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thoughts and observations about design, information architecture and design history
Monday 05|29|06
On the nature of Identity

I have been thinking about Identity a lot lately. One of the things my team thinks about in relation to the Yahoo! Network is identity and how a person is represented across the websites. It got me thinking back to an essay I started to write back in 2001 about the same topic and I wondered if we know any more today than we did back then.

Posted by erin at 04:21 PM | in Community :: | Link

Wednesday 09|12|01
Giving Thanks

I am too astounded to speak. The day was spent glued to CNN, with a houseful of people, as we watched in horror as our fellow Americans were dying. None of us wanted to be alone, so we came together at my house. The tragic events of yesterday remind us all of how precious life is. How valuable our family and friends are. The last 24 hours for me have been filled with IMs, emails and phone calls as my personal network checks in. I came from the East coast, went to school in NY, grew up in a military house. I have tons of friends who work in Manhattan and in the DC area. Family friends in the Pentagon. So far, everyone has checked in, although there were some hours spent worrying. I am grateful to be here on the West Coast with my sister and thankful that my friends are ok. We have all been affected, no matter how far apart in distance we are.

Please donate to the Red Cross directly or via Amazon

Jason Kottke has great links and coverage from many personal perspectives.

Posted by erin at 02:25 PM | in Community :: | Link

Monday 09|10|01
Virtual Community: an idea out of control?

This article at talks about the failure of many companies with regard to community and building community. They cite Blue Mountain Arts as an example of a site billed as "Community" but in reality is a task based site like checking email, that has little "community" at all.

Posted by erin at 10:22 AM | in Community :: | Link

Monday 08|13|01
Design for Community - Real World Crashes into Virtual World and Back Again

Derek M. Powazek has fleshed out his Design for Communities book companion site. A recent article discusses the nature of the fourth wall in the realm of virtual communities.

He comments "Each of these projects challenges the assumption that connections formed in the virtual realm have to stay there. When users begin to think of relationships as real, no matter where they were formed, we'll know that the fourth wall has been smashed once and for all."

The concept of using the web and virtual communities to traverse the landscape between real world into online and back again is really interesting. As more and more projects and tools are created out there that enable this, the more entrenched and invisible the online realm and tools become in our lives. I think, that as makers of experiences and tools, that this blurred line between the two speaks to the success of the web as a cultural phenomenon.

Powazek mentions a variety or projects and experiences that range from more online immersive to online as enabler to real world experiences - as in the geocaching example. These are just a few examples of the blurred distinctions between the real and virtual worlds.

I like to think that the tools become just that, tools that enable other things to happen. It's the other things that are important. These are the relationships, the friendships, the exchanges, the stories, the sharing, etc. The tools have or are becoming invisible and are peripheral to the experience. They are not the point. So many of the things we (the developing community) have built over the last few years have primarily been about the tool or the technology and in some ways less about the intent or the needs of the person.

I am seeing some of this same transition in the types of things we are designing in my team, as the technology matures and as the expectations of the end users reach a higher level. People out there don't want to know about the technology, they don't want to fight with it, they just want it to make things easier to do, to reach out to others they wouldn't normally be able to reach and it all must be simple and powerful.

I think, as Derek notes, that it is important to note the successful transitions that are happening and learn from them. What is working? What isn't? Where are the boundaries blurred, what type of communities are more successful at this than others and why? It is important to learn and act on that learning and continue to push the edge between the two realms. After all, it really is real.

Posted by erin at 06:55 PM | in Community :: | Link

Tuesday 06|26|01
Community Collective

Was reading Derek Powazek's community book site and was sent off to this collection of must see Community sites from Shift magazine. It is an eclectic collection of sites - many referenced here over the last several months and includes Plastic, Slashdot as well as some blogs. Lots of things to spend late nights exploring and wondering if all these site really are community. Thanks Derek - can't wait for the book.

Posted by erin at 07:30 PM | in Community :: | Link

Wednesday 05|23|01
Interesting Research Groups at Microsoft

I have recently come across a couple of interesting groups that are part of the Microsoft Research programs. The Social Computing Group explores the social aspects of multi-user computer systems. The work includes multi-user social applications, social interaction, virtual worlds, trust and reputation, collaboration, and story telling. Pretty interesting stuff with info about the history of the group, examples and explanation of current projects and links to associated articles, presentations and papers. I think some of this is very relevant when researching how people behave within community spaces.

