Observations of conversations in various real world situations at school, in stores, at parties, over dinner.

Notes to think about when visualising newsgroups.


The Path We Walk On:

Main Street, Massachusetts Avenue, Infinite Corridor, Memorial Drive

What interested me the most was to look at the space that we tend to forget about: the path we walk through. This setting affords various types of interaction, possibly the closest place and space to the anarchy structure of the Usenet. I chose to look mainly at Main Street between Central Square and Kendall Square. A sign of familiarity: this is the route I always take in order to come to the Lab everyday. I also looked into busier paths, Massachusetts Avenue, the Infinite Corridor where there are no vehicles but a path enclosed within walls, and Memorial Drive, to compare and highlight aspects that I may have not found otherwise.


Here are some observations that I made, that may become useful in mediating a fruitful experience we encounter in the physical space to the virtual space such as the Usenet.



Picture 1. Main Street: As I have observed over a period of one week, the amount of traffic this street has between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. on weekdays is not heavy.


Main Street

Well as a starter, the most apparent thing that may paint the context that I observed the situation from is:

            CHANGING – human-driven, motion, active, dynamic etc.

-         I am walking alone. An individual walking able to think and perceive more on the aspects that is going on around me. This would also qualify in the “people not in cars” category below.


-         Cars are passing by with an interface such as their car windows shut and that they are in transit. What makes them interesting enough that it will catch my attention? There are two aspects that caught my attention:

o       The people inside the car.

--- When there are more than just the driver (2 or more people in the car), the gesture and expression the people have within the car seems to get my attention. For example, laughing people seem to signal off that they are having a great and funny conversation… about what? That can make me curious or remind me of some funny story tapping into my own history.

--- On the other hand I do not seem to notice as much when there is just

the driver. In this case, the car and the driver almost becomes one entity.

--- But as for both situations (a single driver and a group within the car)

what does catch my attention is if they look at me, I tend to look back,

here I will assume that this is a natural reaction.

o       The car itself in relation to the environment it is in.

--- The speed of the car in comparison to the norm of other cars.

--- The speed of the car in comparison to the constant environment. For example, considering that Main Street between Central and Kendall Square is pretty low-key, a vehicle moving at a speed too slow or too fast will stand out.

--- Negative noise (as one would categorize in communication theory): awkward engine noise or obtrusive music noise a vehicle may make or the vehicle tire that does not feel well.


-         People not in cars. According to Kevin Lynch in the Image of the City, the street is a path where people walk through and where its setting is composed of environmental elements.

o       Person walking alone. From my perspective of an observer, there is the approaching and fading away of the sound of footsteps (apart from the visual appearance and disappearance of the physical body).

o       People walking in a group (2 or more people). When there is a group of people passing by, there is a boundary of sound (i.e. conversation) approaching and fading away.


o       Person riding a bike. A person on a bicycle usually goes about their own way because the bicycle is not really a vehicle (i.e. car) where you can socialize in.


NOT-CHANGING – constant, stable, not moving, incontrollable such as nature (wind) etc.

-         Environmental elements. Such as building, trees, wind, the sound of construction, and parked cars.

o       What is interesting about a parked car is that, mentally it maps to the fact that a person owns it. Even though there is no person in the parked car, might this represent some form of presence of a person?


Picture 2. The Infinite Corridor: A path enclosed by walls, where people are constantly passing through.


Infinite Corridor

It seems that the majority of the people are always in the mode of transit. In comparison to Main Street, there are no vehicles here in transit but a constant movement of people. There are different modes of people behaviour while in transit that I identified:

-         A person walking alone.

-         People walking in a group (2 or more). Usually up to 3 people (of course according to the traffic through the corridor) they can walk side by side. More than three people seemed to walk more dispersed even though they were identified to be from one group.

-         A person stopping to read a poster on the bulletin board.

-         A person stopping another person coming from the other direction to converse. Here one can assume that the person is an acquaintance of some sort to the other person.


What was also interesting was that it was interesting to notice the difference between a MIT student and a non-MIT student (most likely a visitor):

-         A local

-         A non-local. The content of the conversation gives away the first clue. The body gesture, for example finger pointing, finding ‘anything’ amusing to read and look at (to an MIT student this ‘amusing anything’ can be apparent that the information is outdated), somewhat harder but slightly noticeable difference in the apparel, and the confusion of navigation through the multiple corridor exits. Because MIT and the Infinite corridor can be considered as a landmark (my opinion, mapping Kevin Lynch’s Image of the City), on a holiday, there can be a bigger percentage that there might be visitors to the landmark.


