Social Software

Modelling a space for group-activity…

In preparation for a piece of work we’re doing this afternoon, Mr Webb and I have been thinking around social software and its relationship to the other things we do in our lives. In other words – how often is it in real-life that we meet with people without a context, a circumstance or some kind of an activity to meet around – all good Shirky-esque stuff. As part of this thinking we’ve come up with what I think is quite a nice and useful way of conceptualising the relationships between our social activity per se and the things we do with people.

Imagine that you’re participating in a group activity – for simplicity let’s say it’s in your spare time. As far as we can tell, your activity will fit (roughly) into one of three kinds of group activity. The first one is where the media or activity form nothing but the background for social engagement – like having the radio on in the background at work, or going around to a village coffee morning. The second grouping is where the media or the activity is an inspiration or an ongoing pretext for social activity – like going to an political meeting or playing a game of football with friends. And finally there’s that grouping in which the media or activity takes up almost all the attention of the whole group – leaving (at least while it’s occurring) no room for overt social interaction. The cinema or the theatre are the perfect examples of that kind of activity.

Alongside this distinction (in which activity is either foreground, midground or background) there’s another one based around who you’re undertaking it with. Some activities you might choose to undertake with mostly complete strangers (perhaps joining an adult education class or going on a demonstration). Others are clearly activities that you undertake with just your friends.

If you put these two axes together, then you get a model of a space upon which you should be able to plot (in theory) pretty much any group activity you can think of. Here’s a visual representation:

Group activities can be plotted onto a 2-D grid.

Now the interesting stuff comes when you actually try and plot some of the spaces that we’ve created for online social activity. For the most part, activities that are undertaken primarily through a web-browser sit resolutely towards the bottom-middle of the graph. Only a few of the online interactions (notably e-mail and instant messaging) have any overt utility for groups of friends at all, and they only rarely attempt any kind of social activity that isn’t directed towards interest-group conversation…

Now one argument here might be that this stranger-space was relatively empty until the arrival of the internet. I’m guessing this is probably the case (and I’ll see tomorrow if anyone can think up a block of things that disprove me on that one). But the question now is – is that the end of the story? It seems relatively clear to me that with western countries gradually approaching a relative ubiquity of access (no matter what the device that access manifests itself upon) whole ranges of the graph will start to be practical spaces for experimentation – if they’re not already (which I basically think they are)… So maybe it’s in online analogues for these friend-focused activities that we should now be looking…

12 replies on “Modelling a space for group-activity…”

To answer your question: yes, this is plainly the end of the story.
Some *actual* remarks – if browser-based social activities start at the bottom center of the graph, they can quickly start moving up and spreading slightly to either side.
Though it occurs less often than with mailing lists, groups of friends do get together on boards, and MANY online game players had pre-existing relationships. A few people I know ran MOOs on their desktops as alternate to IM for a group of friends. Another loose group chose a MUD and used that.
There are lots of offline things in the botton center. I may go to a concert or art opening with one or two friends, but enjoy a solidarity with fellow concert/opening goers and spend as much time engaged with ‘strangers’ as with the people I came.
“Media/Activity” doesn’t at all seem to me to “carve nature at its joints”. I don’t have replacement, it just appears to be a random pairing (but, I am rabidly anti-media, in the sense you are using it).

More social software ideas
Tom Coates’ of plasticbag has produced a fantastic guide on how and why groups of people get together. Whether this will just serve as a thinking exercise for those of us interested in (and the subset: those who do things with) social software, or whet…

In regards to the stranger-space of your graph… I would say that one prominent example, and one that precedes the Internet, would be a sporting event. It is likely that you will attend the event with a friend or two, but you will also have a heavy interaction with people whom you have never met before.
It is possible that I’m missing the point, if so I apologize, but would this be another valid example of an activity in the stranger space?

