Social Attention: a modest prototype in shared presence

16.43, Monday 22 Mar 2021

Right now the web is either fully social, like when you’re collaborating in Google Docs, or it’s a solitary experience. There’s very little between. Yes you do sometimes get moments that are almost social, like when you read a product review on Amazon or a comment on a blog post, but it’s like walking into a room that somebody’s just left: there’s a note on the table, and the door on the far end is closing shut.

My take is that the web could feel warmer and more lively than it is. Visiting a webpage could feel a little more like visiting a park and watching the world go by. Visiting my homepage could feel just a tiny bit like stopping by my home.

And so to celebrate my blogging streak reaching one year, this week, I’m adding a proof of concept to my blog, something I’m provisionally calling Social Attention.

Social Attention

Here are some screenshots if you want to see how it works without jumping in right now.

  • There’s a toggle at the bottom of the footer labeled Enable secret experimental features – turn it on. (You’ll have to go the website if you’re reading by email or RSS.)
  • A status emoji will appear in the top right corner of your browser. If it’s smiling, there are other people on the site right now too.

Then: select some text, as if you’re going to copy it.

Your selection will be shared automatically with all the other people on the same page as you. It will appear for them as highlighted words. It’s all anonymous. Your data isn’t stored.

If somebody else selects some text, it’ll be highlighted for you. But if you’re not on the same page at the same time, you’ll never see it. It only works in realtime.

If you want to experiment with this, use two completely different browsers, or have one window in private/incognito mode. The system has to believe that you’re different people otherwise the selection won’t be shared.

(I don’t know how long I’ll keep this running for. It’s a prototype, and I haven’t given a huge amount of thought to scaling – and there are limits on the free tier of the service I’m using as the back-end for the notifications. So if it doesn’t work for you, check out the screenshots instead.)

Why build for togetherness

How often have you been on the phone with a friend, trying to describe how to get somewhere online? Okay go to Amazon. Okay type in “whatever”. Okay, it’s the third one down for me…

This is ridiculous!

What if, instead, you both went to the website and then you could just say: follow me.

You know each other! You’re speaking on the phone together! Computers should be aware of this fact! Of course if you go to the same website, you should be able to see each other there.

We don’t need to be so sophisticated right now. There’s no need for my blog to be a fully private space, but there’s also no reason for it to be fully public. We can share just a hint of data, enough for a sense of liveness, but otherwise keep it anonymous.

If I’m in a meeting, I should be able to share a link in the chat to a particular post on my blog, then select the paragraph I’m talking about and have it highlighted for everyone. Well, now I can.

And yes, I know that Medium and Amazon Kindle share text highlights, but that happens only once it has been highlighted – I want something that lets you see life on the other side of the screen. Especially because it becomes suddenly more useful when you’re coordinating with someone else in a different channel. And, yes, of course there are more fully transparent systems like live cursors or annotations… but this is a blog and not a chatroom. I want the patina of fingerprints, the quiet and comfortable background hum of a library.

Modern animal life appeared pretty much all at once, 541 million years ago, in an event called the Cambrian explosion. Why? There’s a theory that, at that time, the oceans cleared of dust. Suddenly it was possible to see, and complex tactics like hunting, camouflage, deduction, and so on triggered an arms race that led to the evolution of the animals that we have today.

I think about that story a lot, because in the real world we rely on what we can see for so much tacit, realtime knowledge. If you’re in a meeting, you silently and unconsciously coordinate who is speaking next by constantly glancing. If you’re in an unfamiliar town, you know which restaurants are popular without going in… by looking.

When the social web kicked off in the early 2000s, it felt to me like the oceans were clearing. And, yes, we did get a little of the “wisdom of the crowds.” Product reviews… blog posts… Wikipedia… Then later, the full-on collaborative experience of Google Docs or Figma.

What I’d like more of is a social web that sits between these two extremes, something with a small town feel. So you can see people are around, and you can give directions and a friendly nod, but there’s no need to stop and chat, and it’s not in your face. It’s what I’ve talked about before as social peripheral vision (that post is about why it should be build into the OS).

It’s what video games have gotten so right. There’s the crowd, which is semi-anonymous, and there are your friends. You can scale visibility and interactivity as appropriate.

There’s no reason that Social Attention shouldn’t a one-liner to add to any website, or part of the browser itself. Maybe it should be part of a suite of social tools to make the web a well-lit, neighbourly place – with, naturally, good privacy-preserving fences.

(If you can think of a way to support this kind of effort, do get in touch. I feel like the web has some missing infrastructure here.)

I’m enjoying writing here, and I can’t believe I’ve kept up this current streak for a whole year. Thank you for reading.

This is my homepage. Welcome to my home.

Follow-up posts:

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.