the end of the Middle Ages when Europe
was in a mini-ice age. Up until then, people ate and slept
together in large groups in a single room. Then someone
invented the bed. It raised bodies off the cold drafty floor and
separated people from one another. Enclosing canopies were
added that made tent-like rooms and created separate places
for the now separated sleepers; these tent-like rooms evolved
It is difficult to say whether the concept that is now called
privacy was an unfulfilled desire waiting for these inventions
or the by-product of keeping warm and displaying status. In
any case, the roots of privacy are in physical form, not in an
abstract notion of the control of others’ visual access to one-
self and one's property. (Of course, this is not how we see it
today.) Privacy is relative, not a set of psychological primi-
tives. Technology (such as walls, doors or permission lists)
is not the only way to create privacy, nor is it enough by
itself. Social convention gives meaning to the act of visual
separation. For example, the PARC Media Space is rooted in
the open studio of the architectural office, a place where pri-
vacy has a different meaning and is created and used in
different ways than in the closed spaces of research offices
or the bedrooms of today. The RAVE media space at Euro-
PARC emerged with a different set of technological and
organisational aesthetics, and manifests a different view of
privacy again, rooted in a “service” model rather than an
“open access” one [Dourish, 1993].
6.2 Cultural and Technological Structure
The identification of “placeness” as a cultural phenome-
non—or, at least, one rooted in human social action—results
in a critical implication for the design of collaborative sys-
tems and technologies. It shifts our focus away from the
technology of place, since that technology—doors, walls and
spatial distance—only gives rise to “placeness” through the
way in which it is given social meaning.
Office doors in our workplaces are typically left open, but
some doors carry signs to explain that they’re closed to keep
out noise, not visitors. The presence of these signs empha-
sises the relationship between technology and social cues.
They reinforce the social meaning (availability) even in the
presence of conflicting physical configurations (the closed
door). Technological configurations of private places and
quiet ones are the same; they are distinguished by social
action, not spatial structure.
The relationship between space and place is social, not tech-
nological. CSCW tools and technologies create new social
places, based on the ways in which their users ascribe new
social meanings to new technological features. This observa-
tion raises important questions for design. Carrying over
technological arrangements which ape the real world, such
as spatial organisation, might give us a convenient short-
hand for establishing shared social meaning; but is it really
the most appropriate means? And, furthermore, doesn’t it
limit the ways in which individuals and groups can adopt and
creatively appropriate the technologies to create their own
In the next two sections, we will explore these questions in
more detail. In particular, we will explore the relationship
between space and place—their dependence and interac-
tion—by looking at two complex forms of places: space-less
places and hybrid physical/virtual spaces.
7 Complex Forms: Space-less Places
The distinction between “space” and “place” is perhaps most
strongly demonstrated by examples of the emergence of
1. Lerup  notes that television “soap operas” often set action
in bedrooms when characters share intimate thoughts. The bed-
room is an icon for the private and the personal.
place without notions of space. Earlier, we introduced the
concept of place as space invested with social meaning. The
spaces can be computational, as well as physical. What
remains is the tension between connectedness and distinc-
tion which leads to placefulness. As our first “complex
form”, we present two examples in this section of placeful
collaborative action without a model of physical space.
7.1 Placeful Discussion without Physical Space
One obvious source of such examples are USENET news
groups and Internet mailing lists. The technology of each
USENET group is exactly the same, and yet the resultant
groups exhibit very different notions of place. It’s not simply
that they separate discussion into topics, making certain
postings appropriate to one group or another; but that they
also make distinctions between styles of posting. Neophyte
queries may be more or less appropriate, depending on the
culture of the group; so are flames. These styles are relatively
independent of topic. Complaints about spelling or grammat-
ical errors are acceptable (or even encouraged) in
alt.peeves, but they would be inappropriate in
The different groups serve different purposes to overlapping
constituencies and communities; and they exhibit different
social norms. They’re different places. This placeness builds
upon the tension between connectedness and distinction
which we raised earlier; but, critically, it emerges without an
underlying notion of space.
