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A visualization by JudithDonath's Sociable Media Group at the MITMediaLab of Internet chat that makes it feel a lot more like a bunch of people in a room. You can only see what a person says for a second after they say it (but there is a chat history, too). Also, each person has a geographic location on the screen and you can only "hear" people if you are nearby.

(try it out a few times until you find someone else in the chat room when you are)

In some ways, it is a simplification of Dana Napurano's Black Sun Nightclub visualization of a MUD (Anders, 1998). In this project, the MUD was visualized as a globally visible 3D world. However, the architecture of the MUD space was invisible. Only the avatars within the space were displayed. Rooms were discernable by the colours of the avatars, with avatars in one room being blue and avatars in another room being light gray. Spaces were not defined by enclosure, but simply as constellations of avatars with the same colour.

This inspired the idea of GuiData and WikiCircles.

CategoryChat CategoryInformationVisualization


Viégas, F. and Donath, J. (1999) Chat Circles. in Proceedings of CHI 99 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 15-20 May, Pitssburg, USA, 9-16. Available from http://www.media.mit.edu/~fviegas/chat-circles_CHI.html

Donath, J., Karahalios, K., and Viégas, F. (1999) Visualization conversation. In Proceedings of HICSS-32 January 5-8, Maui, Hawaii. Available from http://smg.media.mit.edu/papers/VisualConv/VisualizeConv.pdf

Donath, J. and Viégas, F. (2002) The Chat Circle series: Explorations in designing abstract graphical communications interfaces. Designing Interactive Systems Conference (DIS). London, England. June 2002. Available from http://smg.media.mit.edu/papers/Donath/chat_circles_series.pdf

Rodenstein, R. A. (2000) Talking in circles: Representing place and situation in an online social environment. (Master's thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2000) Available from http://smg.media.mit.edu/papers/Rodenstein/thesis/index.html

Rodenstein, R., and Donath, J. (2000) Talking In circles: A spatially-grounded multimodal chat environment. CHI2000. Available from http://smg.media.mit.edu/papers/Rodenstein/TIC_CHI2000/index.html

Related references

Her earlier work on VisualWho.

Börner, K. and Yu-Chen, L. (2001) Visualizing chat log data collected in 3-D virtual worlds. in Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Information Visualisation (IV'01), July 25-27, London, England, p.141-146. Available from http://citeseer.nj.nec.com/574807.html

Tat, A.; Carpendale, M.S.T. (2002) Visualising human dialog. in Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference on Information Visualisation (IV'02), July 10-12, London, England, 16-21. Available from http://pages.cpsc.ucalgary.ca/~sheelagh/personal/pubs/2002/tat-carp-IV02.pdf [BubbaTalk?]

Tom Erickson's work on SociallyTranslucentSystems.

Other mentioned references

Anders, P. (1998) Envisioning cyberspace: designing 3D electronic spaces. New York: McGraw?-Hill.

See also WebOfTrustModeration, which is the idea of filtering according to social proximity.

Social constructions as space: a semantic model

an extract from a not so great paper by SunirShah; I discovered that I didn't list the references cited here in my paper! Now I have to hunt them down again.

The Socialable Media Group at MIT Media Lab headed by Judith Donath have been investigating graphical chat spaces in their series of Chat Circle applications: Chat Circles, Chat Circles II, Talking in Circles, Chatscape and TeleDirection? (Viégas & Donath, 1999; Donath, Karahalios, & Viégas, 1999; Rodenstein, 2000; Rodenstein & Donath, 2000; Lee, 2001; Donath and Viégas, 2002). These are by far the most well developed investigations into social visualization for social navigation today, and in many respects, they are creating the discipline. Their goal was to enhance social interaction within chat spaces by intuitively structuring the conversation, giving the user a better sense of the other participants, and depicting the activity in the virtual space. Most graphical chat use representational graphics, with the users depicted as avatars. Either these are absurdly cartoonish, or they are too photographically realistic. Consequently, the representational images convey strong social messages, often inadvertently (Donath, 2001). To counter this, they began with a carefully designed, minimalist 2D environment, Chat Circles. In this environment, participants were represented by coloured circles attached to their names, within which their messages appeared. Upon sending a message, circles were sized to fit the size of the text, and then slowly faded and shrank. Later, they enhanced these environments with aural conversation (Talking in Circles) and the real-time video visual perspective of an “actor” who has agreed to follow out orders from the chat space (TeleDirection?).

Situating messages within separated circles differentiated between and located these messages with the separate identities posting the messages. Conversely, in text chats, one person’s messages are interleaved amongst the rest in a rapidly scrolling window. Further, colour and the attached names help separate distinct identities within the conversation.

