Conference PaperPDF Available

Socially Translucent Systems: Social Proxies, Persistent Conversation, and the Design of ``Babble''.

  • Retired (formerly IBM)
  • Pearl Software Group


We take as our premise that it is possible and desirable todesign systems that support social processes. We describe Loops, aproject which takes this approach to supporting computer-mediatedcommunication (CMC) through structural and intemctive propertiessuch as persistence and a minimalist graphical representation ofusers and their activities that we call a social proxy. We discussa prototype called Babble that has been used by our group for overa year, and has been deployed to six other groups at the Watsonlabs for about two months. We describe usage experiences, lessonslearned, and next steps.
99 15-2Cl MAY 1999
Socially Translucent Systems: Social Proxies,
Persistent Conversation, and the Design of “Babble”
Thomas Erickson, David N, Smith, Wendy A. Kellogg,
Mark Laff, John T. Richards, Erin Bradner’
IBM T.J. Watson Research Center
P.O. Box 704
Yorktown Heights, NY 10598, USA
+1 914 784-7826,,,,,
We take as our premise that it is possible and desirable to
design systems that support social processes. We describe
Loops, a project which takes this approach to supporting
computer-mediated communication (CMC) through
structural and intemctive properties such as persistence and a
minimalist graphical representation of users and their
activities that we call a social proxy. We discuss a
prototype called “Babble” that has been used by our group
for over a year, and has been deployed to six other groups
at the Watson labs for about two months. We describe
usage experiences, lessons learned, and next steps.
Conversation, Discourse, Awareness, Social Activity,
Computer-Mediated Communication, CMC, IRC, Chat,
CSCW, Social Computing, Design, Visualization
In the building where our group
there is a door that
opens from the stairwell into the hallway. This door has a
small design flaw: opened quickly, it is likely to slam into
anyone who is about to enter from the other direction. In an
attempt to fix this problem, a small sign was placed on the
door: it reads, “Please Open Slowly.” As you might
people soon ceased noticing the sign and its effectiveness
decreased markedly.
We would like to contrast this solution with one of a
diierent sort: putting a glass window in the door. The glass
window approach means that the sign is no longer required.
As people approach the door they can see whether there is
anyone on the other side. This is effective for three reasons:
First, as humans, we are percept&/y aMuled to movement
and human faces and figures, and notice and react to them
more readily than we notice and interpret a printed sign.
Second, the glass window supports a perceptually based
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awareness: I don’t open the door quickly because I know
that you’re on the other side. This awareness brings our
social rules into play to govern our actions: we have been
raised in a culture which frowns upon slamming into other
people (except in narrowly defined, culturally recognized
situations). Finally, there is a third, and somewhat subtler
reason for the efftcacy of the glass window. Suppose that I
don’t care whether I harm others: nevertheless, I am still
likely to open the door slowly because I know rhat you
that I
you’re there, and therefore I will be held
uccounrabfe for my actions. This distinction is useful
because, while accountability and awareness are generally
entwined in the physical world, they are not necessarily
coupled in the digital realm.
We call systems which provide perceptually-based social
cues which afford awareness and accountability “Socially
Translucent Systems.” In such systems we believe it will
be easier for users to carry on coherent discussions; to
observe and imitate others’ actions; to engage in peer
pressure; to create, notice, and conform to social
conventions. We see social translucence as a fundamental
requirement for supporting communication ard
collaboration. This brings us to the issue of translucence.
Why Socially Trunslucent Systems? Because there is a vital
tension between privacy and visibility. Neither is inherently
good or bad: each supports and inhibits certain types of
behavior (for example, the perceived validity of elections
depends crucially on keeping certain aspects very private,
and others very visible).
The basic premise of our work is that it is possible and
desirable to build digitally based, socially translucent
systems which allow our socially based processes to
operate. In this paper we describe a system that takes this
approach to supporting computer-mediated conversation.
