Benefits of Introducing Constraints

I recently read an article by Peter Kollock that suggests that certain online communities may be successful because they appropriately introduce risks and constraints that users must overcome. This reminded me of another CMC paper that discusses how users “overcome” constraints of low-bandwidth CMC in order to form stronger interpersonal relationships. For example, in online chat rooms, users feel like the medium’s restrictions make it difficult to learn about their chat partners. This turns relationship building in online chatrooms into a multi-step process. Users have a few initial cues with which to learn about their chat partners (“A/S/L”), then begin to pick up on speaking style, vocabulary, topics of interest, and other defining information. They may then share personal websites or photos which further develop understanding. Although this process seems inefficient and potentially daunting, there are aspects of exploration, discovery, and insight that also make it rewarding. Knowledge acquisition, particularly about things that we consider “special” or “secret,” tends to be a very enjoyable thing (think: gossip). Perhaps, then, limitations add an aspect of “specialness” to interactions that we would otherwise take for granted, thereby bringing online communities together.

In terms of virtual worlds, it’s also interesting to see how constraints encourage people to come together. In some ways, this is acknowledged by game designers and built into the systems– when a special item is very rare, it encourages people to try to obtain it, which can result in a wealth of complex interpersonal interactions.

In some ways, the unintentional constraints of games are even more interesting. Regarding technical constraints like limited information display, zone load lines, or laggy connections, users find creative ways to turn constraints into benefits. For example, having load zones in MMORPGs is often used to players’ benefits when running away from monsters. Although this doesn’t really mirror anything that would happen in the real world, it’s an example of how constraints can be turned into beneficial, and even key pieces of, game play.

This reminds me of another reading that I did for another class that talks about how interaction designers are actually designing a “space of possibility,” in which people are free to explore as they wish. The designer can only hope to introduce constraints with sufficient feedback that allow users to make the environment “their own.” Although the designer may have some ideas of what could happen, it’s really the people in the environment who decide what happens in it.

Facebook as a means of self-socialization

I was doing a bit of reading about the social psychology theories behind Facebook, and stumbled across the concept of “peripheral awareness.” Resnick (2001) describes this as the phenomenon of people learning more about their community in order to increase their social capital. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but perhaps this is why people spend so much time simply “browsing” Facebook. Although a part of it may be based on the desire to (for lack of a better word) “stalk” individuals, a larger motivation may be self-socialization.

Consider the concept of “people watching.” Although this may be in-part motivated by curiosity and a desire for amusement, another part of it is consciously observing others as a way for us to understand our own place in the world. On Facebook, we are free to people-watch without any danger of getting “caught.” This allows us to spend large amounts of time understanding the average and deciding who we want to be more/less like. Having observed and discussed Facebook usage amongst my classmates and friends, I’ve found that most people spend a significant amount of time browsing two types of people: those they are close with, and those they are jealous of or wish to belittle. Could it be that while watching the lives of others, we are simultaneously deciding how we will change ourselves in response to them? By viewing the trends of the majority, can we not better learn how to express ourselves in a way that helps us to become the people that we wish to be?

Challenges of CMC Research

I am currently taking a class about Computer Mediated Communication (CMC). Some of the issues that consistently come up are challenges of studying CMC phenomena. For example, when we rely strictly on elements captured through technology, this limits our view of all types of communication. This can in turn limit our understanding of the impacts of CMC. However, this sort of analysis may be appropriate for different types of questions related to CMC. This seems to indicate that a large part of the challenge with studying CMC is phrasing research questions correctly, and choosing appropriate methodologies by which they can be answered. This also seems like a research area where arguing validity/generalizability is particularly challenging.

Even more challenging is the fact that technology rapidly, with just as rapid effects on social interaction. For example, “self-expression” studies that were run with personal websites 5 years ago could be repeated with Facebook now, but the results might be drastically different. In the digital realm, people keep coming up with new types of technology and throwing it out there to see what sticks. Then others start to use it and integrate it into their own lives and learn more/are changed by it.

