Inhabiting the virtual city
Judith S. Donath
This thesis began with two quotes, one from an urban designer, the other from sociologists studying on-line communities. Whyte, the urban designer, urged city developers to remember that the presence of others is the key to a successful urban environment. Sproull and Faraj, the sociologists of the virtual, urged system designers to keep in mind that the net is a social as well as informational technology. In this thesis I have taken these ideas about the importance of the presence of others and about the sociable nature of the network as fundamental precepts and used them as the basis for developing an approach to the design of on-line environments.
The metaphor of the virtual city was used throughout the thesis, both to think about what an on-line environment can be like and to clarify the designer's role in creating such an environment. I discussed some of the key parallels between the virtual world and the urban space, such as its vast and heterogeneous population, and showed how knowledge of cultural responses to city life can be applied to designing environments for virtual populaces.
I also discussed some of the key differences between designing a physical and a virtual city. The virtual city is wholly mediated and synthetic: not only must the environment be created, but also the means of expression, the appearance of the inhabitants, etc. For such an ephemeral environment to be legible it must be given some structure. Metaphor is a powerful design tool in this structuring for it allows us to apply the qualities of the definite and familiar to the a novel and amorphous world. The caveat is that the metaphor not be taken too literally - the goal is to achieve a balance between recreating the familiar and exploring what unprecedented possibilities exist in this new world. One of the most notable differences between the two worlds is the body, which plays a central role in real-world society and which is absent from the virtual.
The discussion of the social role of the body raised the issue of identity - how is identity established in a disembodied environment? What are the ramifications of a society in which identity is ephemeral and easily reconfigured? I looked at several contemporary on-line environments, analyzing how the design of each environment's infrastructures influenced the way that identity was established within it and how the participants learned about each other.
These ideas are the basis for a series of projects which were reviewed in the second part of the thesis. Created over a period of four years they have been both influential to and influenced by the notions of the virtual city and virtual identity discussed above. They were discussed in thematic chapters that highlighted particular design issues.
The first theme was ``sociable information spaces'' and encompassed three projects that explored communication within the context of an information environment. The designs reviewed included an example of a participatory sociable information space (Portraits in Cyberspace), a widely used communications application (The Electric Postcard) and a set of technological tools for expanding the communicative capabilities of the Web (WebTalk). Here the city metaphor was applied in terms of infrastructure, with published information acting as the built environment. In these designs the information infrastructure has several social roles: it brings people together based on common interests, it provides a common cultural environment, and it delineates specific ``places''. These projects work within the constraints of today's primary information space, the Web; their purpose is to explore and expand its role as a sociable environment.
The second theme was social visualization and featured two projects that used interactive graphical interfaces to represent social structures and activities. Visual Who is a visualization of a community's social structures and its temporal patterns. It is an awareness tool, designed in response to one of the effects of disembodiment, that action and patterns leave no trace unless deliberately constructed to do so. The second project, The Illustrated Conversation, also provides awareness of activity and presence, though at the scale of a small group discussion, rather than a whole community. In both of these projects the visual design not only to provides information, but also makes the environment memorable, recognizable, and legible.
Identity was a central part of this discussion. Visual Who shows group affiliation, its various configurations demonstrating the multiple roles and relationships individual have within a community. Although the visual representation of each person is kept quite simple (just the text of their login name) their identity within the group is revealed through their place in the patterns. Here we see the beginnings of a new form of portraiture: representation through visualization of relevant statistics. The Illustrated Conversation featured a more traditional representation - the photographic image - but in an interactive environment. The discussion of this work focussed on the challenges presented in translating gestures and other non-verbal conversational nuances from the physical domain to the screen.
The final chapter brought together many of the above conceptual threads. A Day in the Life of Cyberspace is an information space that includes experimentation with discussion design, awareness of presence, and the development of self-representation through accumulated action. It unifies many aspects of design that had hitherto been separate. In the real world, one goes seamlessly from inside to outside, from looking at a crowd of people to focussing on an individual. In the virtual world, the counterparts to these activities are still often distinct functions; bringing them together is essential in order to truly inhabit the virtual city.
The key ideas that have emerged from this thesis are the importance of identity and of history in building a social environment. The two are intertwined, for the ephemerality of identity has to do with its ahistoricism: the claim to a particular name is easy, the claim to an entire history is hard. It is history that gives an identity value - a long history is costly to acquire. And it is history - the accumulation of experiences and decisions - that makes one unique.
History also brings individuality to an environment: Alexander's call for city designs that are evolved rather than wholly planned is a call for an architecture shaped by its history. A participatory virtual space, such as the Portraits gallery, is such an architecture: it is a space that grows and changes daily. The Day in the Life site was also designed to evolve as users added material; its capsules were an abbreviated version of the self-representation that evolves over time. Visual Who is also about history, for the complex interweavings of memberships is woven over a period of time; its lists of groups include the recent and the long defunct.
One of the alternate titles I had considered for this thesis was ``Building the virtual city''. I decided in favor of ``Inhabiting the virtual city'', for my emphasis is on the social aspect of the design, on the experience of being a participant in the virtual world. Yet there is a close relationship between building and inhabiting, for inhabiting the virtual city is a process of adapting it and adding to it, of building the connections between places and people t hat make the on-line world a vibrant and vital environment.
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