Also CORPS (Computing Organizations, Policy, ard
Society) program, UC Irvine.
CHI 99 15-20
MAY 1999
Related Work
A concern with making the activity of users of digital
systems visible to others dates back to at least the Finger
program on UNIX. More recently, a number of
investigators have explored ways of portraying socially-
salient information in human computer interfaces.
Ackerman and Starr 111 have argued for the importance of
social activity indicators, particularly in synchronous CMC
systems. Hill and Hollan have discussed the creation of
persistent traces of human activity [14]. And many
researchers have constructed systems which attempt, in
various ways, to provide cues about the presence and
activity of their users (for example, [3, 6, 15, 16, 18, 201).
Closest in spirit to our approach are the Out to Lunch
system [5], and the AROMA [19] and Chat Circles [A
systems, which use abstract representations (sonic and
visual, respectively) to portray social activity.
Our goal is to design systems that support smooth,
reflective, and productive conversations through
asynchronous computer-mediated
communication. We believe that social translucence is
particularly applicable to the design of CMC systems. After
all, conversation is a fundamentally social process. Face to
face conversation relies heavily on social cues: facial
expressions, gestures, postures, and other socially-relevant
actions are used in the initiation and conduct of
conversation [12, 13, 171. That is, we speak fo an audience:
nods and eye contact convey one message, yawns and
fidgeting another, and watching people slip out of the room
during a presentation is a powerful motivator to either
change course or wrap up.
This raises the question of what sorts of social cues might
be useful in supporting CMC, and how they might be
presented. An obvious answer is to explore the use of video
or high resolution virtual reality to depict the subtleties of
facial, gestural and postural expressions. We have rejected
this approach for two reasons. First, we believe that
systems which attempt to leverage social processes need to
be developed through a process of creating and deploying
working systems, and studying their use in ordinary work
contexts. This intent to deploy, in and of itself, argues
against a ‘radical technology’ approach such as VR. Second,
using video (or pictures) of participants’ faces takes up
significant screen space, and doesn’t scale to larger groups.
We also find the prospect of digital environments populated
by floating heads to be aesthetically unappealing. So,
instead. we decided to take a minimalist approach to
providing socially salient cues.
“Loops” is the project name and serves as a catch all for the
assumptions, design rationales, and conceptual and working
prototypes developed in this project. Loops is not an
acronym, but is taken from the idiomatic phrase, “keep me
in the loop,” which refers to keeping participants aware of
what is going on. The premise of Loops is that
conversation is a powerful tool for creating, developing, ard
sharing knowledge. The ability to carry out coherent,
productive conversations among many participants
distributed in time and space is likely to become an
increasingly important organizational skill. The goal of
Loops is to make it easy
practical to initiate, conduct,
and share such conversations, and the knowledge developed
through them.
A Brief Project History
Although we will focus on the working prototype and its
long-term usage, it is useful to situate it in a larger context.
Of particular import is the fact that Loops was developed
and used within a closely knit work group (aka “the tab”).
The work group had two remote members and a number of
other members who were ‘locally mobile’ 121, i.e. often not
at their desks.
The Loops concept was initially developed using
storytelling, scenarios, and rough prototypes 181. Beginning
with stories about mailing list use (e.g., floods of “Please
unsubscribe me messages” as cues of audience
dissatisfaction) and conjectures based on studies of the use
of a bulletin board system [9, lo], the initial Loops
scenario was developed using a prototype consisting of a
of hand drawn index cards. The initial vision of Loops
was akin to a lightweight mailing list that could
be started
by an ordinary user, and which allowed potential
participants control over their degree of involvement in the
conversation. The idea was that users could be au~e of the
activities of other participants with respect to the
conversation, so that a gathering crowd might entice others
to join. Similarly, since this awareness
be shared by
all participants and thus enhance accountability, phenomena
such as a dispersing crowd might provide a way of shaping
a conversation’s content, style, or etiquette. Other scenarios
and paper prototypes followed, and Loops was widely
discussed by members of the lab.
