The next step in social networking software – the global coffee machine
Paper in proceedings, 2008
The development of both computer mediated communication and social networking software have changed our way of connecting with people profoundly. Consider the impact such a simple communication tool as e-mail, and of course the last years development of Web 2.0 concepts. Even a very simple tool such as MSN Messenger have interesting effects on the social connection with friends and co-workers; that such a simple tool can create the feeling of sharing a virtual space together. That such a simple icon as the “friend icon” in Messenger can be so loaded with emotional connotations.
But still, from another viewpoint, these technologies are just pale imitations, troublesome clones, of their real world equivalents. Consider the infamous chance meeting at the coffee machine, consider all the social networking that occurs in that physical space. Colleagues keeping track of each others work days, chance encounters triggering ideas for collaboration, and other chance encounter connecting to new acquaintances. Our idea is simple; what would happen if you combined the power of the coffee machine chance meetings, with the connecting-with-the-world concept of MSN Messenger, Facebook and all other similar tools? A strong picture forms in our minds; with all the hundreds of digital connections professionals manage online, and with all million potential acquaintances available online, a cross-breeding between the coffee machine and the Mesenger could be – metaphorically – like having the coffee machine in stadium filled with thousands of people…
Imagine the potentials! Imagine the obstacles, the threats! What would actually happen to our way of being online with such a capability? Would we stand it? Would we be so information overloaded that we would hate it? Would we be addicted to it? How would the visual representation and the interaction interface actually be designed? Can it be designed with current technology?
What we suggest is to explore these questions by building a digital mock-up – a partly functional prototype – of such a tool. We imagine it being a demonstration of a tool which might be developed, or which might prove to be a nightmare. We do not have a clear idea how the tool would work or how it would be designed. The actual design of the prototype would be the core of this proposed project. But we have a dream image of how it possibly could work.
Imagine a computer interface with much larger screen area than today, and with an interface not using the mouse, but using touch screen or motion tracking of hand motions in the air instead. Imagine for example that your whole physical desktop was a computer screen. Imagine a windows-like interface, but using a much more layered, deeper and much more visually rich graphical display. The recent development of both the standard Windows and Macintosh operative systems have gone a few steps in this direction, and future developments have been tentatively hinted at both in actual prototypes and in science fiction scenarios such as Minority report and The Island. Imagine that when using this computer interface, you have access to a combined communication based on for example Messenger, Skype and Facebook, but with souped-up capabilites; a social networking software on steroids. Instead of simple icons as in Messenger, you see live video feeds or photographic images of the people you are connected with. You have for each person a diversity of information presented. Instead of just seeing of the person is online, you see different visual representations of for example how long time the person have been online, what documents the person is working on, and maybe most important, what web site does the person use right now, what keywords have the person recently used in Google, and so on. The closeness of your own latest keyword searches and the other persons keywords searching could for example be represented by “distance”; the more close the web usage is, the closer the person appears to be on screen. Finally, you do not only see the persons directly connected to you, but in a fashion similar to LinkedIn and similar social networking softwares, you see people connected to your connections. As a sea of faces, constantly shifting, everyone constantly available for a quick chat via text, audio or video.
The purpose would not be surveillance, even if the risks of improper usage looms large. The purpose would be to attempt a digital re-creation of the chance meetings at the coffee machine. Instead of meeting around the coffee, you meet around a web site that you suddenly visit at the same time as a second-connection to one of your own colleagues, and that triggers a connect.
That is actually what it would be all about; triggering contacts. That is the advantage of the coffee machine; it constantly triggers old and new contacts with people close. And it is also the disadvantage with the current social networking softwares; when your social network have been established on Facebook, on LinkedIn and in Messenger, what happens then? Usually not much. So the question is, could social networking be transformed into a new shared virtual space, where online social interactions actually becomes even more fluent, dynamic and fruitful?