Inhabiting the virtual city
Judith S. Donath

1 Introduction

William Whyte, describing what makes for a successful urban environment, said: ``What attracts people most, in sum, is other people. If I labor the point, it is because many urban spaces are designed as though the opposite were true and as though what people liked best are the places they stay away from'' (Whyte 1988).

Whyte went on to describe a number of places that attract people to them: they are places in which there are other people - sometimes familiar, often not. The key is an environment that is vigorous and populated, one that has a constant flow of human activity. Whyte's book is an argument against the design of spaces that do not draw people to them, against the bland corporate landscapes and sterile plazas, against places that may perform their stated function efficiently, but that fail in their community role.

The same principle - that the presence of other people is the key to a vital urban environment - is likely to hold true for electronic communities as well.

People on the net should be thought of not only as solitary information processors but also as social beings. People are not only looking for information; they are also looking for affiliation, support and affirmation... If we view people as social actors, then we should view the net as a social technology. A social technology is one that makes it possible to find people with common interests, to talk with them and listen to them, and to sustain connections with them over time. (Sproull and Faraj 1993)
To a large extent, the future success of virtual communities depends on how well the tools for social interaction are designed. If they are poorly designed, the on-line world may feel like a vast concrete corporate plaza, with a few sterile benches: a place people hurry through on their way to work or home. If the tools are well designed, the on-line world will not only be inhabited, but will be able to support a wide range of interactions and relationships, from close collaboration to casual people watching.

This thesis is about the design of public space in the on-line world: it is about the design of the tools that allow people to interact with each other and that enable them to establish their identity in the on-line community.

1.1 The problem: designs for data, not people

Networked communities are quickly growing in size and importance [1]. Email is becoming a standard means of communication among friends as well as colleagues, telecommuting and virtual offices are changing the structure of corporation, and on-line discussion groups - on topics ranging from the care of cats to the revival of Islam - are growing in size and influence.

Yet, many of these communities have grown up haphazardly, evolving in environments that were designed for other purposes. The Usenet newsgroups, for example, were originally planned for the exchange of technical information. Although they are flourishing, their flaws as a social technology cause a number of problems: it is difficult to grasp how many people are involved in a forum; it is hard to develop a sense of who the participants in a discussion are; and there are increasing conflicts over anonymity and responsibility. The Web was designed as a way to manage information, a tool for scientists and researchers (Berners-Lee 1989). It has quickly evolved into mass publishing phenomenon, with sites created for everything from obscure rock bands and religious cults to global corporations; it has ushered in an era in which everyone, from great-grandparent to unborn child, is portrayed on a home page. Yet here too, an infrastructure designed for linking information is an imperfect solution when viewed as a social technology; for instance, visitors to a site are likely to share common interests, yet they cannot communicate with each other, nor are they aware of each other's presence.

In many organizations, groups of people are linked electronically, but the interface for communication is quite rudimentary. The Media Lab is a typical example of the situation in many institutions. We have a very large number of computers, a community that is global in extent (both frequent-flying faculty and far-flung alumni), and a computer-savvy populace. Many people work at home. Yet the primary electronic support for this community is the mail alias file and some Unix utilities such as who and finger. We are very far from the day when logging in from home or from Japan feels like joining the presence of one's colleagues.

Until recently, low bandwidth and slow processors restricted the form that on-line social environments could take. Today, advances in technology are removing many of the constraints and the black and white ASCII text world is yielding to graphics, sounds, new input devices, and rapid interaction. Yet more bandwidth and brighter colors do not alone create a better social environment - some of the most successful on-line communities, such as the WELL (Rheingold 1993), are among the most technically primitive. Having the technology is only the start: a deeper understanding of both interface design and of the sociology of on-line communities is needed in order to create truly viable on-line societies.

1.2 The structure of this thesis

This thesis develops an approach to the design of on-line social environments.

A social environment is anywhere that people interact with each other - anything from a city street to a business meeting, from a cocktail party to a line at the bank. In such environments people are constantly exchanging cues and social information, observing the appearance and behavior of others. These observations may be conscious, as when one tries to form an impression of a new acquaintance or size up how colleagues are reacting to a new idea. Or they may be subconscious, as in the way one picks up on changes in fashion - and in the cultural messages encoded in it. These observations and exchanges help us to make sense of the surrounding social world; they are fundamental to our ability to get to know each other.

In order for on-line systems to function well as social environments it is essential that the participants be able to communicate this sort of social information: they need to have a fluid and subtle cultural vocabulary for conveying social information and they must be able to perceive the patterns of activity and affiliation that reveal the structure of a community.

In the on-line world, the system design shapes and constrains how people communicate and how their cultural vocabulary, i.e. the means by which they express their identity, affiliation, etc., evolves. Thus, the designer's goal in creating an interface is not simply to make one that is attractive and easy to use, but to build a good infrastructure for social interaction: one that allows people to see (in what may be a very abstract sense) each other and that provides a rich environment for the development of a cultural meaning. The problem I am addressing in my dissertation is the design of this infrastructure.

The first part of my thesis (``The Virtual Society'') develops the sociological and theoretical basis for this hypothesis. The research here draw upon traditional studies of society and culture and upon observations of contemporary on-line systems. The section begins with a discussion of how our knowledge of the real world, particularly of the built environment and of the social role of the body, can be applied to the design of the virtual world. The section continues with an overview of practices in existing on-line environments, focused on the establishment and perception of identity.

The second part of the thesis (``Design for the Virtual City'') proposes a design platform for creating sociable virtual environments. Three areas are emphasized: the creation of visual representations of social phenomena, the role of information spaces as contexts for communication, and the portrayal of individuals in the virtual world. The series of projects that I have undertaken as part of my doctoral studies are discussed in-depth, providing examples of these design principles in action.

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