About six weeks after the initial Loops scenario, one of our
remote members appeared in the lab with his own
protdtype. The prototype, which he had named “Babble,”
was a functioning server and client system. Babble
implemented some of the basic Loops conce@s, albeit in a
form that more closely resembled a combination of chat and
bulletin boards than the initial concept’s melding of
mailing lists and bulletin boards. The adoption of Babble
was gradual, taking at least six weeks. Nevertheless, Babble
came to play three important roles in the design process.
First, it became both the subject and locus of design
discussions. Second, it served as a testbed, with new ideas
being tried out both in the original client, as well as in two
clients being developed for other platforms (these being part
of an effort to infect other, cross-laboratory projects with
‘Loops ideas’). Finally, after about ten months of use and
design evolution, Babble was deployed to six other groups
CHI 99
15-20 MAY 1999
who, as of this writing, have been using it for about two
The Design Rationale of Loops
The design of Loops has been shaped by the following
. Cues from content- e.g., the ability to see how a
conversation has unfolded across time and participants
- can enable newcomers to recognize the norms and
conventions in a particular conversation, thus enabling
them to contribute more effectively.
. Social cues - e.g., audience size, who is listening,
how actively people are participating - can focus
participation and make conversations more engaging.
. Relatively small groups, whose members all know one
another, or know of one another, are most likely to
dmw on social and content cues as a result of their
shared activities and social dynamics.
The first two assumptions are embodied in the design of
Loops; the last in the selection of its target audience.
The Conversation as a Single Document
A conversation is represented as a single, persistent
document with the oldest items first (e.g., Figure 1). Each
comment is preceded by a header which has a time stamp
and the participant’s name. New comments are appended to
the end of the document. This approach is employed by
some types of asynchronous bulletin boards.
As discussed elsewhere [9, lo], this type of representation
has a number of advantages both for readers and for writers.
Readers, whether they be newcomers or simply infrequent
participants, can get an overview of social norms that
govern the conversation by skimming through it. For
example, the length of comments is apparent, as is the
informality of the conversation (inferable from the
simplified syntax and the absence of punctuation), and
degree of humor and politeness. By scanning the name and
time stamp headers that precede each comment, the tempo
of the conversation, the number of participants, and the
presence or absence of frequent participants can be inferred.
Representing conversation as a single, shared, persistent
stream has consequences for authoring as well. The fact that
the conversation is persistent and shared increases the
potential for accountability. Unlike chat, whete
conversation is ephemeral, or like mailing lists where the
===Friday 12 Dee
97 3:43:44
From: Bill
Hi Steven!
===Friday 12 Dee
97 3:44:49
From: Steven
Iiellooo Bill. A little guidance please?
Is the I...) summary we're preparing for [...I
supposed to be an exercise in feeling
good, or are we supposed to be giving
him hard-headed guidance?
===Friday 12Dec 97 3:56:55 From: Bill
yes :-)
Figure 1. A segment of conversation displayed as a
single document.
past becomes buried in message archives, accessing the
conversation’s history is just a matter of scrolling.
Another important element of this representation of the
conversation is its single, shared sequential structure: if
someone responds to comment A by posting comment B, B
will appear immediately after A (except in ram cases when
two postings are submitted at about the same time), and
that adjacency will be seen by all viewers. This shared
sequential structure means that participants can and cb
participate with short, indexical utterances like “Yes!“,
“Thank you,” and “Great idea!“. This type of response is
less likely to occur in a mailing list because since there is
no shared, sequential structure it is necessary to quote the
text being referred to, and because participants are often
annoyed at opening a message and finding only an
‘insignificant’ comment in it. Yet, while such indexical
comments may not extend the conceptual boundaries of the
conversation, they can make it more convivial and inviting
by providing a low overhead way for participants to signal
agreement, encouragement, and empathy.
