Adrian Chan

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Adrian Chan is a researcher specializing in social software and 'relations'.

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Social software blog at

Index to writings in pdf format, at

Index to social software postings, at


Adrian Chan, a Web 2.0 consultant and user experience expert, is currently engaged in an effort to define and advance "social interaction design"--a mashup of UI, user experience, and interaction design with social interaction and communication theories. The field merges his expertise as a web developer for ten years with his ongoing passion for theoretical approaches to social interaction, media, language, psychology and anthropology.

The web and its connected technologies and devices has become embedded in our daily routines. It is an integral part of corporate practices and organization. It is no longer just a means of searching for and obtaining information, but is a medium in which we contribute our own content, establish an online presence, and connect to others. Social interaction design provides the conceptual framework by which the builders of Web 2.0 can move from a focus on users to a focus on social practices.

The coming Web 2.0, the "live web," as it is often called, will offer continuity where there was discontinuity, durability in place of disruption, persistence in place of closure, iteration in place of interruption. It will also offer social networks of varying depth and intensity, from thin networks of convenience to rich family and friendship circles.

The driving assumption so far has been to cultivate these relations and connections around similarity. We create "trust circles" out of friends networks. We list our favorite movies, music, books and web sites, and are recommended others that are similar. We use online profiles to present a biographical summary of ourselves, and set our preferences for intearction and contact with others.

All of these practices are fundamentally social in nature, not just individual (the user-centric approach must go!). To grasp the coming Web we need to think dynamics not static interests, relations not object and entities, conversation and talk in place of posts and messages, and ambiguity and meaning not information. When a mass communication and interaction medium like the internet is taken up by a society, it ceases to exist as a stand-alone technology or tool: it has become a practice, a production, and a means. Practices are fundamentally social, and as such accommodate the unique and secondary effects of individual and cultural behaviors, of paired and social exchanges, of what is said and what is accomplished or coordinated in the saying of it.

Adrian's current projects include consulting to social software companies and Web 2.0 companies, blogging, theorizing, and UI design.

Adrian has been a web developer since 1995. Prior to that he was a content producer for CDRom projects that included game and educational titles. He has written a number of curriculum units for use in social studies classrooms, and was the content designer for the laser disc teacher's edition of Ken Burns' Civil War. Adrian is a regular participant in the Philosophical Reading Group at Stanford (hosted by Sepp Gumbrecht and Robert Harrison). He lives in San Francisco.

Social Interaction Design and the Social Web:

--Communication Technology and Web 2.0. Technologies of communication are, for me, the most interesting frontier of technical progress. Communication is the most profoundly human distinction. It is the glue that binds society, and at once the source of conflict and a means for its resolution. Communication, as well as the human relationships that are spun out of it, is fragile and worth our care, concern, and protection. And yet we know so little of how communication technologies might transform human relationships, social relations, and cultural practices. Surely all is not the same in the non face-to-face world? Surely the reproduction of ethical values, or social mores, of cultural perceptions, facts, and fictions is affected by their technical production, just as an image is magnified by a lens, a voice by the phone, a face by its absence from the IM window... There is a noble purpose to social interaction design: putting the human face on technology.

--Proximities. If you want to know what a communication technology does for your life, turn it off. It's not the technical that's interesting; its the individual and social practices into which the technical becomes embedded. Communication technologies can only be understood in terms of these practices: messaging, talking, trading, dating, buying, selling, and so on all correspond to how we presence ourselves in the "virtual world."

I believe technologies of communication fundamentally change our proximity to one another. We need a sociology of proximity based not on spatial co-presence but tuned instead to the frequencies of virtual presencing. Presence negotiation (access to people, obtaining their attention, whether a person is there, and there for us) instead of physical presence. Temporal continuity through discontinuous participation. Being with others who aren't there, projections of self and the other, ambiguities of intent, of timing, and of fact..

Mediated proximity, proximity that is co-produced by these technologies of presence, produces a continuity in spite of our physical separation from on another. This continuity is a temporality. Proximity in the age of its technical production is not spatial, but temporal. Communication technologies connect us, spanning time and weaving a social fabric whose consistency obtains from us a "being there" for each other in time, but not space.