7.2 Placeful Navigation without Physical Space
Dourish and Chalmers  discuss various models of nav-
igation through information, and draw distinctions between
“spatial”, “semantic” and “social” navigation. Social naviga-
tion is navigation through information collections on the
basis of information derived from the activity of others. This
is a particular case which spatially-based models aim to sup-
port [Sawyer and Mariani, 1995]; drawing on the
relationship between proximity and activity discussed in sec-
tion two, these systems allow users to move to areas where
others are clustered, to join the crowd and see what’s going
on. However, as Dourish and Chalmers illustrate, similar
patterns of social navigation also occur through “personal
hotlists” on the World Wide Web, as well as through inter-
est-matching systems such as Ringo/HOMR and GroupLens
[Shardanand and Maes, 1995; Resnick et al., 1994]. Again,
this demonstrates that place-based behaviour doesn’t need
space to underpin it.
The behaviours exhibited here—varieties in conversational
structure, and navigation according to others’ interests—are
the same sorts of behaviours which spatial models try to sup-
port. However, as in the examples from our media space
experiences, we find that these are not spatially-organised
after all; they show people responding to places, not spaces.
8 Complex Forms: Hybrid Spaces
Our second complex form is the hybrids of physical and vir-
tual space which technology can create, and the places which
When we observe the emergence of a sense of place in media
space, a distinction arises between “spatial” features that the
technology might provide—visual access, proximity, move-
ment—and the place-oriented aspects of interaction which
might arise there—formal and informal discussion, inti-
macy, a sense of ownership, and so forth.
A key feature of interactions in media spaces (or, more par-
ticularly here, interaction over particular connections
established in media spaces) is that they take place in hybrid
spaces. A hybrid space is one which is comprises both phys-
ical and virtual space. These tend to be less common in other
related systems. For example, when my avatar enters a vir-
tual collaborative environment, then not only is the
environment (the space the system creates) virtual, but what
is projected into that space (my avatar) is virtual too. On the
other hand, in a media space, while the “space” (the connec-
tion between two people) is virtual, the projections are not.
What I project into a media space connection is a view of me
(the real me) and my office (a physical space). My actions
and behaviour in my real space are visible in the media
space; but in the virtual system, I act only by remotely
manipulating my representation.
The reason that this distinction between projection and rep-
resentation works is that the media space connection reaches
out to encompass everything in front of the camera. So
there’s more in the connection than simply the “virtual
space” of the two monitors. When two offices are linked
together in a media space, then a hybrid space is created; it
involves not only the virtual space of the media connection,
but also the real physical space of the two offices.
8.1 Acting in Hybrid Spaces
Dourish et al. [in press] detail a range of experiences arising
out of their experiences with very long-term, semi-perma-
nent audio and video connections (“office-shares”) between
particular offices. Since these connections were in place for
a long time—at least two years, day-in and day-out—the
users could observe transformations which the connections
introduced, not just in their own behaviour but, critically, in
the behaviour of other colleagues in organisational and
physical proximity too.
Two examples particularly illustrate the importance of
hybrid space in these connections.
Shared Office Etiquette. In the first, two office-share partic-
ipants observed a “shared office etiquette” arise amongst
visitors to their offices. When someone arrived in the door-
way or office of one participant to talk to him or her, they
would begin their interaction by greeting not only the local
participant, but also their remote partner, “present” across
the audio and video link. In other words, visitors would
behave in either office—a physical space—as if it were part
of a shared office. Neither physical space was shared by two
persons, but the shared place which they occupied, and
which was acknowledged by visitors, was formed from the
hybrid of physical and virtual space in the office-share
Seeing Out the Door. The second example involves a recon-
figuration of physical space for the purposes of managing
communication in the hybrid space. When one of the con-
nections was first set up, the cameras were pointed directly
at the office-sharers, so each participant could see the other
and their immediate working area. However, because of the
way one office was laid out, one of the cameras was placed
on the end of a desk between the office’s occupant and the
door. As a result, the view of that office available in the
media space was rather like the view into the office from the
doorway. While this gave the remote participant could see
local office inhabitant, it did not provide a view of the door-
way, or into the space beyond which meant that the remote
participant could not see people who arrived in the office, or
who passed by outside. This turned out to be an important
After a few months, the local inhabitant of this office volun-
tarily re-organised it, turning it around 180°. This allowed
the remote participant to see not only of the office’s occu-
pant, but also the doorway (and people standing in it) as well
as the public space outside the office. This hugely improved
these vital hybrid interactions with office visitors and pass-
ers-by (raising interesting questions of ownership and
8.2 The Structure of Hybrid Spaces
The hybrid nature of media space connections is a critical
aspect of their use. This is why, for instance, media spaces
and collaborative virtual environments do fundamentally
different things. Whereas I must enter a virtual environment
(be it a 3-D rendered virtual reality, or a text-based MUD), I
use the media space to create a new, hybrid space which
includes real, physical me.