This portrayal of the conversation as a single, sequential
document provides a variety of cues for making people
aware of the norms and customs in force are less
visible in other, more hierarchical representations of
conversation. The conversation’s persistence is a boon to
asynchronous interaction, and supports accountability as
well. However, we also think it is important to provide a
synchronous portrayal of social cues.
The Social Proxy
In Loops, synchronous
for a given conversation are
provided by a social proxy, a minimalist graphical
representation of users which depicts their presence and their
activities vis ci vis the conversation (Figure 2). This social
proxy portrays the conversation as a large circle, and the
participants as colored dots, referred to, hereafter, as
marbles. Marbles within the circle are involved in the
conversation being viewed; marbles outside the circle
represent those who are logged on but are in other
Figure 2. A schematic of the social proxy and, to its
right, three instances of it. The schematic shows two
people (dots 1 & 2) actively involved in a conversation,
one inactive person (dot 3), and one person involved in a
different conversation (dot 4). Each dot occupies a (virtual)
wedge; wedges are created and destroyed as people log on
and off. The first instance shows a ‘hot’ conversation; the
dormant one; the third a mixture of activity,
idleness, with three people in other conversations.
CHI 99
15-20 MAY 1999
conversations. The marbles of those who are active in the
current conversation, either contributing or ‘listening’ (that
is, interacting with the conversation window via clicks ard
mouse movements) are shown near the circle’s center; with
inactivity marbles drift out to the periphery. When people
leave the current conversation their marbles move outside
the circle; when they enter the conversation, their marbles
move into the circle. In our current prototype these
activities have optional sonic cues.
Although simple, this social proxy gives a sense of the size
of the audience, the amount of conversational activity, as
well as indicating whether people are gathering or
dispersing, and who it is that is coming and going. Also,
because the portrayal is visual, it has a perceptual directness
(like the glass window) that a list of written names lacks.
Experientially, the social proxy is interesting because it
focuses attention on the group as a whole, and the
coherence (or lack thereof) of its activity.
While stories, scenarios, and rough prototypes am
invaluable for getting a quick handle on design ideas, we
believe that designing CMC - particularly systems in
which social mechanisms play a central role - necessitates
moving ideas into a usable prototype as quickly as
practical. Thus, having laid out the initial design rationale,
we shift our attention to a working prototype called Babble.
Initially developed about six weeks into the project, Babble
0 Tom at Minncr~
Wendy in the Ij Babble Chat Feature
Dabble Design ISSUI i
conflict with design that is beautiful. It just takes more work
[of courscj.
======Thursday 27Augg8 2:28:3g PM EDT From: Wendy in the lab :(
Anyone know what the thing on the side of the monitor is on the
Mac? (It’s a kind of rectangle with another piece of plastic
4th a teaHlncd hole coming over the rectangle, kind of like a
tab177 John was around earlier today looking at the
picture on our wall 6 wondering...
======Thursday 27Aug98 2:29:00 PM EDT From: John in the lab
It is the cable port.
======Thursday 27Aug9g 2:30:06 PM EDT From: Jason [Sorry, no
This conversation sure would be easier if there were an Mac here
Figure 3. A screenshot of Babble. At the moment shown,
all participants am in the same conversation (Commons
Area), and most have recently ‘spoken’ or ‘listened’. The
two marbles near the periphery of the circle am
participants who have not been active recently.
has gone through considerable evolution over the ensuing
year. Here we describe the Babble interface as it is now;
next, we discuss our experiences from our year-long use of
Babble, as it has evolved through design and usage, is a
CMC system that allows conversation to be threaded (by
user-defined topics) and persistent (held on the server until
the topic is deleted), and that provides a social proxy that
shows the participants and their activities with respect to
the conversation (Figure 3). Babble also allows participants
to open private, one-to-one chats which are not persistent,
so that a completely private channel of communication is
available. Written in Smalltalk, it uses TCP/IP and a
client-server architecture to transmit both conversation and
social information.
