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Providing Explicit Support for Social Constraints: In Search of the Social Computer

Ben Anderson
Dept. Computer Studies
Loughborough University of Technology
Leicestershire, UK

+44 (0)1509 222881



This short paper outlines an approach to the design and implementation of systems that explicitly support the use of social, rather than technological, methods of control. This approach draws on recent developments in the social sciences, particularly sociology and anthropology, and builds upon current work in the development of `Media Spaces' and other CSCW systems.


CSCW, system design, social norms, videoconferencing


As a number of recent authors in the fields of HCI and CSCW have noted, interaction and collaboration take place in the context of richly varying cultural and organisational norms and forms of behaviour ([2], [6], [10], [11] ). The exact nature of these norms is never static; social rules develop and change as organisations change personnel and practices so that what is considered acceptable behaviour is likely to evolve over time. In addition, `acceptable behaviour' is subject to the rapid and fluid changes of situation that are characteristic of everyday work practice, for example sifting through an individual's desk to find a paper may be acceptable in the context of working on a shared document, but may not be acceptable later that same day when that brief phase of work is finished. What may be considered appropriate behaviour by any particular individual is therefore the result of extremely complex interactions between organisational, social and highly context-specific factors.

Given such a conception, it is clear that computer systems designed to support or mediate everyday interaction must be able to support its extremely fluid, complex and context sensitive, i.e. `situated' [10] nature.


Current approaches to design tend to provide users with options for behaviour, based on models of social practices, that are embedded within the system itself. Thus Media Spaces are designed using models (or user-defined rules) of who can do what, when and to whom (cf. [2] for a review); shared file systems are designed so that access controls are fixed by models of who can have access to which resources and with what privileges (e.g. [4]); and collaborative systems, such as meeting tools and workflow systems, incorporate models of floor control and of business processes (cf. [3]).

In all of these cases, the response to the complexity of social norms of behaviour has been a trend towards the incorporation of ever more complex models of these norms, or the provision of a number of different models from which an individual or group can choose (e.g. [3]). However, recent studies of both everyday work, interaction and also the social practices surrounding collaborative technologies (e.g. [5], [11]) have suggested that the approach of embedding complex models of behaviour in the system itself may be fundamentally misconceived.


This paper adopts the view that the everyday world consists of 'cues for behaviour' that allow us to choose the most appropriate from a range of 'options for action', any one of which is physically, although not socially, possible. Our behaviour in the world is therefore fundamentally regulated by physical constraints that govern what we can and cannot actually do, together with highly dynamic cultural constraints that govern what we usually do (and when), which we could, in principle, choose to ignore (cf.[9]). When considering the design of systems to support social interaction, this view implies that it may not be necessary (nor even desirable) to embody a set of social rules in the physical system (if the system can provide sufficient options for action and cues for behaviour) since to do so would be to turn cultural into physical constraints. A social computer, then, is a system which does not have social rules embedded within it, but which enables users to apply their knowledge of social protocols in deciding what they should do.

There is considerable evidence in the Media Space and Computer Supported Collaborative Work (CSCW) literature to suggest that such an approach may be effective. As Dourish notes for example, social protocols and norms of behaviour contribute to accepted practices of use as much as any system imposed constraints [2]. Similarly, users of the Internet's multicast backbone (MBONE) tools [7] have participated in video, audio and `shared whiteboard' conferences ranging in size from between 2 and around 60 participants. Even though none of the MBONE tools provide explicit methods of turn-taking or floor control, their usage has been highly successful based on a shared culture of use. A survey of recent research on groupware (in particular collaborative writing) is uncovering similar supportive evidence.


In order to assess the effectiveness of the ideas underlying the `Social Computer', a proof of concept prototype is currently under construction. This prototype provides an interface to a broadband telecommunications infrastructure using the metaphor of an office door to represent the availability state of the users (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Main Window Screen Dump(51kb JPEG)
Figure 1: Main Window Screen Shot

Figure 2: Glancing at a colleague(116kb JPEG)
Figure 2: Glancing at a Colleague

The principles of the `Social Computer' suggest that the state of the office door should not be used to determine which options are made available. Instead, all options should be available and it is then up to the user to decide which option is appropriate in the particular situation at that time [1]. Key issues then, are discovering what cues people use in the everyday world to regulate their behaviour, what that behaviour is, and whether both the cues and the behaviour are transferable to a computer-mediated system. The implementation draws on [1] which has already gone some way towards exploring the first two of these issues using elicitation techniques from Cognitive Anthropology.

The prototype is implemented in Tcl/Tk [8] with extensions to enable interface prototyping in a multicast UNIX environment. It makes extensive use of freely available MBONE audio, video and whiteboard conferencing tools vic, vat and wb [7], together with trials over local and possibly wide area multicast networks in order to provide a functional, integrated, broadband telecommunications prototype. Given the use of freely available Internet audio/video tools, and the intended scalability of the prototype, these trials will be carried out on a national, and possibly global, scale.


The work will conclude with an evaluation and analysis of the effectiveness of the prototype with respect to the principles of the `Social Computer'. Standard usability evaluation techniques will be used to assess the degree to which users found the system effective in providing support for social constraints, in preventing mis-use whether intentional or not, and in supporting the flexible and dynamic nature of human interaction. In addition the analysis will examine the scalability of the principles underlying the `Social Computer' to situations where the users may not share a common culture and therefore where social constraints may be ineffective.


This work is supported by a research scholarship funded by British Telecommunications plc. The MBONE tools vat (Visual Audio Tool), vic (Video Conferencing tool) and wb (WhiteBoard) were developed at Lawrence Berkeley Labs, University of California *; Tcl/Tk was developed at the University of California at Berkeley.


1. Anderson, B. & Alty, J. L. (1995) "Everyday Theories, Cognitive Anthropology and User-Centred System Design". In Proc. People and Computers X, HCI `95. August 1995. Cambridge University Press.

2. Dourish, P. (1993) Culture and Control in a MediaSpace. In Proc. ECSCW `93. Milano, Italy, September 1993. Kluwer, London. pp 125-137

3. Greenberg, S. (1991) "Personalizable groupware: Accommodating individual roles and group differences." In Proc. ECSCW `91 Amsterdam, Kluwer Press. pp 17-32.

4. Greif, I. & Sarin, S. (1987) "Data sharing in group work." ACM Transactions on Office Information Systems Vol. 7 no 2 pp 187-211.

5. Heath, C. & Luff, P. (1991) "Disembodied Conduct: Communication through video in a MultiMedia Office Environment". In Proc. CHI `91, New Orleans, Louisiana, April-May 1991, pp. 99-103.

6. Kaplan, S. M., Tolone, W. J., Bogia, D. P. and Bignoli, C. (1992) "Flexible, Active Support for Collaborative Work with ConversationBuilder" In Proc. CSCW `92, November 1992, Toronto, Canada. ACM Press.

7. Macedonia, M. R., Brutzman, D. P., (1994) "MBone Provides Audio and Video Across the Internet" IEEE Computer, Vol. 27 No 4, pp. 30-36.

8. Ousterhout, J. K. (1994) Tcl and the Tk toolkit. Addison Wesley, New York.

9. Searle, J. R. (1994) The Social Construction of Reality. Free Press, New York.

10. Suchman, L. A. (1983) Office procedures as practical action. ACM Transactions on Office Information Systems 1: 320-328.

11. Suchman, L. A. (1987) Plans and Situated Actions. The problem of human-machine communication. Cambridge University Press.


For more information on the MBONE see http://www.best.com/~prince/techinfo/mbone.html.
Providing Explicit Support for Social Constraints: In Search of the Social Computer