The organization of lived time is well known to sociologists as routines, "open states of talk", and durations (the persistence of relations, norms, events, and communication over time).

As individuals, we maintain our presence and proximity when we are not in the same place through communication. Not through images, or appearance, but by maintaining communication. TIME is the least understood dimension of any connective technology.

What does all this mean? What can we know and understand? Are there implications for society? Do our relationships change? Are we losing trust? The questions driving an examination of communication technologies are serious. But it is not our purpose to answer them here. Rather, we want to find out what happens when we use these technologies. When we turn to our phones, when we log on, text and email. We can identify some principal themes:

--Interaction dynamics. What happens when 2 or more people use a technology together? We get more than user-computer interaction; we get user-computer-user interaction.

Issues of communication (information capture, archiving, access, search, persistence, privacy, public/private).

Issues of interaction (gestural and paralinguistic handling, ambiguity, intimacies, timing, and of course self-presentation.

--Social systems. Social software sites, and now Web 2.0, can be categorized loosely as social systems. Culture, online community, groups, social networks, P2P phenomena--these and more are attributes of social systems. To understand them we have to think beyond the individual user experience and along lines of social practices instead. All of these involve: action coordination; in/formal communication; transactions; trust; boundaries; rhythms; speech as text. For this I use anthropology and sociology, mostly French, German, and British. Some ethno-methodology (as made famous by Xerox PARC). I'm big on applying Niklas Luhmann's systems theory here. Also Erving Goffman, Anthony Giddens, and Jurgen Habermas. A bit of Foucault and Bourdieu. Local thinkers like Kevin Kelly and Nicholas Negroponte. Some SNA (social network analysis) of course, though I find that its topological orientation describes portrays traces of relations, not their nature, and certainly not the experience of those having them.

--Talk systems. I profoundly believe that much of mediated communication and interaction must be understood as "talk." It's linguistically-mediated exchange. As such, I believe it is useful to consider Habermas' three truth claims: facticity, sincerity, and normative rightfulness. How are each of these tested when face to face interaction is displaced by a technical medium? We need to understand the stretch of talk, span of activity, and sequencing and seriality of activity in a mediated talk. Here I separate communication tools and interaction tools, the former being about capturing/archiving/searching/presenting contributions; the latter being about handling meanings, implications, emotional expression, timing, context, theme, and interaction dynamics of interactions. Communication tool is a tribe discussion. Private message is an interaction tool.

--Socially structured content. This is a new project, inspired by Marc Canter's structured blogging structured data formats. If Web 2.0 is going to be useful in the social sense, we need a framework of content types, their presentation modules, their sort by, filter by, link to organization. What happens when a site displays "Who's online now?" In contrast with other people content, such as "featured members," "most connected members" "friends of friends," and so on. It's important to distinguish contributors and contributions. Some Web 2.0 developments provide access to and flesh out the contributor, or person. Others, their contributions. We take an interest in people as well as in information, and each can provide a gateway to the tother. So if Web 2.0 is going to be more social, how can it best engage users in people and what they say. Designers should anticipate the phenomena they help to build. Architects understand light, space, mass, and volume. We need to do the same. All of this is based on idea that the designer can only influence participation, using first order design to steer second order effects. But any information onscreen informs what happens as populations grow, over time. In a word, we all know what would happen if LinkedIn were to allow member pictures.

--Psychology of Mediated Interactions. We use our communication technologies alone. Our experience surfing the web is still an immediate experience of a device. It only makes sense, then, that we project the "other" (person) into this "world." So I have started a project that I would like to be an A-Z of psychological experiences and transformations. Using the DSM (psychiatric diagnostic and statistical manual) and my own take on psychology, which is biased towards the British School of Object Relations, Transactional Analysis, and group dynamics, I'm interested in how SSNs, IM, chat, video chat, discussions, blogs, email, because they are asynchronous or near-synchronous, screen back our identities, defer confirmations and acknowledgments, permit the presence of "unratified participants" (e.g. lurkers), disrupt episodic talk, disturb turn-taking rules of conversation, undermine or inflate authority and position, etc. Do narcissists love SSN's for a reason?"

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