Another interesting group in Microsoft Research is the Collaborative and Multimedia Systems research group. These people are researching and exploring aspects of online communication, collaboration, and communities and how technology can improve and enable better access and involvement. Again links to papers, projects and other material is available here. I am most specifically interested in the work they are doing around this topic:

"Social Analysis of Online Communities: Interfaces to social cyberspaces, such as discussion boards, email lists and chat rooms, present limited information about the social context of the interactions they host. Basic social cues about the size and nature of groups, reputations of individuals and quantity and quality of their contributions are all missing. Discovery, navigation and self-regulation are growing challenges as the size and scope of these cyberspaces expand. The Netscan project uses sociological principles and data mining techniques to address these challenges for newsgroups and discussion boards. Interfaces built using this meta information provide incentive structures that can catalyze the online social spaces through competitive cooperation and increase content quality and user satisfaction."

This touches on some research I am currently doing around Identity - especially within online spaces - as well as just trying to create knowledge about the socialogical aspects of online group behavior. This information behind motivation and behavior can help us create better tools and spaces.

I think it is terrific that Microsoft is publishing this info that we all can benefit from. Of course, this is not everything and they don't expose how they are using all this information. But some sharing is better than none.

Posted by erin at 11:32 AM | in Community :: | Link

Saturday 05|12|01
Porn is Community?

Read the San Jose Metro this week (May 11) and came across Annalee Newitz 's "Work" column for the week. She states: "On the Internet, pornography and community go hand in hand, if you'll pardon my turn of phrase." And goes on to present good arguments as to why this is true. It is an interesting notion.

On a side note, Yahoo is in the process of evaluating their adult content and this includes their clubs and groups products. A couple of commentators have much to say on this. Annalee Newitz speaks out about this and a number of protest sites have cropped up. Now, I am not necessarily advocating porn, but the free service areas like Yahoo clubs, groups, photo albums - much like the ones we had at AltaVista - are probably populated with a large majority of adult and porn material. This is a large amount of traffic and a huge community. To remove this or make it impossilbe to find, seems very shortsighted for the company. Isn't there a better way to address the critics than a knee jerk reaction?

Posted by erin at 12:27 PM | in Community :: | Link

Monday 05| 7|01
What makes a site Community?

I was reading a thread on MetaFilter today where people were discussing the Webby Award nominees for Community and there was a lot of dissent over the definition of what makes a site a community.

I found it interesting that some people didn't think that if there were dollars involved or the site was mostly advertising driven that it didn't count as being a place for community. In my mind, community does not necessarily equal non-profit. I also believe that a site can have a community and be a community without that having been its first intention.

This whole discussion has me thinking again about what makes a community and where is the value to our audience in this as designers. What makes a successful community. If you build spaces like we do here at AOL or like the Community products at Yahoo and others (The Globe, Koz, Homestead etc) does that really make community? If you build the tools, will that empower people to come and create their own communities. How much is enough and when is the market saturated. Does making a homepage constitute community? The big commercial sites - Homestead, AOL, MSN, Yahoo GeoCities think so. Does self publishing and sharing with others consitute community?

What about all those sites nominated for a webby? BeliefNet and ChickClick have components that encourage community and group participation, but are they community sites? Are message boards enough to say "We have a community on our site?" Craig'sList is the eptitome of a people helping people - like the traditional co-ops in college towns, its success is solely on the people who contribute and participate in the postings - but it really is a large classifieds site. So is it really a community site?

This notion of Community seems to be a tricky one. As I posed in a past posting, does publishing for many to see, constitute community or does it take a two way conversation? Must the participants all be interested in the same things. I like to read many types of sites - Plastic, Slashdot, MetaFilter, PeterMe, Elegant Hack, Cnet, F***edCompany, Amazon, The Library of Congress Image Archives - but that doesnt mean I have anything in common with people who post/publish there other than the fact that we both visit the site. Is that enough or to have meaningful community spaces there must be more - real relationships with people coming back often and participating therefore creating a rich tapestry of information and sharing. I don't have the answers and it is interesting to see that others don't really either.

