Sociable Affordances

In the previous section we have developed ideas about the nature of enterprise, with an emphasis on sociality in the enterprise context. We turn now to a discussion of information and communication technologies (ICT). In particular we are interested in specific ways that ICT can be used to support the socializing function in human communities. We consider sociable technology to be any ICT that is applied to help “coordinate the coordination of our doings”, to borrow a phrase from Maturana.

Again, as in the enterprise domain, we take an architectural approach to analyzing the domain of socializing affordances  in order to help understand the dimensions of ICT capabilities. As we move deeper into the 21st Century evidence from literature and experience reveals the unexpected power of socializing technologies to enhance and catalyze new ways of pursuing life and work.


Before diving into the details of the emerging socially-oriented technologies, let’s take a look at a bit of ICT history to set the stage. This is easy to do, since the history of enterprise use of ICT is relatively brief. Business computing is traceable back the emergence of the COBOL language and the IBM System 360 in the 1960s. The emergence of databases of computerized records, separate from the programs that operated on the data, was a huge step forward in the ability to maintain and access histories of transactions. Accounting for business conditions has become possible at a fraction of the cost and with much greater functionality since it has been addressed by computerized applications. The accounting function has spread further into the enterprise, through the shop floor and out into the supply chain, as the cost of computing has plummeted and as computers began to talk to each other in the late 1970s. The flip side of the supply chain is the customer relationship, and major software vendors address that aspect of business, as well. Today, with the Internet and a new generation of middleware technologies, these applications are becoming more interactive and readily available. The current generation of business software is moving toward service-oriented architectures (SOA) whereby software functionality is distributed across the network, and invoked on demand by any other software that is enabled to interact with the service.

We mentioned customer relationships above, as a significant ICT application area. Customer relationships in business can be quite sociable. Lunches and golf outings are the proverbial social interactions of the business enterprise. But customer relationship management (CRM) software is anything but an appealing manifestation of sociability. Screens of text and pop-up windows are pretty utilitarian and dry. Still, these relationship management applications, whether the relationships are with customers, suppliers, or employees, are one form of sociable technology.

In recent years we have witnessed a new phenomenon in ICT as the Internet has become virtually ubiquitous. Enabled by the existence of bandwidth, and the standards of the World Wide Web, the technologies known as Web 2.0 have been emerging. People are pretty familiar with blogs, less so with wikis and tagging software. It is hard to avoid Web 2.0 applications that are native to the Web, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Flikr, YouTube, etc.

Sociability-Supporting Affordances

In the section that follows, we will lay out a set of affordances that the Web now provides, which can be brought together into mashups of functionality that work together to provide business applications, and even whole businesses that are largely enabled on-line. Above we mentioned service-oriented architectures that allow technology to interoperate (be social) with other technology, but that is not our focus here. We are focusing on technological capabilities that are good for the projection of self, including personality dimensions that one chooses to accentuate, and for the ability to collaborate around projects and various work and play activities.

Purposes to be Served

When we think about ICT that supports sociality, we are primarily talking about projection of self and collaborative work. There can be any number of motivations for reaching out and interacting with other people via ICT, including instruction, entertainment, and persuasion. We see people projecting various levels of insight into themselves as subjects, including their relationships at work, professional affiliations, and friends, as indications of their social networks. In the enterprise, there are many opinions about how much of this social insight is helpful, or even appropriate, but experience suggests that working relationships that have the personal dimension can produce enhanced productivity and innovation through a kind of mind meld based on shared interests and trust. The focus of interest for social networks includes cohort membership, such as alumni groups, and various activities, hobbies, and sports.

There is one additional point to be made about sociality. In the enterprise we are talking about the human interrelationships in formal and informal groups and communities. This is not a judgment on the worthiness of that behavior. There can be social interactions in enterprises that have asocial or even downright anti-social outcomes and consequences, depending on one’s point of view. An Army platoon behaves in a highly social manner in the middle of a firefight, but the enemy would not regard that behavior in a positive light.