A Tour of the Interface.
The Users List
In the upper left pane of the Babble window (Figure 3) is a
list of the names of all users who are logged on, each
shown with his or her marble (i.e. the colored dots).
The Social Proxy
The upper middle pane contains the social proxy (usually
called ‘the cookie’), which here shows that all 8 participants
are in the current conversation (in this case, the “Commons
Area”). Two of these participants have not been recently
active; the other six have all ‘spoken’ or ‘listened’ (i.e.
interacted with the Babble window) recently. Over the
course of several minutes of inactivity, a participant’s
marble drifts towards the periphery.
The Topics List
The upper right pane shows a list of all topics (i.e.
conversations), with the currently viewed topic highlighted.
Clicking on a topic moves the user to that topic, resulting
in the conversation being displayed in the bottom pane of
the window, and in the user’s marble moving out of the
circle (from the perspective of the other participants).
Miniature icons to the left of each topic name indicate how
many people are in it (to a maximum of lo), and the topic
changes color when new material is added. Topics can be
created or deleted by anyone.
Talking via the Topic Window and Chat
The bottom pane holds the topic’s conversation which
consists of a shared sequential structure in a single,
persistent document. People ‘talk’ by typing into an entry
window; if they select text before beginning, the selected
text is ‘quoted’ and displayed in the entry window. In either
case, once the text is composed, the user clicks a “Done”
button and the comment is appended to the end of the
conversation, with a name and time stamp.
Babble also supports private, one-to-one chat. By right-
clicking on a participant’s name or marble, a user can
initiate a private chat. One experimental feature is that soft
key click sounds are transmitted in real time, giving the
chat partner cues as to whether and how extensively the
chatter is responding; the actual text of the comment is not
sent until the chatter clicks “Done.” Although chats are not
persistent, participants can, and sometimes do, copy
portions of private chats into public conversations.
CHI 99
15-20 MAY 1999
Lab Babble
Other Features
The Babble interface also includes a second, very small
window called “the spot” (not shown), which turns green
whenever a new message appears in the current
conversation. This allows users to minimize the Babble
window, using the spot as a monitor for conversational
activity while they perform other tasks on their
workstations. Clicking on the spot brings up the Babble
Window, with new comments temporarily highlighted.
Another feature is the ability to get information about
users’ activities by right-clicking on their marbles and
choosing “Get Info...“. This reveals where the user is, and
when they were last present in the current topic. This is
another way of supporting awareness and accountability.
Babble in Our Lab
Figure 4. Growth of participants and user-created topics in
the first 6 months of Babble use.
trajectory of the Lab Babble, six to eight weeks of use was
really just the beginning).
Babble began running in our own lab on August 4, 1997. It
took 4-6 weeks for the conversational structure that is used
today to emerge. That structure consists of a “Commons
Area” which is the default entry point, and a set of topics
created by Babble users. Figure 4 shows the growth of
participants and topics over the first 6 months of use in our
The Deployment of Babble to Other Groups
Both because of interest from non-members of the lab, and
because of our conviction that designing solely for one’s
own use is a mistake, we began deploying Babble to six
other groups in July of 1998. The groups included two
computer science research groups, two other working
groups (technical recruiting and marketing groups), and two
cohorts (a social cohort of summer interns, and a
professional cohort of HCI professionals).
We are well aware of the drawbacks of reflecting on our
own use of our own tool. Two problems, in particular,
stand out: first, there is the possibility that we will act in
such a way as to fulfill our own expectations; second, there
is the possibility that we are overly motivated to use our
own technology. In view of the first problem, we will
primarily focus on ways in which our use of Babble has
diverged from our expectations, as embodied in our initial
paper prototypes and scenarios; we will supplement these
reports, where appropriate, with observations from the
Babbles deployed to other groups. In view of the second
problem, note that we are not making claims about the
degree of usability of Babble, per se, but rather about ways
in which it used. Note also that the results of the Babble
deployment show that there are no insurmountable usability
barriers to its
by other groups.
