Glancing

Glancing: An application to allow ultra-simple, non-verbal communication amongst groups of friends online.

It's a desktop application that you use with a group of other people. It lets you "glance" at them in idle moments, and it gives all of you an indication of the activity of glancing going on.

A group is intended to be less than a dozen people. A person may belong to several groups simultaneously by running separate instances of Glancing. Groups are started deliberately, probably by using a www interface, and people are told the group secret so they can join (a "secret" is just a shared password).


Concept

I was thinking about this about three months ago... We already have quite a lot of social software, but it's all fairly blatant. What's the smallest scale of social interaction that can take place online?

I'm fairly convinced that a social group needs many scales of interaction to remain healthy and bonded. I'd heard of transactional analysis and it seemed to have a good model for the social interaction thing: a social interaction is an exchange of "strokes", and at its simplest level, that stroke is just saying: "I'm OK, you're OK".

It's an assertion of presence: "Here we are".

The analogy I'm thinking of here is a group of people sitting working at their computers. Every so often, you look up and look around you, sometimes to rest your eyes, and other times to check people are still there. Sometimes you catch an eye, sometimes not. Sometimes it triggers a conversation. But it bonds you into a group experience, without speaking.

Would it be possible to build software like this? That's what Glancing is intended to do (there are more implicit assumptions in this): To model a group of people online who occassionally glance at each other, which is a small social transaction. This is done using a group model which stores the glance state: High if people have been glancing recently, low otherwise.

The idea is if you give people software which can carry their interactions, they'll bootstrap the social stuff off of that. So people will interpret for themselves what 'high' or 'low' glance state means, and what function is fulfils for their group when it's online.


Interface

The desktop client runs as a menu extra on Mac OS X (the equivalent in Windows would be as an item in the system tray). The icon of the client represents the group state. Glancing with the client requires a click (but no step to activate the application, and no windows; reading the glance state requires no clicks and no application switching. (This is because of the interface rationale.)

Glancing does not function at all unless a quorum of the group is present, the menu will only indicate that a number of people are present, but not say who, and not provide the Glancing option. It's not possible to initiate an individual chat with this application. It very deliberately fits in with other apps -- it's meant to be used aswell as IM and email, and won't perform any of those functions itself.


Current functionality


Future functionality


Initial experiences

Rather surprising, as it happens. I've used the debug version with Es, just the two of us doing glances. It changes the experience of using a computer, even now. Computer desktops are already "places". You remove yourself from a room just by using a laptop, more so than when you're reading a book -- for some reason books are more physical and it's easier to look up and chat to people, or glance at them.

Maybe it's because computers are a more immersive medium (like tv versus radio), they drag you in more. But having the presence of a person on your computer - even when they're in the same room - makes it more social. It keeps you in contact, encourages glancing, which wouldn't happen before because that would be mode-switching, which is hard. And you don't want to banter on IM, because if you're local to each other then why not just talk? So that doesn't happen either.

For me, Glancing seems to fill an interaction gap that isn't provided by existing applications.

One thing I have discovered... The interface is absolutely key to this. It's such a small-scale application that having it work as a separate app, or in a window, or requiring more clicks on the menu -- it just doesn't work, it just doesn't make sense that way. And the functionality of the app has to be small too. When there's more you can do with it (send little messages, for example), it sits more heavily on your desktop, you can't interact with it accidentally.


Your feedback and thoughts...

...are most welcome. See my weblog for my email address.


2003-09-14