An Architecture of Affordances

In this section we list a number of generic ICT capabilities that are available to Web 2.0 applications and businesses, and consequently have special relevance in a social context.  This section covers a number of types of technology that are socially interesting. We say “types of technology” advisedly, because this is not about particular products or applications, but rather the kinds of functionality from which social applications can be assembled. This list spans from very generic and foundational capabilities to more complex and higher technical functionality. In each case we define the capability and focus on how it supports social interaction, such as effective communication, projection of self, and workplace collaboration.

We also want to remember the difference between architecture and characteristics. As we vary the architectural elements, we bring into our model different sets of characteristics that we can talk about. Similarly, as we register characteristics that we want to capture, the architectural structure of our model will have to change to accommodate variations in characteristics of interest.

Some very basic building blocks are required for sociable technology.  These are generic enough that they are needed for other, less sociable ICT applications. At the same time there are many other generic ICT capabilities we could mention that are not so relevant from a social perspective, such as the obvious computing functions of performing mathematical operations, sorting, windowing, etc.

The ability to store and retrieve data in various forms can provide persistence that is needed for the continuity of social relationship. File service and document sharing are variations on storage and retrieval, and can be selected based on the depth and complexity of the social relationships being supported. Versioning can be important for collaborative work where the object of the work is some kind of document that various parties are working on together.

Basic internet technology provides various mechanisms to track interactions through access data that is accumulated by web servers. It is pretty much automatic that a web site will capture data on the hits that come to the site, and where they come from. A more sophisticated function is available to track click-throughs where a user not only visits a site, but follows a link that is provided by that site to still another site. On the other side, cookies provide the ability for the user, and others, to know the history of sites that have been visited. The data about user interactions can be used to track and enhance social interaction for purposes of research, marketing, and group effectiveness.

Consideration of content types is important to the design of sociable software. For our purposes we consider the basic types as textual, graphical, and audio. Text (and numerics) have been the staples of computing. But in the Internet era, graphic content has taken on a more visible (pun intended) role in application design. In the social domain, the ability to project images and voice is very important to provide the human dimension. It is also important to note that the two modes of still vs. behavioral content have an impact on sociality.  Text is intrinsically still, and audio is intrinsically active. Graphic content can be either (still photos and other pictorial material, videos of live or animated subjects). The canonical realm of the active graphic is YouTube, and the moving picture with audio is fast becoming an expected form of content wherever the social intersects the enterprise.   

To the extent that ICT is a medium for social interaction, it is critical that content from people be accessible to other people. A key to this is simply the ability to find content. This requires some form of search, which is a standard function that has been implemented many times, and most successfully by Google. There are various forms of search, but the basic function is that content can be found based on text that it contains. A more proactive way to help accessibility is some form of classification scheme. The basic scheme in wide use is tagging, whereby keywords are consciously assigned to some content, either by the author or by subsequent users. More sophisticated classification is sometimes accomplished with ontologies and controlled vocabularies constitute a form of standardized semantics. Complementing this structural support is the capability of text analytics, which seeks to make sense of large bodies of textual content. People who say things in a social content definitely want to be heard, and these semantic technologies can help make that so.

Boundaries are important considerations in the social domain, as we have seen earlier. Internet technology provides zones of availability on a very large-grained scale. An intranet application is available only to selected individuals, such as employees or business partners. An extranet is a site dedicated to a particular enterprise, but open to the general user for purposes of learning about or interacting with the enterprise. The Internet itself is open to all comers. These are important distinctions to delineate the scope of sociality that is supported by an enterprise. But finer-grained access control based on user IDs, passwords and other identity controls, such as biometrics, is often desired to help create the membrane of community boundaries.

On the other side of the coin, boundary-spanning is a fundamental social affordance. Links, both inward, outward allow communities to span from their virtual presence to others. Internet linkage provides a high degree of flexibility and control that can be used by leaders and members of social groupings within and across enterprises.

