Interconnected

All posts made the week commencing Sunday 10 Nov., 2002:

Both Upsideclone and Upsideclown currently have excellent articles running. At 'clone, Simon Batistoni has returned with Ghost. I can't really say anything about it without spoiling it, so just go read.

Meanwhile at the 'clown, James tells of the seedier side of medieval adventure in The Knight Of Spring Fervent. In verse. With a refrain and everything.

Notes on the Western Union Telegraph Clock (FoRK mail list archives), about accurate time being sold for one dollar, per clock, per month. And Time, Standard Time and Western Union goes into some of the daily life specifics of a centralised clock world: Railroad workers were required to carry an approved pocket watch and correct it on the hour when the Morse signal came through.

But sometimes it went wrong: "It finally ensued that I learned the magic of WUTCo clocks was a 'Master Clock' in each local area. It ran like an old schoolhouse clock with a punched paper tape to ring the bells -- except that a WUTCo local master clock had only one set of holes at the top of the hour. When it ran past the holes, it sent a two-second pulse down a local telegraph loop with all the clocks around town wired in series like teleprinters. [...] The way the synchronization operation worked was that in each local area, it was the distinct 'job' of the Wire Chief to be there at noon daily, to get a 'click' on the sounder of one national wire, and set their local Master Clock to the once-a-day time from the national 'click.' However, at Fort Lauderdale, the Wire Chief had been promoted out of town TWO YEARS previously, so it was nobody's job to set the local Master Clock".

To avoid confusion, read Stewart Butterfield at Sylloge posting about my post on the Social Software Seminar. He picks me up on a few points.

Mea culpa. What I meant to say wasn't what I wrote -- I was being lazy. I'm really only considering technologies that are currently used for/ will be designed to be used for directed, goal-oriented interaction.

Having said that, I think evaluating technologies afer-the-fact is the right way to go. There's a lot out there -- the WorldWideWeb application is massively successful in 2002, Hypercard isn't. What can we learn from that?

Likewise, email wasn't designed as a social environment in which decisions and arguments can be made towards a common goal. But it's good at that (well, goodish), and used for that. But MUDs aren't. I know it sounds like a too-simple question to ask, but why do most people have an email client open all the time, but don't invite clients to join them on the company MUD/MOO server?

Perhaps by extracting the secret properties of email that makes it useful for making certain classes of decision, social software can then be deliberately written.

Another perhaps. Perhaps one of the secret properties is that a command-line interface is too high a barrier to entry to hit critical mass in any cross-discipline group of people, and that's why MOOs never took off for business. Perhaps, with investigation, we'll find that's completely wrong. Graphical MOOs... well that's a different kettle with a whole load of different fish.

Social environments | This is something I'll come back to again because it's symptomatic of a lack of shared terminology: what is a social environment anyway? Quoting from Sylloge a little:

"The web is closer to a providing something we could call a social environment, but even that seems a little dodgy - I'd be more inclined to say that the web is a medium for lots of smaller social environments, but one that is still generally parasitic on social environments (and cultures) that exist elsewhere (Limp Bizkit webrings don't spring up in the absence of Limp Bizkits)."

The www is like a city?

Firstly I reckon that because people are cross-media, at least some communication in any given media draws on culture elsewhere. Saying the www is parasitic is a little strong since the specific www culture is beginning to backwash into other environments: campaign websites, filtering and making news, freeing information. I don't think it's a necessary requirement for the interactions in a social environment to in the main be concerned with experiences had within that same space.

Second, we have a definitions of terms problem. I've previously regarded social media as being a synonym for social environments. That is, because the www is a medium that can contain social interaction, it is therefore a social environment. Something for me to think about.

Last point. Systems don't need to have specially designed to be social. Haddock.org/directory has a Recent searches panel down the side, and last June Phil and I spotted someone leaving messages in there and we ended up having a very short conversation -- the logs of which are now online.