Opportunistic interactions
As of this writing (about two months after deployment),
three of the deployment groups are using Babble on a daily
basis (one CS group, and the two cohorts). Two are making
sporadic use of Babble. One group has abandoned Babble
after sporadic attempts at use, though the group has so far
resisted efforts to “take it away”.
In this section we will provide a distillation of our
experience using Babble. We will primarily draw upon the
year long experience of our lab’s usage as reported in
interviews and visible in the (persistent) Babble
conversations and logs. We will occasionally refer to the
practices in the deployed Babbles derived from
observations and interviews, although we believe that the
six weeks to eight weeks of their use is too short a period
for group behaviors to stabilize (note that in the growth
In the initial Loops scenarios, the social proxy was depicted
as a way of initiating topic-oriented synchronous chats.
People who happened to be in the same topic, it was
reasoned, would be likely to have similar intents,
be good candidates for spontaneous interactions (also see
[ 161). While this did indeed occur, it also turned out that the
expressiveness of the social proxy triggered more general
interactions. That is, when someone’s marble moved
abruptly (either into the center of circle, or out of the
circle), it meant that they were at their machine and that
their attention was focused on Babble. These marble
movements tended to catch the eye, and thus served as
effective triggers for interactions ranging from sociable
greetings to work-oriented questions, either via the topic
(e.g., as in Figure 1) or in a private chat. Marble
movements also triggered phone calls and office drop ins,
although we did not track the frequency of these
occurrences. In this regard, the social proxy’s ability to
indicate activity via marble movement and position seems
superior to purely textual ways of representing activity.
CHI 99 15-20 MAY 1999
Group Awareness
Another unexpected effect of using Babble has been its
usefulness in maintaining and expanding group awareness.
As noted, the social proxy provides synchronous awareness
of who is on the system, and who is active. And,
obviously, examining the persistent conversation traces
(particularly that in the Commons Area) reveals who has
been around. What is less obvious is how much awareness
comes through the content of the conversation, often as an
unintended side effect. Sign offs (‘I have to go to the
[project] meeting now’), asides (‘Dave is right, the Network
Nation was published in ‘78’), questions (“Does anyone
know how to do a screen capture”), reveal that one
participant is still involved in a particular project, remind
the group that a paper is underway, and suggest that another
participant is beginning to document a prototype.
Furthermore, the more one knows about the group and its
activities, the more that can be inferred from such talk.
Because this awareness grows incrementally over days,
weeks, and months, and is essentially a side effect of
witnessing comments and conversations among other group
members, it feels very lightweight. Lab members
commented that one of the things they did upon returning
from a trip or vacation was to mad through the commons
ama to see what had happened during their absence.
Informality and Sociability
One of our intentions for Loops was that it should bring a
more sociable dimension to workplace discussion. We
hoped that the persistent sequential representation of
conversation would lower the overhead for jokes, puns,
affirmations, and that the group activity
expressed through the social proxy would heighten the
awareness of the group as a group. This did appear to
happen, in that it provided a venue for sociable talk that -
outside of face to face interaction - did not take place via
other communication systems.
Similar feelings were expressed in interviews with members
of the groups to which Babble was deployed. Our
informants told us that they were less careful about
punctuation, spelling, and other mechanical aspects of
writing when using Babble as compared with email.
“When you are in Babble, it seems like a more relaxed
atmosphere and you don’t have to watch your spelling,
you don’t have to have your sentence structure perfect
and all that. The [email] system we are using, . . . you
feel like everything has to be correct because you feel
like someone might print out that note and show
someone else.” -Recruiter
“I think [Babble is] less formal. I treat it less formal.