The communications side of ICT enables linkage within and among communities. There are key modalities to consider with respect to social communications. This includes broadcast where some entity sends out messages to anyone who is able to listen, narrowcast, where messages go out to a limited set of potential recipients, pointcast where messages are directed individually or in tailored bundles to an individual recipient, peer-to-peer, where computers communicate directly with each other, rather than mediated by a 3rd party server, publish and subscribe (pub/sub), where both users and creators express interest in categories of content and make contacts based on common categories, pull, that allows users to set up an RSS feed (for example) that automatically sends links to new and changed content from specified sources.

The modes just mentioned convey the general sense of an author or performer with an audience of some kind. A more fully social experience is multidirectional and less structured, and can be supported by various forms of interaction technologies. Interaction here means a back and forth process similar to a verbal conversation between two or more people together similar to normal spoken conversation, but mediated by ICT. When enabled by ICT, such interaction has various alternative degrees of freedom. Interaction can be accomplished in real-time mode, such as instant text messaging (IM), or in asynchronous mode, such as embedded comments in a blog, e-mail, phone tag etc. Interactivity can be two-way or with multiple participants as in teleconferencing or web conferencing. It is important to note that this whole class of affordances is optional, such that one might design a supposedly social application in with which no feedback or interaction channels are provided. This raises an interesting question of how social such an application would be, in actuality.

Threading of interactivity is important to maintain the continuity of a conversation to help build an ongoing social relationship. Threads are possible for text chat of course, but other modes like voice and video can allow for threaded chains of responses (a video posted in response to another video, etc.)

Based on the more generic capabilities outlined above, there are various more complex ICT services that are useful for social activities in the enterprise. Things like calendar functions, and mechanisms for managing work allocation, such as project management, are common. In many socially oriented applications, groups can be defined, with subgroups, roles and responsibilities of members, various rules of conduct, shared property and access rights, etc. Workflow and group management often take advantage of automated origination of messages and replies. These may be meant to convey more or less an illusion of human communication. These can be helpful or annoying depending on the design of the application and its match to the culture of the enterprise. At an even higher level of automated support is the whole area of ICT-aided decision-making.

Social technologies are providing the ability to express an opinion, as well as ways to indicate that it is an opinion, rather than a fact. A structured opinion might be the rating of any possible thing, from a short video to our work together on an extended project. A variation on rating is ranking, which asks that a population of choices be put in order, like the finishing positions of a horse race. These ratings and rankings may be used on a personal basis (such as matching preferences) or they can be collective where gathering opinions across populations of individuals is the goal. Ratings and rankings may lead directly or indirectly to rewards. Socially oriented systems may benefit from having the ability to support rewards. One of the common reward structures is a reputation system, where at least part of the reward is public recognition and esteem. A generalization of rewards is to consider them all as different forms of money as payment and settlement mechanism, or more generally as an operating system protocol for threading and registering transactions among various forms and states of value creation.

As we’re winding up this list of socially-oriented ICT capabilities, we’ll do a quick nod to aesthetics and commerce. A key factor in social settings is atmosphere and style. The ICT environment is no different, and the web has brought forth a spectrum of visual design. This is automated to a degree in those applications that use visual themes called “skins”. Aesthetic touches to technology are big business in their own right, as witness ring tones for mobile phones. Today’s public versions of social applications tend to be plagued with the commercialism of advertisements, in the hopes that visitors will click through and make purchases.

A final consideration for the moment (not that this list is exhaustive) is openness to integration. This means that one of our criteria for evaluating any technology is how much it is able to be integrated into more complex applications via APIs, plug-ins, mashups, software services, or whatever you want to call them. It is through these interfaces, as well as advancing waves of standardization, that more and more integrated and richly functional social tools are coming into being. This is the result of a kind of wikinomics  process whereby an open community, including users or customers, can participate in design of the product or service they will consume.

All of these affordances are available in various combinations to help support the social aspects of enterprise. They supplement other forms of business communication.
All of this begs the questions: “Where do you go to hang out?” and “Where would you go to have a celebration?” In the physical world people can be observed congregating in certain places on a regular basis. Whether it is a coffee shop on the street, a bar, tavern or pub, a break room in the workplace, a cafeteria, the proverbial water cooler, people manage to find places to hang out. A lot of important things happen where people hang out.