Two other points that I found to be interesting is:

-         Sound and direction of sound source: The Infinite corridor is enclosed within walls as well as how the architecture is designed, the sound resonates. Unlike the outdoor environment, when there is a multitude of people passing through the corridor, there is a mass of sound (i.e. mainly vocal but may include footsteps, bags etc.) that is harder identify the location of the an individual sound. But when there is hardly any traffic through the corridor, one can immediately pinpoint to the source of the voices.

-         Gazing: A person or a group of people will get my attention, if their gaze is apparent, and again I will naturally look back. Their unconventional apparel, items, conversational topic will also grasp my attention so long one is in near proximity of the other.


Picture 3. Massachusetts Avenue: A busier street compared to Main Street. The adjective ‘busier’ is defined as a larger number of people and cars present.


Massachusetts Avenue

What was noticeable about Mass. Ave. was that since this was a major pathway that leads to the connection between the districts of Cambridge and Boston, there are more cars accessing the avenue. At the same time, students access it since the avenue is placed between the east and the west side of campus. One can predict a higher probability to meet an acquaintance on the street because there are more people and cars accessing this avenue.


Picture 4. Memorial Drive, I thought I include this picture to point out that one cannot exactly stop a car on a fast moving road for a conversation.


Picture 5. Memorial Drive, sidewalk by MIT campus


Memorial Drive

What was interesting about this sidewalk was that this sidewalk along Mem Drive was like the Infinite Corridor, but without the walls and the overall dense population in one passage. Here people reacted similarly to the people on the street and in the corridor:

-         Gazing: This again led me to look back at them. Here I experimented in reversing the gaze so that I would be the initiator. The result was the same; naturally they looked back.

-         Smiling: For example, a person smiled at me as a friendly gesture. Should I have smiled back at a stranger – although I did as a natural response?

-         Signs to let them know: A girl was on a bike, struggling to ride the bike, waving her body left to right. Maybe I should have helped… that would be engaging in some minimal conversation. Another example is, a family parked their car along the sidewalk and they forgot to turn off their lights. I should have let them know, although they were quite a distance away?


Some last thoughts about the paths…

What I can conclude from observing these different paths is that they are similar in many ways. The presence of people and vehicles in transit, as well as inanimate objects found in the environment were consistent in all settings. What was also interesting was the realization that the people and environment carried some form of animate or inanimate artifact/s that caught my attention. For example, this includes an object such as a backpack, some content of a conversation between two people, etc.



Other Places and Tasks: La Verde’s Grocery Store, Dinner at Biba Restaurant


La Verde’s

This is a small grocery store located within the Student Center at MIT. One interesting observation that I would like to note is that, this is a transactional environment. During the time I was there browsing, there was hardly any conversations going on. It seemed that people came in to get an item and made their way to the cash register. I think one of the reasons why there weren’t much interaction between people as well as any sort of browsing was the kind of store this was, as well as the lack of real estate compared to the number of products that was on display for sale on the shelves. So then the question was, how can one break the barriers and open up the space, to allow any human interaction other than transactions. It seemed that the area where the sandwiches were made as well as where the sweets were sold, seemed to promise the most interaction between people.


Dinner at Biba Restaurant

Outer environment in relation to the restaurant: Right before as we entered the restaurant, there are valet parkers in front of the restaurant. In the immediate time being, there doesn’t seem to be anyone walking to the restaurant, rather seems like a place everyone drives to.

Quality of aesthetics and material use: The doors are heavy to open, not one of those glass wimpy doors. There are two sets of doors, which probably aids in keeping the temperature inside constant.

Moderator: As one enters the restaurant, on the first floor is the bar and on the second floor is the dining hall. There is a receptionist who checks to see whether you have a reservation upstairs or not. Once your reservation is identified/cleared, the receptionist, considering that it is winter and sleeting, suggests a coat checkroom.

Interior Layout: The hall to the stairway is quite separated from the bar, although one can see the people at the little tables and the bar socializing. But the main entrance seems not to be such an obstruction to the bar area, compared to places I have been that lack some real estate or have not made use of good interior and spatial design. One can immediately observe the atmosphere as one enters the restaurant:

-         The lights are dim

-         Good sound absorption, but not too much that there is a quiet atmosphere

-         The people, the age group of people hinted by the way they are dressed and their posture of conversation

-         Attitude of the receptionist

-         Clearly a place that it is not a dining area

-         The décor of the place, rather a mixture of Spanish-French style


Over dinner the most apparent things one can observe once you sit at the table:

-         The people sitting next to you

-         The people sitting around you

-         The waiters

-         The overall dim lights

-         The table settings

-         My own mood and the overall mood of the people at your table

-         Designated waiter to your table

-         Continuous attitude and relationship of the waiter with their guests

-         Menu

-         The specials of the day

-         General food aesthetic of other people at the restaurant (although this is bad etiquette looking at other tables!)

-         You cannot really hear other people’s conversation, but can tell the mood

-         Continuous conversation with our food and wine