New Civilization News: Patterns in Virtual Spaces    
 Patterns in Virtual Spaces25 comments
21 Jun 2002 @ 01:52, by Flemming Funch

It is very interesting how we perceive meaning in the way things are arranged. Different spaces will have different functions based on how they are arranged in relation to other spaces.

A classic book on this is "A Pattern Language" by Chris Alexander, who's an architect, which lays out how many different patterns in how spaces are arranged will affect what is likely to happen in those spaces. He is talking about physical buildings, but similar principles apply to virtual spaces.

In a physical house, different things go on in the hallway than in the living room or in the bedroom. The more intimate spaces are traditionally placed further into the house, so one sort of graduates from one to the other. Even if the rooms weren't labeled, and even if they were all furnished the same, the arrangement of the spaces would give a certain intuitive sense of what would happen where.

As an example of a virtual space, this article appears in my news log. That's a virtual space. However, how people think about this space depends a good deal on how they got here.

When I made the program that displays the news log I was thinking of it as a tool for an individual to report on his or hers activities and ideas. And I assume that the person would want to communicate to the world that way. I.e. people might hear about this person, look them up in a search engine, and end up with their news log, where they can see what this person is up to.

But, in this case, one of the primary places that this news log is accessible from is in the member area of the New Civilization Network. And it is listed amongst maybe 30 other news logs, in a way that makes it easy to see where the most recent action was amongst those 30 logs. There's also a combined view, which shows everything in all those logs, all added together.

That positioning is likely to make a lot of readers think of those news logs as a unit of sorts, or a community. That is in part because there are so few logs there that it is actually possible for most people who go there to keep up with all the postings and all the comments in all the logs. If there were 3000 logs, quite different things would happen.

But the fact that one can jump in and out of this little group of logs very easily, and the fact that they're decorated in very similar ways, and that one can read along without even noticing what log something is posted in - all of that adds up to a sense of a homogenous whole.

What comes along with that is a certain collective picture of the perceived community. People will start making assumptions about the standards of the community, and they will frown on people who appear to break the picture. If one person doesn't allow comments, the others might start talking, and some might want to force that person to play by the same rules. Or if there are children who are reading these logs, but one person decides to post X-rated stuff in his log, others would have a big problem with it. All because there's the perception that this is one community.

If a news log was only available by finding and viewing a person's profile first, and there was no one listing of available news logs, the participants would have a quite different sense of how the news logs related to each other. They probably wouldn't perceive that they relate to each other.

Out on the net lots of people have various forms of web logs. Community typically forms more deliberately, by people referring to each other in their news logs. Some people will also put a listing in their side bar of which other logs they themselves are watching. So, a group of news logs that frequently refer to each other will form a sort of community, even if they aren't hosted the same place and even if they use different software.

There are sites on the net that aggregate web logs. I.e. they gather all postings together in a combined log. But typically they're so large, with hundreds of postings every hour, that nobody who reads them will ever think of all those logs as one community with one standard.

So, the number of items is a significant factor. If you're in a space where a few dozen people show up regularly, you're quite likely to try to get to know them, and if there's nothing else on the program, you might start banding together and develop some common ideas. But you wouldn't do that if a million people were coming through that space.

There's also the phenomenon that if something is visible at all, it starts getting a certain significance. If something is measured in any kind of numeric way, people will start relating to the numbers and try to make them bigger or smaller, or whatever appears best.

In the NCN member area there's a facility for recording positive relations one has to other people there. There's also a listing that shows people in the order of how many of those entries they have. It was meant as a way of finding the most reliable people most easily. However, the mere sight of the listing will tend to start competition, in order to improve one's position. And it starts jealousy and suspicion amongst people on the list.

If we put six chat rooms next to each other, and they're all equally easily accessible, then it doesn't matter much what they're labeled, or whether different rules are posted for them, most people will perceive them as being pretty much the same thing with the same rules.

It is much harder to create a sense of space on the web than in the physical world. In part because it is so easy to jump between spaces with links, and in part because they're just stuff in a window on a computer screen, so you don't get all the other perceptions that are associated with physical space.

That makes it rather tricky to try to create a functional shared space for diverse groups of people. You know, one structure that will house many different kinds of people, who don't all work the same or think the same.

In a physical building things would tend to sort themselves out fine with an open space model, as long as there's space enough and people enough. The people who want to drink beer and talk about sports would go to the bar. The people who want to dance will go down in the basement where the stereo is. Some people might sneak into a bedroom and have sex. The people who want to discuss things would go into a big room suitable for that. If there is a mood for several discussions, they would split up into separate groups. And they would probably stay where they were a good deal of the time. It would be possible for somebody to be a butterfly and jump around between the different spaces, but it would be quite obvious how they were different, and most people would intuitively respect that. Like, you would apologize and quickly close the door if you accidentally popped your head into a room where something more private was happening.

In a virtual space, it is much harder to make it intuitively functional. Lots of people will assume that everything going on at one website is sort of the same stuff, and that it is meaningful to jump around between all the available spaces and say and do pretty much the same kind of things.

It is a very good thing to have a space where community forms. But it can also be a big problem if community forms in places where it doesn't quite fit. Or if it forms in such a way that people never quite make it to where they were headed.

Imagine a big building, like a highrise, where different things go on on different floors. Financing is on the 10th floor, engineering in on the 15th, the bar is in the basement, etc. But the building is new and not very many people have moved into those various departments. So, people are hanging out in the lobby. And if anybody new comes in, somebody will say hi and engage them in conversation. And nobody really gets any further, but people start to get to know each other, and a sort of community forms. And there isn't really more people than what fits in the lobby, so it kind of seems to fit.

