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Social Interfaces

created 2006-10-13 11:22:00

I originally thought of this node as "Social Networks", but had problems with this. Firstly, the name is already "taken" by a group of services that encourage group communication (see Social Networks Are Dead though). Secondly, the word "network" implies a complex system of interaction, which in today's digital world, is so often translated into a system of machines, thus removing something from the system of people that we already have.

So the idea of social interfaces perhaps more accurately defines this thought. It stems from the initial assumption that computing has evolved - perhaps as a result of its individualised, one-to-one consumerist environment - to provide services on a very personal basis. That is, devices are tailored to be used by an individual, through a combination of mass-production, and point-to-point technological schemata. And probably some other stuff too. Social network services, then, are an attempt to recapture that system of people, but within this individualised set of interfaces.

In other words, "group" technology as we perceive it today is based around me having one interface to access the service, you having another, and a third party providing the "space" where we can swap data.

But what would happen if we moved this space of overlapping? Why must we be confined to - or rather, encouraged into - an isolated experience of a thoroughly connected realm? Why, for example, do I end up gathering a bunch of e-mails if I want to share some information with a group - doesn't this just force me to retreat back to this configuration of private, separated individuals even though the information is of common interest?

I think there is greater possibility for social "networking" than simply websites than bring people together. But we need to raise the stakes, set up camp on a higher plane. We need to look at how technology permeates our lives, and decide whether we want to keep it tucked away - in bedrooms, hidden in offices, on tiny little screens that we shield from others' eyes.

Take, for instance, the Dynamo project. This is (or, perhaps, was) an attempt to open up a single screen as a multi-user entry point. The fact that such shared devices are still only research projects says much about the way in which we choose to live our lives, and how we approach technology. Sure, there are issues about privacy and so forth - some of these can or should perhaps be solved through technological mechanisms, but at the same time many others can or should be addressed purely on a social level - privacy and interaction are two sides of the same coin.

Gaming as a social space

While it's obviously a personal view, I much prefer the Gamecube and the Dreamcast over either other consoles, or over PC gaming. Why? Because they're designed, from the word go, to encourage 4 people, rather than 2, to interact on the same screen at the same time. I grew up with games before broadband made on-line gaming possible - pretty much the only way to get more than 2 people playing at the same time (i.e. beyond hooking 2 computers together with a home-made cable) was to jam them all in round the keyboard. Were the games complex? Hardly. But did 4 or 5 of us keep coming back to play them? All the time. There's something about being able to see/nudge/whack the player you've just killed off that translates into "community" or whatever you want to call it. In other words, the face-to-face interaction that people so often pine for in modern computing has been around in terms of interfaces, but in our increasingly isolated little worlds, we've just forgotten we could do it.

To be continued

Hopefully more examples of such social interfaces will be added in here in the future. Extending community technology not on-line, but off-line is, I think, a vastly underexplored area, but I have yet to see what's really out there. Perhaps it doesn't spread so easily - you can't just invite all your friends round the world to try out a new beta, or sign up to an on-line demo so readily. I don't know. Certainly, it needs exploring.

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