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Visualising Social Interaction
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message n 113]

Social interaction provides us with visual patterns that help us to situate ourselves in our environment. In Internet, however, this doesn’t happen so easily. Some visualisations are appearing to remedy the problem.

Organigrama.gif (5222 bytes)
Organisation chart of a company. One of the simplest visualisations of a social network. Image created by the author.

Click on the image to enlarge it. (5KB) 

Social interaction produces many visual patterns we are so used to that we don’t notice them. But they provide us with indispensable information in order for us to navigate our social environment.

Some of these patterns deal with the flux of human activity, like the colourful scene of the bathers in a swimming pool or the appearance of the mushroom-shaped silhouettes of the umbrellas in a rainy afternoon. They allow us to situate and to coordinate our behaviour with that of the environment. Haven’t you ever felt strange dressed in a dinner jacket on a nudist beach, or wearing a swimming suit at a Christmas party?

Other visual patterns are related to affiliation, like the one made up of the business suits getting off a commuter train early in the morning. We create these and many other patterns just by standing where we stand and being what we are. This is what some call “social weather”, something that you can feel immediately in a soccer match where it can sometimes be really stormy depending on the results of the local team...

But in cyberspace the social interaction is becoming more and more important and we don’t have the indicators that the visualisation of our immediate environment provides. For example, when we are at the office a simple look around at our environment allows us to know who is present and who isn’t, the ones that are interacting and the ones that are buried in solitary work. 

Not so in Internet where it’s not easy to know what the social network we are interacting with is like, who is doing what and where the social magma we are incorporated in goes.

Some initiatives are working on this in order to remedy the situation. We already spoke about chat visualisation in issue 46 (People Garden) or about digital cities in issue 102, But there’s still more: 

A good starting point is Judith Donat’s PhD thesis. Donath works for MIT Media Lab and is one of the most active researchers in this field. For her, one of cyberspace’s most important problems is the absence of a body that in the social reality provides us with the possibility of

  •  Expression. Verbal but mainly non verbal. How we move, how we dress...

  • Presence. Where we are, with whom, in which social circle we are moving.

  • Control. Social control of individuals has been centred on the body but it is lacking in cyberspace...

  • Recognition. Typically associated to the face, it allows us to assert the others identity.

So that many of the visualisations are centred on the representation of :

  • presence, how many there are

  • identity, who they are

  • interaction in abstract, who relates to whom

  • conversation as exchange of messages
Hxaro.jpg (93807 bytes)
Chat Circles by Fernanda Viegas. Each circle represents the "hearing range" that delimits the extension of the possibility to conversate. I can matain a conversation with each and every point interior to the "hearing range".

Click on the image to enlarge it..
Image as can be seen in the website on ChatCircles II of the MIT media lab

ChatCircles.  The history of the messages is represented by means of a time line crossed by the messages, with a length proportional to their duration. 

Click on the image to enlarge it.
Image as can be seen in the website on ChatCircles II of the MIT media lab

The Hxaro practice among the !Kung. It shows the gift exchange between individuals of different communities of the !Kung people. 

Click on the image to enlarge it.
Image as can be seen in the website "A Gallery of social Structures" by Lothar Krempel, Max-Planck Institute für Gesellschafts Forschung.

The most evident schemes draw the social networks as graphs, i.e. nodes representing the actors and lines or arrows that represent the link between them. One of the most well known is the typical organization chart of a company. A more advanced example shows the so called Hxaro practice of exchanging gifts among the members of the ¡Kung culture in Botswana and Namibia.

Chat Circles by Fernanda Viegas, is a chat where your presence is revealed by a coloured circle, you have a history of the conversation in the form of a line with transversal bars proportional in length to the duration of every message. Your presence leaves a trace that vanishes slowly taking about 10 hours in the process.

We have also seen in issues 65, 66 and 67 the visualisation of the visits to a web site, but Nelson Minar offers us a different perspective in. Every visitor is a coloured point close to the web page he/she is visiting.

Visual Who, from Judith Donath, places the people in a space related to certain mailing lists. The colour of the names and their situation in space reveal the affinity with each of the lists. As new participants add new themes the morphology of the representation changes.

IBM’s “Social Computing” group is also specially active. Babble is a chat visualiser that represent every conversation as a circle where you find smaller inscribed circles that represent the individuals. The more in the periphery the less active in the conversation, the closer they are, the more involved in mutual conversation.

MuchedumbreVisual.gif (9405 bytes) VisualWho.gif (61934 bytes) Babble.gif (55304 bytes)
Visits in a website by Nelson Minar,  MIT media lab. Shown by means of icons that represent the pages and circles that depict the visitors. The coloured dots move between pages according to the changes of page of the visitor.

Click on the image to enlarge it.  Image as can be seen in Nelson Minar's website

VisualWho by Judith Donath of the  MIT media lab.   The names of the subscriptors to distribution lists appear closer to the ones of their interest. 

Click on the image to enlarge it.
Image as can be seen in the website of Judith Donath, Dana Spiegel, Danah Boyd y Jonathan Goler.

Babble by the IBM Social Computing Group. It allows you to chat and see a map of the conversation, the participants (coloured circles) and the activity (closer to center more active, closer between them, more messages exchanged between the participants) 

Click on the image to enlarge it.
Image as can be seen in the website of IBM's Social Computing Group.

As we can see there are multiple ongoing initiatives. Nevertheless and despite the activity deployed by Donath’s group, IBM and other groups and the richness of some representations, I’ve got the impression that we still have a long road ahead before we can interact on the Net with a visual support so rich and versatile so as to allow the deployment of the abundant resources of social interaction we are used to in the real world.

This article has seen the light thanks to a conversation with Ben Hyde who suggested me to make an article on the topic and was also kind enough to provide a handful of links, some of which you can find attached. 

Links of this issue:

http://www.kottke.org/02/09/020930social_weath.html   Social weather
http://www.infovis.net/printMag.php?num=46&lang=2   Issue 46 "People Garden"
http://www.infovis.net/printMag.php?num=102&lang=2   Issue 102 "Digital cities"
http://smg.media.mit.edu/people/Judith/Thesis/   Judith Donath's PhD
http://smg.media.mit.edu/people/Judith/   Judith Donath's personal page
http://web.media.mit.edu/~fviegas/CC2/   Web about MIT Media Lab's ChatCircles II
http://www.mpi-fg-koeln.mpg.de/~lk/netvis/SocMorph.html   The Hxaro practice among the !Kung people
http://chatcircles.media.mit.edu/   Chat Circles by Fernanda Viegas
http://xenia.media.mit.edu/~nelson/research/crowdvis/   Nelson Minar Crowd visualisation
http://smg.media.mit.edu/projects/VisualWho/   VisualWho by Judith Donath
http://www.research.ibm.com/SocialComputing/SCGpapers.htm   Babble by IBM's Social Computing Group
http://www.research.ibm.com/SocialComputing/Papers/AdoptionOfBabble.htm   Chat visualiser
http://hydesign.blogspot.com   Ben Hyde's blog
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