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.