From a sociable ICT perspective people hang out in chat rooms, where notoriously a lot of the hanging out has sexual content or overtones.  They hang out in a very limited sense in interactive blogs that foster conversation through persistent comment streams. But they really hang out in virtual worlds. An answer to the second question about where to hold a ceremony, one good answer is also virtual worlds. We will look more deeply into these questions in the next section.

Virtual Worlds

What do we mean when we say virtual worlds? This is a term in use in the market, and it is roughly equated to terms such as Metaverse, virtual environment, 3D Internet, etc. The term Metaverse is taken from a novel by Neil Stephenson,  where it describes a kind of parallel universe where people engage as an extension of their physical lives.

From a technological perspective virtual worlds grew out of the gaming technology called MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role playing games). This describes a genre of online games that are played within a simulation platform that can support large numbers of players interacting with each other in fictional settings such as fantasy, war, historical episodes, and space missions. These games feature 3D virtual reality that provides a setting for players to interact with each other and with the playing environment through the use of so-called avatars.

A surprising development in the last couple of years has been the emerging usage of virtual worlds for pursuit of business and educational goals. In other words, serious use of technology that had been developed for entertainment. Some of the platforms involved in the serious use of VW include Second Life, Active Worlds, Forterra, Wonderland, Qwaq, Cobalt. The serious use is beginning to mirror the enterprise use of the Web with its own intraworlds to match intranets as private zones, extraworlds that match extranets as projections of enterprise content into the public, and fully public worlds that mirror the Internet itself. There is currently a lack of standards to allow worlds to interoperate, but many minds are working on that problem.

Virtual Worlds for Enterprising Sociality

Virtual worlds supply for the social enterprise some new places to hang out, and some new places to hold celebrations and other ceremonies.

The author draws on personal experience here, staring with a project that caused me to assume an avatar in Second Life. This project built the observation that people regularly rehearse complicated tasks and events, such as stage productions and sporting events. The insight was that there is also value in rehearsing complex team tasks in enterprise services, such as preparing for a client presentation or working on technical problems with teams that are widely distributed geographically. This notion of rehearsal services fostered some exploration of various collaborative technologies, and I was elected to do some due diligence on the appropriateness of Second Life, as representative of virtual spaces more generally. I was surprised at how compelling the social interactions turned out to be, based on the psychological suspension of disbelief about being co-present with colleagues in a virtual location. This rehearsal work is just one early experiment in using 3D technology to facilitate serious business interaction. As we will see, there are many ways of using the compelling immersive social presence of the virtual environment for enterprising purposes.

Since my initial introduction to virtual worlds (VW) I have had many adventures in the virtual environment, including helping to organize conferences where all the attendees are avatars meeting in a virtual space.  I have gotten involved with the arts and education communities, with an emphasis on the work in virtual libraries. This has led to speaking engagements, travel, and leadership positions in groups that I otherwise would have never gotten involved with. This all supports a perception that a virtual environment is a rich communication channel that can support serious pursuits in a uniquely immersive way.

Virtual World Purposeful Architecture

This section provides a rudimentary taxonomy of how people can use, and are using, virtual spaces. The terms “manner of use” and “focus of use” form a high-level category differentiation between the ways the technology is used (manner) and the purpose of use, or what it is being used for (focus).

Manner of use: Manner of use speaks to the way people are using the virtual world technology. The fundamental distinction in manner of use is between animated and non-animated uses. Non-animated usage is about artifacts and objects, whereas animated usage involves activities and behavior.

