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White Papers

Social Interaction Design White Papers

Summary: These white papers are a series of social interaction design guides, design frameworks and approaches, and studies (with some some screenshots) on the design of content in social software and social media sites. Papers tackle a variety of issues familiar to the development, information architecture, navigation, UI, user experience, interaction design of social media, online communities, web 2.0 applications, badges, widgets, and so forth. The papers describe what appears on the screen, how it structures content and provides for social navigation and member presence, how users and communities take shape and how their contributions become social practices of a new kind. The white papers apply to social software design, software research, and the design of social media, user generated content sites, and web 2.0 in general.

Culture, Groups, and Individuals in Social Software (Draft)

Download Culture, Groups, and Individuals in Social Software Draft 2005, 341k pdf.

This paper is preliminary review of why social interaction designers need to think of social practices instead of single-user practices. This paper breaks down the distinctions between individuals, groups, and culture overall on social software sites. The paper examines ways in which self-presentation and presence, proximity, rhythm and timing, and much more form the particular kinds of interactions seen among online communities.

Excerpt: From the introduction

CGI: Culture, Groups, and Individuals

Social systems, because they are built on the participation of individuals, can at best be steered and guided; there is no engineering human activity. Yet it's the designer's job to understand how a social system is likely to evolve, given the interaction of system constraints and system users. The designer's tools are what we call levers. Design choices affecting first order system architecture, functions, features, and so forth steer individual and aggregate participation. These choices guide the system's evolution and growth over time. The results achieved by first order design decisions are called second order effects. And in the case of social interaction design, the leverage applied by the designer couldn't be more tricky or elusive.

UI designers are usually familiar with the framework of human-computer interaction, and the basic human factors concepts of user interface and user experience design. But what about concepts of communication and interaction? Are they so important, and so unique, that they need to belong to a social software designer's repertoire? I think so. Social software is intended for communication and interaction; what it does, it does to relations between people. Designers and developers should know that there is form, structure, and system to human communication just as there is to information architecture. It's just that we need to expand our idea of the user, interactions, and interfaces if we are to understand the influences of technology on social interaction.

The field of social interaction design picks up where conventional user interaction stops: at the production of interpersonal relations and the circulation and resolution of communicated meanings. Social interactions are a "guided doing." Activity has meaning--and that meaning (even when up for debate) organizes individual behavior, social positioning, self-presentation, conversational and dramatic timing, emotional intensity, and more. Communication in face-to-face situations involves far more than simply what is said--it involves the unspoken rules and constraints of the current social context, the hidden impressions and unspoken intentions of participants, and the implicit commitment to group performance that grounds face-to-face encounters.

Insofar as these strips of activity engage individuals in a social experience, interaction binds them to one another on the basis of a shared commitment to spare any one person, and thus all, the pain of exposure, incompetence, shame, insult, or any other kind of embarrassment. Interaction generates a sense of action and rhythm (suspense, thrill, excitement, relaxation, boredom, or some other kind of social time). It gives people a sense of one another's integrity, sincerity, and interest. And it does this without demanding that everyone remain equally involved and available. In short, face-to-face encounters can be incredibly rich even when they seem trite and directionless.

Technology intervenes in many aspects of interaction and communication, screening out physical and visual cues while enabling temporal displacements, delays, and distances. We don't yet know how far technology takes us from the essence of social interaction--from the unspoken and largely unconscious dimension of human exchange. And yet if we are to improve our grasp of technology we have no choice but to start with ordinary, face-to-face encounters. That is, to some degree, where any user begins.

A social interaction design theory needs a theory of social interaction. Ours is modeled on social interactionism, with concepts borrowed from systems theory, communication theory, psychology, and linguistics. Since no theoretical approach exists that can explain the interplay of communication tools, social interaction, and information dissemination from one privileged point of interpretation, we need to come up with our own. One or more, that is. Our theoretical goal, and the task of this introductory section, is to map out the process by which technologies and mediated encounters translate and transform the dynamics of face-to-face interaction.

Social interaction design is distinct from UI design, UE design, and human-computer interaction (HCI) approaches insofar as it covers intersubjective experiences. In contrast to the user model adopted by the aforementioned theories, our user model is engaged in communication with other users. Ambiguities, errors, uncertainties, motivations, interests--all those conscious (and unconscious) stirrings involve relations with other users. We need to modify our concept of the user to accommodate the fact that in systems of social interaction, user interests involve other users.

To get there, we could study individual user experiences and come up with a laundry list of how users engage in social software, what they try to accomplish, how they feel about it, etc. We could add up individual user concerns and deduce a general user from them. For social software designers to be truly effective, however, we have to be interested not only in collective experiences but in the second order phenomena that emerge as the dynamics of social systems. Nothing grows out of aggregated individual experiences-- that's addition and subtraction. Community and participation grow out of process--time. Social interaction design must develop an understanding of communication and interaction dynamics that contains not only users, but the feedback loops and cycles that produce emergent phenomena.

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