Social interaction in ad-hoc communities

In preparation for my graduate school statement, I have been reflecting a lot on what I am excited and passionate about in HCI.  I encountered several ideas along the way that all point to something I called ‘local social collaboration,’ which with the help of my advisor Orit Shaer, was reworded to ‘social interaction in ad-hoc communities.’ This phrase refers to enhancing and encouraging social interaction between people in the same public space. Here are the sources of my inspiration and how they helped me form this idea.

Social Computing
This existing HCI/CS subfield applies more to online social networks and their trends and implications about social behavior. These online social networks make up Web 2.0 and can be anything from instant messaging to blogs (Blogspot, Twitter) to social networking (Facebook, MySpace) and social bookmarking (Digg, Reddit).  (For a list of my networks check out the “My Profiles” box in the right column.)

Paul Graham: Cities and Ambition
Popular online essayist Paul Graham describes famous cities as hubs of ambition. Cambridge says “You should be smarter.” New York City says “You should be richer.” Silicon Valley says “You should be more powerful.” You get the idea. Paul Graham suggests that one day, the cities we live in will be virtual. A comment to this essay provides a city-like view of the popular online social networks we live in.

Essays by Danielle Fong: Third Places
In her blog post, Danielle Fong talks about the decrease in “third places,” especially in the suburbs.  A third place is somewhere outside of home (family bonds) and workplace (united purpose) such as cafes, where community and creativity can grow.  They are on the decline because many people nowadays would rather watch TV or go online and use social networking sites instead of going to somewhere for some real human interaction. How can we get this physical interactivity back?

Pattie Maes – Fluid Interfaces
A group from the MIT Media Lab, Fluid Interfaces design interfaces that enhance objects and spaces in our environment in ways that are intelligent and responsive to our needs.  In particular, the Blossom project uses non-attention-demanding devices (called Blossoms) to connect friends and family using digital communication.  These devices are different from mobile phones and email in that they do not demand immediate attention, but form an “implicit, always-there link” between connected individuals who own this device.

So how do these all fit together? I love how online social networks introduce me to people I would never have known, and connect me with people I probably would never see again, but the great downside to online technology is that it can be very addictive and tie us to our computers rather than encourage us to go outside for some fresh air and face-to-face interaction. There is a humorous and poignant scene in the movie “Mean Girls” where two girls are walking side by side, but they are text messaging each other instead of conversing. In an example in real life, on Boston T, there are always a handful of people in view sporting an iPod or texting on their mobile devices. People are absorbed with their gadgets, and there is little room for casual conversation anymore.

So how can we create technology that encourages social interaction and collaboration in ad-hoc communities?  What locations are we targeting, and what kinds of technologies should we use?  A few locations that come to mind are coffee shops, museums, and bookstores.  Tabletop and wall displays allow for multiple user input, and if presented correctly, could draw a lot of strangers together in the same place and strike up conversations about common interests.  Following the Blossom idea, perhaps there could even be a device that lets us browse the social profiles of people around us and allow us to quickly pick conversation partners.

WiiPaint (my thesis project) actually fits in quite nicely in this niche. It is meant to be displayed in a museum setting to draw all kinds of people and encourage them to collaborate with each other in creating digital art. This scenario highlights the difference between collaboration and interaction; one is task-based, the other is not. WiiPaint can fall in both categories, but it is more task-based, more collaborative. I’m more interested in interaction rather than collaboration because it is a bigger challenge when there is no common task to facilitate interaction.

Even though there are plenty of opportunities to meet cool people online, there is no reason why we can’t improve meaningful chance conversations in real life as well. This is an issue that I feel strongly about and hope research it more in graduate school.

Further reading on Third Places:
Wikipedia – Third Place
Tech Telecommunters – What’s Your “Third Place”?
The Economy and Us: ‘Third Places’ are becoming scarcer, just when we need them most.

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