Posted by erin at 07:42 PM | in Community :: | Link | Comments (4)

Sunday 04|15|01
Thoughts about Community

I've been doing a lot of thinking about Community lately. It has been an interest of mine for a few years, but now that I am in a development group that only makes tools and services geared towards the Community space, I have been doing even more thinking and research along those lines. A lot has been written about how to make online Communities successful as well as how to make them better. What I have read has more to do with the dynamics of online programming - scheduling and programming events and activities for people to engage in - rather than how, as designers, do we make better tools for people. I think the phenomenon of Napster is an example of a successful enabling tool - even if the record industry would like it to be otherwise. And other peer-to-peer tools will eventually follow along.

Some of the research mentioned by Peter Merholz - That Sneaky Exponential - Beyond Metcalfe's Law to the Power of Community Building and Why Group Forming Matters is extremely interesting to keep in mind as we design and build community tools.

Derek Powazek (designer of the Blogger site) is currently working on a book about Design for Community and is exploring such topics as Moderation and Computers as Intimacy devices as well as other topics. I will be interested to see what he proposes are best practices and techniques to move the role of designer forward.

There are several levels of community - chat, message boards, groups / clubs, photo albums, polls, homepages, listservs- devices and "places" that fall into the community category. They each build on the next and in essence require more and more personal contributions to be successful. The concept of publishing - one to one, one to many and many to many seems to be one of the key components of the community definitions. A person publishing a web page - or a blog - hopes that people come and read the page. Other than looking at site logs, how can you be sure you aren't publishing in a vacuum? At what point does it become a "Community"? When someone besides you read it? If more than ten people read it? If they come back more than once?

Transforming that single publishing experience into a place where others can also participate - message boards, listservs - seems to be the first step into gathering real online communities. There are conversations and engagements. These types of experiences have been around a lot longer than the web has - usenet groups,ICQ and chat spaces. The site NuBlog has some critical words to say about the fact that analysts are just now getting the concepts that have been around for awhile.

I would like to believe that the tools surfacing in peer-to-peer products and places like, take these spaces a level further with the conversations being rated by other members - thereby elevating some people and their thoughts above others. In the long run will this create too much exclusivity or is there currently too much noise in the space for people to find conversations of quality therefore validating the necessity of such tools. Do these rating tools really help elevate the content and keep the conversations high quality? Careful watching of these sites and exploring how scalable and flexible the concepts and technology are when applied to other types of sites will help prove whether these ideas are valid or worthy.

And where does chat fit in? - at AOL, chat is king. There are thousands of chats going at any one time. AIM and ICQ also contribute to the real time conversation phenomena with AIM and ICQ being more focused on talking with people you know rather than the unknown element in a random chat room. What types of tools can be built to make this experience better? Does it need to be better? I have mused on this in earlier writings and still have no answer - although I have done a lot more research and found some interesting places to visit. The MIT Sociable Media Group is exploring technology and visualization of chat and chat environments. But these postings and papers are almost two years old. What progress is being made? How are these ideas being applied in real world situations? How do we make them scalable? Maybe you can't. The Chat Circles project is a visual experience to chat with small clusters of conversations visualized by color and the size of the circles. I wondered before how this could be applied to chats with hundreds or more people. Back in the space of AOL I am reminded that chat rooms can only have 24 people in them before rolling over to a new room. This small number is ideal for a concept like the circles. But is it really needed? Can an idea like this succeed on a large commercial site? Is it intuitive enough and easy enough to use? The people who chat are used to the non-sequiter appearance of conversations and have managed to "get it" for a long time now. How much change can you make people take if eventually it helps and improves their overall experience?

My sister points me to a site run by Sara Diamond, an artist and discourse theorist and researcher. Code Zebra is an experiment into the chat space - initially geared towards bringing scientists and artists together in conversation, it also brings to the table the concept of conversations and personas taking on patterns based on what you talk about and who you talk to. The patterns shift and change and grow as you participate. It's all very theoretical, backed by the imaginings of an artist, but it is very interesting in that each person develops a unique pattern that grows and changes as they interact with others. This idea is compelling and worth watching. Imagine if you could take an abstract representation of yourself with you into diffferent conversations and that as you converse, the representation changes and shifts and grows.

So much about chat and message boards...

Posted by erin at 11:14 PM | in Community :: | Link

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DUX—Five Lessons Learned

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AIGA Experience Design - past, present and future: An interview with Terry Swack and Clement Mok

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Learning from the Powers of Ten

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