Inhabiting the virtual city:
The design of social environments for electronic communities

Judith Stefania Donath

B.A. History, Yale University, 1983
M.S. Visual Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1986

Submitted to the Program in Media Arts and Sciences,
School of Architecture and Planning,
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

February 1997

(C) Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1996. All rights reserved.


The goal of this work is to develop an approach to the design of on-line social environments. My thesis is that, in order to foster the development of vibrant and viable online communities, the environment - i.e. the technical infrastructure and user interface - must provide the means to communicate social cues and information: the participants must be able to perceive the social patterns of activity and affiliation and the community must be able to evolve a fluid and subtle cultural vocabulary.

The theoretical foundation for the research is drawn from traditional studies of society and culture and from observations of contemporary on-line systems. Starting with an analysis of the fundamental differences between real and virtual societies - most notably, the presence and absence of the body - the first section examines the ways social cues are communicated in the real world, discusses the limits imposed on on-line communities due to their mediated and bodiless nature, and explores directions that virtual societies can take that are impossible for physical ones.

These ideas form the basis for the main part of the thesis, a design platform for creating sociable virtual environments. The focus of the discussion is on the analysis of a set of implemented design experiments that explore three areas of the platform: the visual representations of social phenomena, the role of information spaces as contexts for communication, and the presentation of self in the virtual world.

Thesis Supervisor: Andrew Lippman
Title: Associate Director, MIT Media Laboratory

This work was supported by sponsors of the Television of Tomorrow consortium, including: Eastman Kodak, Hughes Aircraft, Intel, Nortel, Philips, Riverland, Sony, Televisa s.a. de d.v., Toppan Printing Co., Ltd. and Viacom International.

Doctoral Committee


Andrew Lippman
Associate Director, Media Laboratory
Reader: Lee Sproull
Professor of Management
Chair, Information Systems Department
Boston University
Reader: William Mitchell
Professor of Architecture and Media Arts and Sciences
Dean, School of Architecture and Planning