MAS 963  ·  Designing Sociable Media  ·  Spring 2007

02.16 Social networks

Our social world is held together by a web of personal connections, one's social network. The basic idea is that each person has a set of people they know directly, though in varying degrees. Each of those people, in turn, is the center of their own set of connections. Some of their connections are in common with those of the first person, while others are not. The people you are directly connected to are your first degree connections; second degree connections are those connected to one of your 1st degree connections, but not directly to you; etc. In the not so distant past, the world population was made up of numerous independent networks, some very large, others quite tiny. Today, with the possible exception of any not yet discovered remote tribespeople, the entire human population is connected through these chains of acquaintanceship.

Some parts of this network are densely connected - the individuals have many common acquaintances. These dense areas are close communities, work groups, etc. Such communities may be connected to each other via one or two bridges - the individuals who are members of two otherwise separate networks. Bridges play a key role in disseminating information from one group to another. (If you are interested in reading more about social networks, a good starting point is Studying online social networks, by Garton, Haythornthwaite and Wellman.)

Who you are within your social network is one of the most informative things about you. When we meet new people, we often try to ascertain something of this by trying to discover common acquaintances.

Until recently, however, one could seldom directly see other's social network. Recently, however, they have become visible, at least in part, through "social networking sites", online places where people create public listings of their links to other site members. (Other online entities, such as blogs with their many links to other blogs, also implicitly create social networks.)

For this week, we will be thinking about designs for social network depictions in real-world spaces. Today, when we walk down the street, the others we see are mostly strangers. Yet in fact, some may be more closely connected to us than we imagine - friends of friends, a sister's co=worker, etc. What would it be like to be able to see the invisible social structure that we inhabit?



Paulos and Goodman    The Familiar Stranger: Anxiety, Comfort, and Play in Public Places
Donath and boyd    Public displays of connection
[OPTIONAL] Scott Feld    The Focused Organization of Social Ties
Visual complexity    Social network visualizations


  • Read the papers. The network visualizations on the visual complexity site will give you a sense of how people commonly depict social networks today. Part of your challenge is to think about other possible representations.
  • Imagine we live in a world in which everyone's social network information is listed online (as is effectively the case for many college students today, using Facebook, mySpace, etc. And imagine that each person emits some identity info (as is the case with bluetooth users today, and perhaps soon for anyone not wearing a mask in cities deploying surveillance cameras and face recognition software).
  • Design a personal display - a handheld or wearable device - that gives you information about the connections, and your relationship to, the people around you. From the Goodman and Paulos reading, think about how much of the display is for your private viewing, and how much you see it as a public display of your own connections. How does this influence the information you show and your design for the physical device (is it a private handheld screen? a dynamic graphic on the back of your jacket?)
  • Design a public display in the form of a giant screen or projection that in some way uses information about the people in the space and their networks in its imagery. This can be for information purposes or as an artistic installation - you should be clear in your mind what function you would like it to serve. And you should also decide what sort of place you would like this to be installed - in a private home? at a club? in a university? a public plaza? How does the place of installation affect its use and function?

Please link your work by Thursday morning.