One of the curious properties of media space is that a place
can be made of hybrid spaces. Two people can be what they
think of as the same place (like an electronically shared
office), but will not be in the same physical space, nor even
will they be the same hybrid space. My image on your mon-
itor does not interact with your image on my monitor,
although we can say the we each of us interact with the other.
Each of us is in a separate space; linked, but not shared. In
this section, we will talk in more detail about the structure of
hybrid spaces, and how to decompose it.
It is not only the structure of the space which we have to
decompose. It’s very easy to blindly talk about “audio and
video” in media spaces as if they were equivalent media, per-
forming the same sort of function. However, when we take
the place-centric view—and as we have seen, it’s the place-
centric view which affects how people communicate and
behave—then we can see that audio and video actually pro-
vide very different sorts of functions.
8.2.1 Virtual Acoustic Spaces
The critical feature of the “virtual acoustic space” which a
media space can create is that it is all-pervasive. It fills the
physical space in a way which an image cannot. There are
two aspects to this.
First, audio reaches out to encompass the participants; not
just those connected, but those around and passing through.
The “open audio” aspect of the long-term media space con-
nections described by Dourish et al. was critical to their use
for just this reason, and was a highly significant contribution
to what they refer to as “communal” aspects of their
Second, the audio space is truly shared; we each speak and
hear in the same audio space. The sound of my voice carries
over the audio connection and invades your space; it doesn’t
stay in a fixed place until you attend to it. The space which
the audio channel creates is one which we share.
8.2.2 Virtual Visual Spaces
In contrast, visual space is not shared, but simply made
available. The image of my office which my camera sends
out, and which is displayed on your monitor, remains my
image. It carries with it the context in which it was captured,
and at your end, it is framed and bounded by the monitor.
You can’t be in it, or walk around in it. You see me, in my
space, and I see you, in yours; but neither of us sees the two
of us, together, in a shared visual space.
This non-shared aspect of visual space is reflected by
Gaver’s  “affordance” analysis of media spaces. A
number of the points illustrated there (and subsequently
developed in later design work [Gaver et al., 1995]) arise
because it is not your space which enters mine, but your
The value and interesting use of media space connections
which we have observed lie in the balance between these
features—the shared nature of the audio space, the translo-
cated nature of the visual space, and the melding of virtual
and physical space which the media space affords.
We disrupt this balance at our peril. For instance, technology
is available to let us digitally process the images from our
cameras, and reconstruct them to make it appear that we
were sitting across from each other at a virtual “conference
table”. We would be being presented in a shared visual
space. However, this space would belong to neither of us; it
would convey nothing about our current settings and actions;
and would cut out anyone else who happened by in physical
space. It would be a very different sort of experience. In the
search for realism, the practical everyday value of interaction
in the media space’s hybrid space would have been lost.
9 Designing Around Space and Place
As we have gone through this discussion, a number of points
have arisen which are worth collecting together as rubrics for
Spaces are not places. Spaces and places are different things.
We can all think of lifeless spaces in our buildings and cities;
spaces that “don’t work”, that have no sense of place2.
Spaces are part of the material out of which places can be
built. Dealing with physical structure, topology, orientation
and connectedness, spaces offer opportunities and con-
straints. Places, on the other hand, reflect cultural and social
understandings. Places can also have temporal properties;
the same space can be different places at different times.
2. One reviewer commented, “Yes! The Stanford quad!”
While spaces have up and down, left and right, places have
yesterday and tomorrow, good and bad.
Places, not spaces, frame appropriate behaviour. Much of
the motivation for spatially-organised collaborative environ-
ments is that they can provide the cues which frame and
organise appropriate social behaviour in the real world.
