ZedneWeb / 19 April 2000

Visualizing On-Line Society

While browsing Tomalak's Realm, I came across an article discussing new developments in visualizing on-line society at MIT's Social Media Group. It's some fascinating stuff, if you've ever been part of an on-line social scene and tried to imagine real-world analogues for it.

Fiction authors, when dealing with "cyberspace", typically go right for the full-3D immersion stuff that I don't see becoming practical any time soon. The problem with that is that it takes all the variety and flexibility of the virtual world and throws it out the window in favor of an approximation of the real one. The Social Media Group seems more interested in creating technology that can actually be used right now, as you're reading this.

The big example of this is something called Chat Circles, which, like many good technology products, has a name that can be taken two ways. Essentially, it brings an abstract representation of location to on-line chatting. Today, most chat systems are purely text-based, like IRC or the instant messagers. They present a conversation as a list of everything that's been said prefixed by the screen name of the person who said it. That's fine, except that in a chat room with twenty people, everything everyone says gets seen by everyone, which can make it difficult to follow a given conversation.

Chat Circles represents chatters as circles on a 2D field. In the live example, you can pick your screen name and your circle's color. Everyone in the chat room is visible, even the ones who aren't speaking, and everyone has a location. The messages that people write appear in their circles, but people only see the messages from people within their "hearing range". Chatters who are too far away appear as hollow circles with no text.

I'll admit I haven't tried it, so I can't judge how well it works. On the positive side, it allows you to cut down on extraneous noise by moving away from people in other discussions--but how well does this work in practice? While Chat Circles does provide a powerful-looking history interface, how easy is it to get a handle on a discussion in progress? If lurkers can't be anonymous, will timid people feel as comfortable joining their more gregarious colleagues?

On the other hand, it exists today. Can't say that about immersive full-3D cyberspace.

Also at the Social Media Group is a paper about Visual Who, which combines information about mailing-list subscriptions and account usage to draw show activity and group affiliation among a computer system's users. It includes some neat pictures and complex equations, so you know it's got to be good.

In a similar vein, Loom makes the usenet term "thread" literal, showing several ways to visualize usage patterns on a newsgroup. Handy for learning about group dynamics, but I'm not sure how useful it would be for newsreading.

There's considerably more, but you can check that out for yourself. I, for one, am glad to see people taking interest in on-line community as more than a form of advanced marketing.

Dave Menendez