But people never really made it to where they were really headed. Nobody takes the elevator. And if they do, they'll realize that the engineering department is empty, so they come back down and hang out where the crowd is. But the thing is that all of those people aren't really there for the same reason. They might try to work together, but it doesn't get very far, because, after all, they're all standing in the lobby, and they didn't have the same things in mind.

There's the phenomenon in a virtual space that the most general easily accessible places become the main places. Or maybe it is when they aren't clearly marked as being the hallway, rather than the destination. Either way, the result becomes that a group of people end up in a cramped space, trying to do different things, and not really having the means for doing it.

A big thing might be that issue of how large or small the numbers are. We seem to gravitate towards communities of a certain size. Too much or too little doesn't work so well.

If you walk into a space and thousands of people are there, that doesn't work for you, so you look for a smaller grouping of people you can fit into. And if you look into a space and there are too few people to do anything with, you would tend to move on as well.

At any rate, these are important factors to consider when designing spaces. But there are no exact formulas, and I don't necessarily know them. I have over time been successful in arranging things in various settings so that people come together, but I often fail to inspire the things to happen that I was intending.


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25 comments

21 Jun 2002 @ 03:35 by ming : Changing Structures
I'm sure. And it would of course be a bit pretentious of the designer of any structure to try to control what people actually do with it after it has been built. It might often be best to persuade the designer to retire, rather than trying to keep meddling in things. People do what they feel like doing with the structures they're in, and that has a validity of their own. Sometimes things will sponteneously happen that are much better than what any designer had in mind. Those are the things I find particularly fascinating. But I still think it is a meaningful pursuit to try to design spaces that work better.  


21 Jun 2002 @ 05:13 by ming : Misunderstanding
Jazzolog, I still haven't discovered why you find most things I say somehow hostile to you and what you stand for. If I write an article about my thoughts and my passion for being of better service by making spaces that work for people, you still somehow find sinister agendas in that. I'm trying hard to make this space work the best possible way for the people who come here or who might come, in order to give them the maximum freedom in using the tools for what they need and want, and creating the maximum synergy between the things that are going on. What part of it is telling you that you're not allowed to do things??

Part of the misunderstanding might be that you almost always think I'm talking about the conditions in the member area and the people who're currently there. But, even though I use examples taken from there, I was really talking about "Patterns in Virtual Spaces", a rather general and abstract subject.  



21 Jun 2002 @ 05:17 by ming : Comments
And, no, comments are not only viewable by members. It depends on the settings the individual members have set up. Individual member logs that are public are listed in this page: [link] and have individual URLs that can be linked from anywhere on the net. And some of those have comments.  


21 Jun 2002 @ 08:04 by jstarrs : Richard...
It may be helpful if you state exactly what are your demands/position?
Shakti has done that a few times on her logs and it works very, very well. Very clear & concise and people know where they stand. I'm confused by your dialogue with Ming. What do YOU want? (meaning, I don't think asking Ming who he thinks he is at the moment will bring any light in here).
Jeff  



21 Jun 2002 @ 08:55 by jstarrs : Hey Richard
I thought we were all buddies...except think who thought Flemming is a self-adoring ass-hole? LOL!  


21 Jun 2002 @ 14:40 by ming : Heheh
Yeah, maybe I really am. Let me go and look in the mirror and see if I can understand why I'm so great...

Jazzolog, why did you remove your comments here again? It makes this conversation look a bit strange, like some people are talking with the air.  



22 Jun 2002 @ 00:39 by shawa : Vey interesting entry
Very, very interesting entry, Ming. I´ve been experimenting with creating different spaces in the Member Area. And I´ve also had to set priorities, discriminate between "chat" (glorified or not, another distinction) and "goal". The Newslogs are starting to form a community of sorts, yet the need for FLOW is still number one, not to mention linking the real projects *out there* etc. The whole *show* is so fascinating that I´m still here, after a few months, and I don´t see an end to my membership. What with all the different spaces I´m trying, I always find what I need at a specific time. So the *House of Mirrors*, despite some of its shortcomings, is essentially a very, very valuable tool for people who are clear about their aim (towards a *new* civilization). People who are less clear, and somehow bump into *community* accidentally as it were, are in a learning process, too. So all in all, you´re doing a good job,Ming. And I´m sure everything could be improved technically. As I am interested in the *human factor*, my process is being super-abundant.  


25 Jun 2002 @ 09:29 by chaiyah : Form Follows Function
...There are only N number of functions that can occupy a person's attention at one time, in one space.
...Few of us can master the One Man Band concept, although we can think simultaneously with feelings and movements.
...Feng shui is an attempt to put order to place by initiating an energy template first, and then building the environment to suit the energy template, so it stays PUT.
...In that way, a correctly-articulated garden will never be taken over by a raucous party, nor a dining room become a playground.
...I think we Americans are more like Islam in that respect--we tend to use anyspace for anything, and only "straighten up" for formal occasions.  



25 Jun 2002 @ 09:31 by chaiyah : NCN Today.
Dear Fleming. I've been gone for five years and just come back. As a matter of form and function, so far I'm not lost on this site, and the possibilities for interaction appear to be tremendous. Great job of placement!  


25 Jun 2002 @ 18:01 by ming : Not being lost
Good to see you back compania/chaiyah. And good to hear you aren't getting lost here.

Anyway, I'm working on an overhaul of the layout of everything on the NCN site. I'll have to test it on some real people along the way, of course, to check whether the feng shui is right.  



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