However, that behaviour is not associated with space, but
with place. A community hall might, on different evenings in
a week, be used as a rock venue, a sports arena, and a place
of worship. On these different occasions, it’s not the struc-
ture of the space which frames people’s behaviour, but the
place where they find themselves.
Places have social meaning. The meanings which places
carry are social meanings; they are rooted in the practices
and understandings of communities. They arise over time
through as practices emerge and are transformed within the
groups. This has two consequences. The first is that different
groups will have different understandings of similar places
and similar concepts, and these will change over time. The
second is that places have to be created, through practice and
appropriation, to fit into the culture of the group. Placeness
can be designed for, but it can’t be designed in.
Different media have different spatial properties. The vari-
ous media which we might use in creating collaborative
environments—streams of text or graphics, high-quality 3D
images, audio, video, etc.—exhibit very different properties,
and these properties in turn strongly influence patterns of
use, adoption and adaptation to media environments. For
instance, in the case of media spaces, we illustrated how
audio and video embody very different notions of “reach”
and of “sharing”.
Our basic principle, stated earlier, captures all of these
together, and relates the distinction between place and space
to our everyday experience: Space is the opportunity; place
is the understood reality.
9.1 The Utility of Space and Place
The question we must always ask in thinking about design is
not simply what aspects of space are being exploited in these
systems, but to what end are they being used? By way of con-
trast, one significant area of research interest around spatial
models in interactive systems is to visualise large bodies of
information. Information visualisation techniques shift part
of the information retrieval task from the cognitive to the
perceptual system. Although the popularity of spatial meta-
phors in collaborative environments follows their popularity
in single-user interactive systems, the purposes are very dif-
ferent. But we can still ask analogously, “What is it that is
being made perceptible in collaborative spatial models?”
Place-making, then, would appear to be a complex enter-
prise. It reflects the conscious arrangement of elements to
create a space that accommodates activity, and (here is the
hard part) the interplay of reflective design and happenstance
to give expression to the values of the occupants and their
wider community. In other words, as we have observed, a
space can only be made a place by its occupants. The best
that the designers can do is to put the tools into their hands.
Trying to do more—trying to build places—is not our job.
Let us now take a look at how this is and is not carried out in
one kind of collaborative system, and how space and place
9.2 MUDs: Designing with Space and Place
Through this paper, we have been talking largely in terms of
media spaces. Not only are these the environments with
which we are most familiar, but they have also been in use
for longer than many other collaborative environments.
However, it is instructive to look at another example, to see
how the ideas we have been discussing apply. The example
which we will look at, loosely, is MUDs.
MUDs employ a strong spatial analogy to manage multi-user
interaction. Connected regions (or “rooms”) serve as a filter-
ing mechanism; my view of the activities currently in
progress in the MUD is largely restricted to those activities
in the same room. Different MUDs (not just different imple-
mentations, but different services, run by different people)
exploit this “real-world” analogy to a greater or lesser extent;
for instance, in some systems, characters can “teleport” from
one room to another, whereas in others, one must walk to the
destination, passing through the points in between.
However, it’s a curious sense of geography which MUDs
exhibit. They have topology (connectedness) but no orienta-
tion; there is generally no real notion of up, down, north,
south, back and forward (except in the names of the exits
which link rooms). Meantime, most MUDs have no notion of
space within a room; I can’t be closer to one character than
another, or hide behind the sofa.
So, in fact, MUDs do not exhibit the spatially-based control
which might seem central to them, and which is often
appealed to by developers. The spatial metaphor is actually
of much less value in controlling interaction, engagement
and so forth than might be imagined. Where present,
common MUD facilities like teleporting or inter-room mes-
saging undermine it even more. The spatial metaphor—the
connectedness of space, and the geography of the MUD—
breaks down, and only the places remain.