I wouldn’t write mail about someone else’s bug unless
I check very very carefully that it is indeed in their
code. . . . It’s funny but it’s OK to write things that are
not 100% finished. . . . It’s not that thought through
. . . half-baked ideas are OK. Somehow it’s much more
like conversation.” -Software Engineer
They saw the (perceived) informality of Babble as an
advantage - allowing them to express ideas which were not
yet fully formed or to make statements that they were not
sure were wholly accurate, without offending others. Their
comments are reminiscent of Fanderclai’s remarks about
MUDS [ll]:
The novelty and playfulness inherent in the
environment blur the distinctions between work and
play, encouraging a freedom that is often more
productive and more enjoyable than the more formal
exchange of other forums. It is perhaps something
like running into your colleagues in the hallway or
sitting with them in a cafe; away from the format
meeting rooms and offices and lecture halls, you’re
free to relax and joke and exchange half-finished
theories, building freely on each other’s ideas until
something new is born.
Babble as a Place
We were taken unawares by the degree to which Babble
turned into a place. While we had talked about how to make
Babble more MUD-like (indeed, one topic is called
“MOOifying Babble”), we viewed this as future
development awaiting the ability to use embedded graphics,
rich text and complex page layouts. Nevertheless, Babble
came to feel considerably more like a place than we trad
imagined was possible in a client which permitted only the
creation of sequences of (non-rich) text.
One element which made Babble seem place-like had to cb
with the way diierent topics developed different feels. In the
lab’s Babble. several different types of ‘places’ developed.
One was the ‘Commons Area,” a place for people to hang
out and talk. The Commons was where most people spent
most of their idle time (and for that matter, most of their
conversational energy) and became a place for social chit-
chat that sometimes segued into work issues ranging from
design to administrative announcements. Other topics (e.g.
“Babble Problems,” “Book Recommendations,” ‘Bad
Jokes”) were places for general postings with occasional
side chat or Q&A. Still yet a different sort of place was the
private offtce or notebook. In early July, one lab member
started a topic intended to be, according to its opening
comment, “a combination of an on-line office and
notebook.” The comment continued with “You’re welcome
to leave me a message, or to comment on things I put hem”
thus becoming an assertion of ownership and control. This
assertion was generally complied with,
the topic
became characterized by fairly long essay-like comments by
‘the owner,’ interspersed with comments from and
CHI 99 15-20 MAY 1999
conversations with ‘visitors.’ The creation of this topic was
soon followed by that of other ‘offices’.
The place-like nature of Babble was also entwined with that
nature of the language used within it. As noted previously,
conversation was typically fmnk and unguarded. Babble was
regarded as a semi-private place. This became apparent when
several ‘visitors’ showed up over a short period (access to
Babble requires only possession of a client. a server name,
and a port number, and thus may be ‘granted’ by any current
Babble user). One inhabitant of the Lab Babble wrote:
“In the last week or so, D, G, S, and K have
shown up. I know the first three, but don’t
think I know who (or at least which K), K is,
and that feels a little weird because to me
Babble feels a bit like my off& and there ate
now strangers in it! (Nothing personal, K).”
A similar instance occurred in one of the deployment
groups, where a non-group member was invited into
Babble. In an interview, one of that group’s members said:
“So I think to myself, ‘is she listening to
every word?’ Since it is such a group thing, I
would have expected someone to ask the
group before inviting someone outside to
Notice that this concern about strangers - those from
outside the group’s social context - is another
manifestation, this time negative, of the accountability
supported by the Babble environment.
Babble is not a bulletin board, a chat system, a MUD, an
email system, or a newsgroup. It merges elements of many
of these systems, but it is not quite any of them. Babble
combines the persistence and shared sequentiality of
asynchronous bulletin boards, with the immediacy and
informality of MUDS and chat, and presents these along
with a perceptually-based social proxy that shows not just
those who are speaking but those who are active (i.e.
interacting with the interface). In our view, Babble is more
akin to a MUD [4] than anything else. However, unlike a
MUD where conversation is ephemeral and built objects
have persistence, in Babble it is the conversations that
persist and the cues that shape interaction (embodied as
rooms and objects in MUDS) that am either ephemeral, as
in the social proxy, or at least much more tacitly embedded
in the persistent conversation
Our experience with Babble suggests that informal,
persistent conversation systems fill a communications
niche that is currently lacking in many work contexts.