–Non-animated (artifactual) There are some beautiful artifacts being produced by people using virtual worlds (e.g. archaeological replicas of ancient Rome, etc.). A three-dimensional matrix can be constructed along the following dimensions, which helps to analyze the basic dimensions of what VW artifacts represent:

Utilitarian objects or aesthetic creations

Past, present or future objects as illustrative of history or projection and prediction

Real world renderings or fanciful creations

–Animated The animated dimension of virtual worlds includes all types of human activity as represented or conveyed through the VW medium. This is interesting to people who are focused on performance. These people are often thinking of doing collaborative work in virtual spaces

Simulation of activities under programmed or robotic control

Person-driven performance, in the sense that the activity is based on avatars being controlled in real time by various people. A performance may be done for an audience, and has constrained collaboration.

Collaboration among people who are working together toward a common goal. This can take the form of:
•    Simple meetings or conferences where the collaboration is primarily communication of information
•    Joint development, where people meet in a virtual space to create intellectual content

Focus of use: The focus of use tries to articulate what enterprises are using VW for, in the sense of support for business or other purposes.
–Mode of engagement
•    Enterprise that uses VW– Virtual worlds are used in conjunction with other activities. IBM’s promotion of Sam Palmisano’s announcement from Beijing was an example of using VW in the course of conducting business, but not actually conducting business within the virtual space.
•    Enterprise that is within VW– The virtual world is the place to conduct business. IBM has experimented with a virtual Business Center in public Second Life. This has provided experience with conducting business in a virtual space, with real employees available through avatars.
•    Enterprise that is about VW– This occurs when virtual space itself is the business opportunity. An example is IBM’s business relationship with Hoplon Infotainment to provide mainframe servers to run their gaming engine. In cases like this the business opportunity is about VW technology and supplying the technology is the opportunity.

–Issues addressed – This list is probably not inclusive, but indicates some of the kinds of business opportunities people are pursuing using virtual spaces
•    Technology – Hardware, software, and hosting for VW. This is an obvious opportunity for ICT companies to supply hardware, software, connectivity, and hosting for virtual worlds
•    Physical world simulations – Power plants, refineries, etc. This tends to be both artifactual and active, but not social in the sense of people communicating within virtual spaces
•    Marketing -- A lot of companies are using virtual spaces for a kind of coolness factor. This can include branding, both in the sense of displays of marketing material and interactive events, such as live music in Second Life.
•    Market research - There is also the expectation that because virtual worlds can track avatar movements and attention that virtual spaces can be used for interesting forms of market research
•    Product sales – This is about using a virtual world as channel for real-world products. Some people think virtual spaces may become a strong channel for real-world product sales, but so far that potential has not been realized to any great extent.
•    Services seem to provide about the best opportunity for enterprises to use virtual spaces, since they are intrinsically about people doing things together.
•    Public services by jurisdictions, non-profit, NGOs
•    Business services, such as accounting, law, consulting, and technical services
•    Personal services, including medical, fashion, personal shopping
•    Education – Academic institutions and corporate education
•    Travel-cost offset –This is starting to gain a high profile as more and more people experience meetings and conferences in-world, and realize companies can save a lot of money by reducing both commuting and long-distance travel costs.

These specific business purposes crosscut the other dimensions of this taxonomy. In other words, we could look inside any business using virtual space, and potentially see examples of various aspects of the focus and manner of use as described above. Based on the specific business functions being supported, there may be an emphasis on activity over artifact or vice versa. These all become design decisions on the part of business architects of these various enterprises.

Functional Architecture of Virtual Worlds

The following is a set of functional capabilities that are common to virtual worlds as they are emerging today.
•    Programming and scripting languages
•    Creation and inventory of virtual objects
•    Physics simulation and movement, including walking and running, flying, riding virtual vehicles, and teleporting
•    Virtual territory, including land formations, sharding and land controls
•    Avatar management, including avatar animation, avatar appearance and customization (shapes, clothing, etc.), and avatar name space
•    Communications, local and long (virtual) distance, and including text chat, instant messaging (IM), voice, and streaming audio and video
•    Social groups, including formal groups with roles and powers for members, as well as informal schisming
•    Virtual world economy, sometimes penetrating into real world national economies, which requires a monetary scheme, object ownership, the ability to sell and buy objects, real estate transactions and property tax
•    Application serving inside a VW, which is the key to doing real collaboration around content