Every MUD has its places—general gathering places, pri-
vate places, homes, etc.—where the sense of place,
established over time, within a community, is used to frame
appropriate action. The inappropriate action of new, unen-
culturated arrivals (“clueless newbies”) only serves to
reinforce how much the regular characters know about their
social norms. But this has almost nothing to do with the
“geography” and the familiar spatial metaphor—why, if it
did, then the clueless newbies should be able to work it out
MUDs, like more traditional virtual reality systems, are
immersive environments; users enter the MUD, and interact
in the MUD, rather than using the MUD to link their own,
physical worlds in the way that media spaces do. However,
in recent experiments, researchers have added audio and
video conferencing facilities to MUDs. Jupiter [Curtis et al.,
1995] is a multi-media extension to a traditional text-based
MUD. It retains the traditional spatial analogy of the
MUD—objects and users located in rooms, which filter
activity as a whole—and then adds shared graphical objects,
as well as audio and video streams. Like typed text, audio
and video are available on room-by-room basis; each user
can see and hear others in the same room.
However, the result can be quite confusing. Following from
the observations we made in section eight, Jupiter exhibits a
very mixed metaphor. My virtual presence is in one of Jupi-
ter’s virtual rooms, where I share with some other users
access to a virtual whiteboard and an acoustic space which
extends into all of our real offices. But at the same time, I can
also see representations of these people in their offices,
typing at their computers. They seem to be in two places at
once. The information which their video signal projects into
the system denies the metaphor which the system is con-
structed to provide. Since that metaphor is what unifies and
underpins all activity in the MUD, the result is confusing.
The analysis of Jupiter in supporting interaction and collab-
oration in a large research facility is only just beginning.
However, from our own experiences, we would suggest that
the mixed metaphor results in Jupiter being used much more
as a media space than as a MUD, by those who have audio
and video connectivity through it. The dissonance of virtual
reality and multimedia representations is just too much to
This reiterates a point we made earlier; that, when we think
about the difference between space and place, we can see
that the various media which might be involved in a commu-
nication technology play very different roles. When audio
and video are added to a textual interface, the result is defi-
nitely not the same sort of system with more bandwidth.
Instead, the result is a new kind of medium, and so the sorts
of behaviours which people will exhibit are changed
What we have pointed to here is the distinction between
space and place; and this distinction has important implica-
tions for the design and evaluation of collaborative
Spatial models are increasing popularity in the design of all
sorts of collaborative environments. These designs are based
on the assumption that, since many aspects of our behaviour
seem to be organised around spatial elements of the everyday
world, then we can carry over these patterns of behaviour to
virtual environments by designing them around the same
affordances for action and interaction that the everyday
world exhibits—doors, windows, walls, distance, proximity
However, we have argued that, in everyday experience and
interaction, it is a sense of place, rather than the structure of
space, which frames our behaviour. Our sense of place is a
cultural or communally-held understanding of the appropri-
ateness of styles of behaviour and interaction, which may be
organised around spatial features but is, nonetheless, quite
separate from them. After all, as we have seen, non-spatial
environments exhibit placeness, too.
The placeness which operates in these non-spatial environ-
ments—and, we would argue, in spatial ones too—is an
evolved set of behaviours rooted in our ability to creatively
appropriate aspects of the world, to organise it, and to bend
it to our needs. From this, then, we argue that it is dangerous
to confuse the notions space and place. By all means, let us
design interfaces based on spatial organisation and all that
comes with it; but at the same time, we must be wary of
claims that this will support place-based “real world” behav-
iours. In fact, by embedding placeness in spatial metaphors,
we can accidentally undermine the very thing that makes
place work—the shared understandings of appropriate use,
and the social interpretation of cues in the physical environ-
ment. When my “virtual door” absolutely controls access to
my virtual presence in a media space, then the opportunity is
lost for an appropriate social interpretation of a “closed
door”. My ability to appropriate elements of the world and
turn the into cues for availability disappears. This is the par-
adox of design around spatial metaphors.
After all, a virtual world filled with virtual offices and virtual
desks isn’t populated by virtual people, but by real ones.
Drawing contrasts and analogies between, for example,
media spaces and the “real world” is unhelpful, because
media spaces are the real world. Their inhabitants are real
people, engaged in real interactions in the course of doing
their real work. And, as such, they will engage in the very
real creation of forms of activity and work, just as they do in
their everyday physical environments. This is what it’s criti-
cal to design for; and this is what is lost when we fail to
support the duality of space and place.
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