Now one argument here might be that this stranger-space was relatively empty until the arrival of the internet. I’m guessing this is probably the case (and I’ll see tomorrow if anyone can think up a block of things that disprove me on that one).
I wonder if you can go two ways on that one — pen pals (much more common in days of yore, especially for young people), and, in a word, church. In a large congregation, you won’t know everyone there, you’ll have certain groups of friends, and you’ll have a shared activity… especially in the non-ceremonial stuff that goes along with church. I’m thinking here of church socials, rummage sales, charity drives, that sort of thing. The same sorts of activities would happen through social clubs like the Freemasons or, well, America is full of them — Elks, Moose, Eagles, Rotarians, Kiwanis…. In small towns, you’d find the membership climbing up to the top of your chart, but in larger towns and small cities, they’d be closer to the bottom.

Coates on Modelling Social Interaction
Tom Coates is working on describing all social interaction along two axes: Imagine that you’re participating in a group activity – for simplicity let’s say it’s in your spare time. As far as we can tell, your activity will fit…

I truly enjoyed Mr. Coates’ piece.
I’m trying to identify the factors that drive people up from the stranger space to the friend space. And if successful, would this automatically mean more activity on the site where they were gathering.
It also seems that people may drift between fore-, mid-, and background during an activity. For example, if they were joining an online discussion. Some days the activity may be of extreme interest to them–they send thoughful posts–while on other days their interest may wane–they feel the need to look at the activity even though they just scroll through the postings.

This is a very compelling question, but I’m not sure the axes are right. I think the distinction between medium and activity is a false distinction, and it’ll get us into trouble. Media are not more or less the focus of activity… Media are in between. So the question of the “relationship between social software and other activities” is the right question but, i think, mistakenly phrased. There is no relationship between those two. Media, insofar as they facilitate interaction, are a means of production–not an end in and of themselves.
The danger of setting up false oppositions increases if we treat context as having more or less presence in social interaction. All interaction is in context and is situated (place and time). It’s just that our focus on the context per se varies (e.g. fore or backgrounded). Technologies tend to make process explicit, and I think that’s one reason we all feel as if we’re participating in sofware when we do this social software stuff… But the attention we pay to the software is not because it is a focus of activity, i think, but because we have to negotiate our way through a representation of information, contents, navigation, etc. We’re required to attend to the framework or architecture of interaction that in f2f would be implicit and backgrounded.
It’s fascinating that the connective media/applications now creating emergent communities and interactions can help produce new relationships, yes. I think we need to ask though, relations of what kind. How intense? How intimate? With what kind of trust? And for what? A transaction, file sharing for example, does not produce a relationship. Perhaps it establishes, fleetingly, a relation. But no -ship! Insofar as our memberships/associations compel us to interact, pay attention, stick around, take care of others, etc., I think the question facing soc. software should be one of degrees. As you have suggested here. But not degrees to which we are engaged in the medium. Rather, degrees to which the medium helps produce forms of interaction and emergent proximities among members/users such that they develop commitments to one another, and to their mediated “community.” Interestingly, Fster, Tribe, etc work by leveraging existing trust-relations to grow communities. I’m not convinced that the trust that exists in a pair (dyadic) is transferable/extensible. Social networks do seem to act as a filter (on populations, where people are content). But can a logic of adjacency (social networks) or similarity (shared interests) be leveraged for more than filtering and qualifying other members?

I agree in large part with adrian – that media cannot form more or less ‘context’, that context just ‘is’ and that understanding the nature of relationships in and between different social groups would help us to provide services to aid their development and formation. quite what ‘leverage’ we should be looking to exploit out of the ‘logic’ of these social networks is debatable.
i think one of the interesting things where there are so many competing outlets for information is the filtering aspect of the social network – the process of interpreting and debating / reinforcing opinions. this seems to me to be the pre-eminent reason for the success of online social networks… trust being the glue, no? is the thrust of tom’s argument then that we should be providing services for established social networks where trust is already established and maintained?

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