Many members of the lab, as well as informants in the
deployment groups, felt that having an electronic place
including “just the right crowd” was useful for
communicating things that they would not communicate in
other written forms. We believe that this is one of the most
important aspects of Babble: it can be used as a place for
unguarded discussion among people who know one another,
who understand the contexts within which their remarks ate
being made. Hyperbole, misattribution, inaccuracy, etc.,
are a fundamental part of how people talk with one another,
and they play an important role: they promote response,
and cause people to push ideas farther than they would
otherwise. Creative and out-of-the-box thinking arises from
playful struggle, from exaggeration, from jumping up and
down on top of a soap box, from trying to reconcile
contrary ideas, tensions, etc. With an important proviso:
All this has to take place in a safe and trusting place.
The notion of a conversational environment as a ‘trusted
place’ is an interesting and challenging one. How -
technically, socially, and organizationally -. can we
balance the need for a safe and trusting place with the
organizational imperative to share information? One
decision facing us as designers is how and to what extent
we “design in” norms and social conventions. For
example, if we build in technical mechanisms to provide
privacy, in addition to the usability impact, we also
eliminate opportunities for participants to show that they
may be trusted, or to rely on others to respect their privacy.
The Babble prototype has no technical features for
controlling access: anyone who has access to the client
could, in theory, enter any Babble space. But, because
Babble makes users visible (synchronously and, through the
“Get Info...” command, asynchronously), this resulted in
the group noticing, commenting on, and ultimately
discussing how to deal with this issue. We believe that a
greater understanding of how to design socially translucent
systems which permit social mechanisms to come into play
is of great importance in &signing CMC and CSCW
Next Steps
We intend to continue deploying Babble to other groups,
and studying those deployments as they evolve over time.
We expect that groups which adopt Babble will evolve
considerably different ways of using it. We hope that a
close examination of these cases can provide some insight
on how group needs and social dynamics interact with
social translucence and the structure of the system to
determine practice. We also hope to better understand how
to design CMC systems to facilitate adoption in a landscape
of shifting institutional needs and practices.
We see a number of future research issues. One obvious
issue - since we have considerable difficulty (m)finding
valuable nuggets of conversation - is providing tools for
structuring conversations (both on the fly and after the fact),
as well as tools for navigating, searching, and visualizing
large conversations. Another issue is to pursue the
development of the social proxy. Our current portrayal,
while useful, is extremely simple. We intend to explore
CHI 99
15-20 MAY 1999
ways to make it richer, as well as looking at ways of
supporting less synchronous behavior such as recording
traces of social behavior over time.
The work described herein is highly collaborative, and we
acknowledge the substantive contributions of our Babble
colleagues: Jonathan Brezin, Brent Hailpem, Amy Katriel,
Cal Swart, and Jason Ellis. We thank our users for their
assistance, both tacit and explicit. Thanks to Dave Curbow,
Allen Cypher, Niklas Damiris, Paul Dourish, Jed Harris,
Austin Henderson, Charlie Hill, and Shah Xin Wei, Randall
Smith, Rachel Bellamy, and John Thomas for great
conversations. This paper benefited from comments by five
anonymous reviewers and Noboru Iwayama.
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Preface 1. Introduction 2. Some context for Context Analysis: a view of the origins of structural studies of face-to-face interaction 3. Some functions of gaze direction in two-person conversation 4. Movement co-ordination in social interaction 5. Some functions of the face in a kissing round 6. A description of some human greetings 7. Spatial organisation in social encounters: the F-formation system 8. Behavioural foundations for the process of frame-attunement in face-to-face interaction List of films cited References Index.
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