"On the evening of October 18th, 2002 at 7pm, 7 performers connected to the same Quake III Arena game server online. Instead of participating in the graphic, three dimensionally simulated environment of death, my group of performers recreated, by typing on our keyboards, an episode from the popular sit-com Friends". Quake Friends has screenshots [thanks Ed].

See also: Stencilton Art Walk (at the fanzine Ludus Perpetuus), a document of artworks created within The Game Neverending.

Much reading material is linked at Booknotes' investigation into What is hypertext?

Small Pieces Loosely Joined, for kids is David Weinberger's unified theory of the web in bite-sized chunks. What does distance mean on the web, or connecting, or humanity? I'm going to spoil the ending for you, here it is:

"The real world is about distances keeping people apart. The Web is about shared interests bringing people together. Now, if connecting and caring are what make us into human people, then the Web - built out of hyperlinks and energized by people's interests and passions - is a place where we can be better at being people.

"And that is what the Web is for."

Message Types in Goal-Oriented Discourse: "In goal-oriented communication, a conversation can be thought of as consisting primarily of transitions between a number of distinguishable states. The utterances that signify these transitions fall into a small number of recognizable categories. The purpose of this paper is to explore how to enumerate, for a chosen goal, these categories and to determine whether it is possible to create a theory whereby they can be consistently recognized, with an eye towards designing a system which will classify utterances for use in MoversWorld, a multi-user problem solving environment".

(Are these categories applicable in many-to-many communication, for example between two political wings? And, not being funny or anything, but doesn't "goal oriented" hint at game and, given that, don't state transitions sound like transitions between game-states, aka moves?)

At the recent iSociety seminar, Simon Roberts of Ideas Bazaar (from you can also download his "Linkship - Imagining a New Kinship of Networks" presentation slides) referred to a way of classifying relationships between self and other; others are divided into:

  • Consociates who share the same time and spatial access to each other's bodies
  • Contemporaries with whom one shares only the same time
  • Predecessors and Successors with whom one does not share the same time and to whose lived bodies one lacks access [Predecessors affect our actions, but are not affected by ours; Successors vice-versa]

Simon emailed me to tell me about Cultural Complexity, Studies in the Social Organization of Meaning by Ulf Hannerz, a book which had revived the classification from the philosopher Alfred Schutz (I took the earlier definitions from this page).

If we're to deliberately build successful environments for directed group activity, it's important to understand how existing ones do what they do. Part of that understanding is having a vocabulary, a framework to investigate.

Things that make good games, in I Have No Words & I Must Design [via As Above]. "A game is a form of art in which participants, termed players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in the pursuit of a goal" and from there it continues, an exploration of game design. Other things I'd like to know: How is Real Life different from a game? The things that people do that aren't games, what are they?

Last's Friday's Social Software Seminar got my brain buzzing in a way it hasn't since the O'Reilly Emerging Tech Conference earlier this year. The seminar kicks off The Work Foundation's iSociety research project (which also, wonderfully and inevitably, has a weblog), and was headlined by Clay Shirky. Social software is very now, and it brings together two main strands: First. Now we've seen that social environments can be created technologically (what's worked: email, www. What's not been as big: MOOs), what properties do successful technologies have that we can harness and steer to not just communities but directed groups? Second. In the main the new media have only be used for one-to-one and one-to-many, and even the www has just democratised broadcast -- but the capability is there for many-to-many communication; how is this to be done?

With all of that in mind, I've posted my rough Social Software Seminar notes. As with my other notes (cf ETCon 2002 notes), they're unedited and taken in the heat of battle. The event notes are interleaved with my own thoughts, which progress over the seminar, are contained in square brackets, and gradually completely dominate. The section at the end, rumblings, contains thoughts knocking around my head before I walked through the door. I'll be writing up some of the more defined ideas soon.

See also: Tom Coates' seminar outline. I'd make two comments about his notes: Communities is a generic term, and social software I believe refers more to directed group conversations; and constitutions needn't be literal if the decision making mechanism can be declared by implementation.

