Human Computer Interaction
ERCIM News No.46, July 2001 [contents]

Our Approach to Social Computing

by Kristina Höök

How can we empower people to find, choose between, and make use of the multitude of computer-, net-based- and embedded services that surround us? How can we turn human-computer interaction into a more social experience? How can we design for dynamic change of system functionality based on how the systems are used? Tackling these issues is the core of the work in the HUMLE laboratory, and our solutions are inspired by observing that much of the information seeking in everyday life is performed through watching, following, and talking to other people — what we name social computing.

If you enter a room in an unfamiliar environment, and you see that people are sitting on chairs, silent, looking down into their papers, you will do the same, silently awaiting what will happen next. Or imagine walking down a street in your hometown, trying to decide what to do. You notice a crowd outside your favourite café. Knowing that the café often has live music, you can guess that there must be a special event on tonight. You might decide that you’re in the mood for a lively evening and join the line, or you might decide that you prefer a quiet night and go look for a different café. Or imagine you’re in a library, looking for a book about interface design. One of the books on the shelf is much more worn and well-thumbed than the other, suggesting that lots of people have read it. You may decide it’s a better place to start learning than the pristine books beside it on the shelf.

Unfortunately, in most computer applications, we cannot see others, there are no normative behaviours that we can watch and imitate. We walk around in empty spaces that very well might not have been visited by anyone else before us as far as we know. In our word processor, we might be lost for hours with no guidance whatsoever. On the web, there is no-one else around to tell us how to find what we are looking for, or even where the search engine is, there might very well be lots of services that we badly need, but that no-one tells us of, and once we find a service, we do not know how to interact with it, nor whether it can be trusted.

This is why we have been developing the idea of social navigation [A.J. Munro, K Höök, and D.R. Benyon, Social Navigation of Information Space. Springer Verlag, London, 1999]. By showing the traces of other actors or allowing actors to speak to one-another, we believe that they will more easily find what they look for. In the HUMLE laboratory we now want to expand this vision to entail all forms of social interaction — moving beyond the more narrowly defined concept ‘navigation’ towards interaction in general.

It feels like a truism to point out that people are social beings, that our curiosity is easily raised by watching what others do, their relationship to one another, and the gossip around these events. Still we design computer interaction as if people were only work-oriented, objective, emotionally void, entities.

The aim of our social computing theme is to make computers to work like our everyday language or the way a city grows. Language has been around for a long time, it is democratic in the sense that anyone can add to it, words can shift in meaning as they are being used, it is a tool that never ceases to work, it is multipurpose, and beautiful. Language is therefore a dynamic, on-going, social process. The way a city grows is similar. Take for example Stockholm, it does not get released in new versions every year, instead it changes with what people do in various parts of the city: building new houses, taking new paths into usage, moving cafés and restaurants. Computer systems in general should have this quality: as they are used, actors change their functionality. Social computing is one way of achieving this. As a system is used, the usage will leave trails in the system that will guide future usage.

In social navigation there is a strong temporal and dynamic aspect. A person chooses to follow a particular path in the forest because she makes the assumption that people have walked it earlier. Forest paths are transient features in the environment; if they are not used they vanish. Their state (how well-worn they are) can indicate how frequently or recently they have been used, which is typically not possible with a road.

We see therefore that social navigation relies on the way that people occupy and transform spaces, leaving their marks upon them — turning a ‘space’ into a ‘place’ in the terminology of [Harrison, S., and Dourish, P., Re-Place-ing Space: The Roles of Space and Place in Collaborative Systems. ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work CSCW’96, Boston, 1996, 67-76]. In time, the social cues they leave behind can become sedimented and formalised, transformed into social practices (such as letting people get off the train before you get on), rules and regulations (such as those governing driving) or artefacts (such as signs and landmarks). Social computing, in the sense of our individual actions being designed around collective social behaviour, is not just something that is ‘layered on top of’ a space, but comes to transform both the space and the ways that people act within it. To design with such ideas is to leave yourself open to the possibility that actors will render your system unrecognisable by you and your co-designers.

The idea of social computing has been developed in interaction with the members of the HUMLE laboratory at SICS and Andreas Dieberger (IBM, Almaden), Paul Dourish (University of Irvine, USA).


Please contact:
Kristina Höök — SICS
Tel: +46 8 633 1514