Chat Circles conversation. (Viégas & Donath, 1999)

Chat Circles uses the now intrinsic notion of distance to imply hearing range as an attempt to encourage participants to use the space in a socially meaningful way. Messages only appear from nearby circles, whilst every other circle remains hollow. Conversations are consequently spatially bounded, and natural groups form around each conversation. Nonetheless, the size, colour, brightness, and proximity to other participants are still visible for each circle in the space. This allows one to monitor activity in other conversations, say to see where the most talk is or the most participants. When conversations flare, they mention that it looks like the conversation is “bubbling” like champagne. They also report socialized movement, such as forming conga lines, and gesturing or fidgeting. Further, they report political action within TeleDirection? where a participant would place a goal within the video window and other participants would vote by moving their circles near to that goal. Importantly, communication outside the video window is not loaded with decision-making, but merely is chat, demonstrating spatial cues within the map employed for social organization.

Chat Circles external conversational awareness. (Donath & Viégas, 2002)

Seeing others may entice one to join the other conversation. Although one can see others in the space one may wish to talk to, while the cost of moving is low, participants must physically move their circle to another group in order to converse with different participants. Since this ends current conversation visibly—and thus fellow chatters will know where you went—one feels social guilt in leaving; or conversely, a sense of commitment to the conversation one is already in. This can be exploited: if a discussion becomes boring or distressing, one can simply “walk away” visibly to stop “hearing” it, and thus provide visible sanction whilst simultaneously functionally ending conversation.

Talking in Circles made the participants’ circles solid so that one could not travel through another’s circle, instead one would have to go around her. At the latest publication ((Donath & Viégas, 2002), they have only postulated effects, such as surrounding another individual to bully them and pushing each other around. They have not predicted any positive effects from doing so.

In some ways, Chat Circles is a simplification of Dana Napurano's Black Sun Nightclub visualization of a MUD (Anders, 1998). In this project, the MUD is visualized as a globally visible three-dimensional world. However, the architecture of the MUD space is left invisible so that only the avatars within the space were displayed. Rooms are not defined by enclosure, but simply as constellations of avatars with the same colour, with avatars in one room being blue and avatars in another room being light gray. In short, one joins a conversation, not a room.

One can imagine that just joining a conversation is confusing as there is nothing within the space to ground a place. All conversational spaces remain fluid with respect to the objective space within which they are embedded. Chat Circles II attempts to address to by allowing administrators to embed background pictures into the map as centres for conversation. This is similar to how chat room names set topicality, except in normal chat all participants control the names, not just administrators. Nonetheless, they hoped participants would find images that interested them and conduct related conversations nearby. However, they defeated their purpose by giving the pictures a visible range as well, supplanting distant images with outlines. This forces users to traverse the entire map just to identify the “names” of the conversation. Since the background images do not change like flowing text, their argument for blanking them out is not convincing. Finally, the background images are much more saturated than the black background, thus dominating the visual field. Likely participants would already be hesitant to occlude them for fear of ruining the image for others, but the contrast makes the background images seem instead more foreground than the participants’ circles. In fact their example screenshot of the activity overview demonstrates that the background image is confusing. Still, if “the pictures were meant to serve as conversational pieces, much like the paintings in an art gallery,” (Lee, 2001, p. 27) they may serve at least serve this unambitious purpose.

Chat Circles II. Note that the conversations, while around the pictures, are not centred on them. Note also that the background images are visually dominant. (Donath & Viégas, 2002)

As a spatial map alone, these visualizations encode no sense of time. Most seriously, this loses the conversation history, a crucial element for real-time textual conversations. Unlike aural conversation that one can monitor in the background of awareness, real-time textual conversations demand constant visual attention to maintain even some awareness. Consequently, Black Sun Nightclub conducted chat in a normal text-based chat window, whilst Chat Circles incorporates a separate timeline visualization of the conversation outside the main map. They (Donath & Viégas, 2002) acknowledge that the history mode is a separate mode devoid of the life of the main map. In Chat Circles II, they added action traces that left behind fading trails where participants had moved as well as fading imprints of the expanded circles where messages are typed. The overlapping, semi-transparent, fading trails give the space a map of depth related to indirect social navigation. In their own words, “the goal was to give a richness and patina to the space, rather than providing access to its archive.” (Donath & Viégas, 2002, p. 6)

Finally, they experimented with direct social control of the symbology of the map. In Talking in Circles, as it was an aural medium, users were given the freedom to draw little messages (e.g. “?!” to indicate confusion) which would appear in their circle. This gave users the ability to control their identities albeit in a constrained way. In ChatScapes?, they allow participants to individualize their representations (their circles), but they can do so only through socialization with others. For instance, one can claim affinity with another individual. The closer one appears to that person, the more similar the hues of the circles become; so that a red and blue circle would become bluer and redder (respectively) until they became purple. Also, one can alter the shape of another’s “circle” by commenting on his value. Rating someone as obnoxious will temporarily change his circle to be spiky. Thus, while each participant is individualized, they are so only at the behest of the social environment they are in. This makes the representations on the map of the participants reflective of their social relationships, not just their current spatial situatedness.


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