And: I CAN'T WAIT!

Redesign! Welcome to the brown skin. Naturally you'll have to visit the 'site to see it (the majority of my traffic is now by email or RSS) -- but if you still can't, you probably have the skin cookie set. Visit the skinner to select back to the default.

So what's new? It's my first non-table and 100% css design for a start. The sitenav, always awkward, has been moved to the bottom of the page (it's there for people looking rather than to stumble across), and even the banner has been moved: the emphasis is on the posts, and seeing what's latest. There's also a commenting feature, but I'll roll that out once the inevitable design bugs have been squashed. My favourite feature: the whitespace of the indented paragraphs describes a square. I like that.

I'm surprised by how many browsers now support css. Last I looked properly (um, ages ago) it was a reckless design decision. So, this skin should work happily in IE5+ and Mozilla, and degrade kind-of-okay for the rest. Naturally it looks most beautiful in Chimera on Mac OS X using Gill Sans. I say naturally because my sites tend to only ever work in whatever my favourite browser of the week is.

If you find bugs please mail me a screenshot, or let me know if it's difficult to read on your system (font or contrast problems). I'll see what I can do. Also thanks to Phil and Tom for helping me with css weirdnesses. And there we go. Long live blue and brown.

I like this idea: "...your car has windshield wipers and headlights and a roof and a heater, all of which protect you from caring about the fact that it's raining (they abstract away the weather)..." -- from Joel On Software's The Law of Leaky Abstractions.

Patterns for Personal Web Sites, a compendium of design patterns grouped into five types: content, structural, temporal, navigation, technology. See the introduction for more.

This is on the list: Inhabiting the Virtual City: The design of social environments for electronic communities. And there's a list of social software links at HyDeSign. Damn, yet more painfully relevent reading material.

Ben Hyde pointed me at the review of The Media Equation, one passage from which intrigued me so much I have to buy it: "Pick a finding describing a social rule governing people's interaction with each other. One example, which is used in the book, is 'people like other people whose personalities are like their own.' So you have a rule which describes social behaviour. According to the media equation, media and real life are the same, so people should also like media whose personalities are like their own". All of which is very interesting, especially if you're thinking about the intrinsic properties of inbuilt social grammar. Which I am.

See also: 14 Principles of Polite Apps.

Resources for The Design of Sites [via HyDeSign]. Research papers on various aspects of designing and building a "customer centred" (so e-commerce then) website.

I was bloody hooked on Little Computer People for ages (more screenshots, and a diary). Mine was called Elliott, and he had a dog.

My cousin had one that used to smoke, but he trained it out of that and got it doing exercise instead. Brilliant.

I never got hooked on The Sims in the same way, something to do with being a decade older possibly, but probably because I use my computer for loads of things now and not just games -- if it just sat in a window and talked to me occasionally I'm sure I'd still have it running.

Actually, there's an idea. How about a little person that lives in your filesystem? You could make files that he could eat to train him to hang around in the same kind of places, teach him to write you documents and leave them on the desktop, and clean up after himself. It'd be an application that ran at human speed, not just as fast as possible.

Wouldn't it be weird to navigate into a little used folder and find him there with another little computer person from a friend's machine who'd emailed herself over, and they were making even littler computer people together? [This post exists because the title of Dan Hon's The Sims post is Little Computer People. It reminded me.]

Two excellent language resources:

Both via As Above.

Linkfilter.net, fresh links daily.

Conceptual Metaphor Home Page, maintained by George Lakoff [via MeFi] (a list of all metaphors). Superb. This is proper deep-level stuff, how we live and relate to the universe and each other. Playing with how a counterfactual metaphor could come to be would be an interesting exercise. Although at the moment I'm more interested in coherency, the idea that disparate metaphors align. You can see this in our industrial world, individuals living their lives coherent with the concept that they're a self-contained step, that they should follow the letter of their explicit instructions and let everything else go because someone higher up must be looking after that.