The continuing social shift/development is particularly hard to capture across time and technologies. I found a paper by Garton et al. that attempts to overcome this by visualizing social network changes over time. Although people’s interactions with technology, expression, and connection will continue to change over time as new methods of CMC emerge, the piece that will stay consistent is that technology causes interpersonal relationships to change as new possibilities emerge. Can we measure this across different networks as they come and go? It is an interesting challenge, but perhaps this sort of work can give us a better understanding of the network shifts that are ocurring.

Cisco TelePresence

Cisco takes a stab at co-presence:

Cisco TelePresence promo on YouTube

Honestly, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between this and traditional teleconferencing, with the exception of a larger screen and smoother connection technology. That being said, since this is only a promo video, who knows what the system is like in real life– there might be more lag than shown in the video, and auditory input/output might be a challenge. Never mind the setup of the video screens– not everyone’s going to have that same cherry wood conference table. And what happens when there are 10 people in one office trying to get in on the same conference?

The TelePresence system also does not solve many of the problems caused by a lack of co-presence, such as the ability to pass artifacts around the table. In a real conference, you may move your seat to get a better view of the whiteboard; in TelePresence, you do not have this ability. There is no way to make a private comment to your neighbor, and no way way to break off into small group discussion.

Although Cisco TelePresence furthers much of the technology for remote communication, it still fails to afford many of the capabilities of face-to-face communiction. Until those can be bridged, systems like TelePresence will not make us feel like we are “really in the same room as all of you.”

Co-presence Affordance in Virtual Worlds

In one of my classes, we were discussing the affordances present in different types of computer mediated communication. Afterwards, I was reading through one of Prof. Kraut’s papers about using visual information to collaborate on physical tasks. It got me thinking more about the co-presence affordance, and whether it is considered to be a part of virtual worlds like Second Life. Note: The co-presence affordance means that while communicating with others, you share the same environment as your conversation partners– in the Kraut study, this would be the example where subjects are repairing the bicycle together, physically in the same room. In comparison, the video and audio only tasks do not have co-presence affordance; for more examples of the resulting trade offs, see the article.

For example, in Second Life, there is some sense of co-presence because in the game world, players think of their avatars as the reality which they are currently in. Thus, you could say that Second Life has co-presence because even though you aren’t in the same environment as the actual player, to some degree neither are you. Are the details sufficient for true co-presence, though? You can carry out actions in order to succeed in some Second Life tasks, like following someone somewhere. However, you would never be able to accomplish a task that requires complexity such as the bicycle repair task. Though Second Life tries to imitate the actions a person could make in real life, it does not have the co-presence affordance sufficient to stand in for FTF interactions.

However, players in Second Life adapt their view of the world to that which is available to them (in this case, rough movements like a “follow me” task). How similar to real life must an experience be in order to be considered “true co-presence”? In a game with a restricted view of reality, where more detailed tasks are not required, are restricted affordances enough? Perhaps some of the appeal of virtual worlds like Second Life comes from being able to ignore fine tuned interactions (such as those necessary to repair a bike) and focus on other types of interactions instead.

It would be interesting to see how interactions in virutal worlds change if they gain more realistic co-presence affordances. I have heard of situations where people have tried to use Second Life for non-recreational purposes, such as work meetings and training sessions. I imagine that some of the motivation for trying these is to capitalize on Second Life’s supposed co-presence affordance, but perhaps the reason that these have not caught on is that the types of co-presence that session leaders were hoping for– students being able to observe a speaker’s facial features, or a speaker being able to tailor a lecture based on the body language of the students– are not yet present in this digital world. Thus, this sort of interaction could even be detrimental because it forces users to adapt to a different environment with different rules. The co-presence experienced is really a virtual one, and the ability to translate between this and the real world is an interesting challenge.