Social Computing beyond FaceBook and Twitter

Over the last few years, social computing has been relegated to asynchronous websites like FaceBook and Twitter, where users connect with many people and their collective information is harvested for the larger group. However these are still largely individually actions, not synchronous… yet we call it “social”. I would like to expand that definition.

Think of a computer where you sit down and work simultaneously with your friend. Imagine you and your friends all playing a game or solving a problem at the same time on the same computer. This has been one of the key aspects of our vision at Microsoft Surface. As I’ve presented over the last year on Surface, I’ve talked a lot about the aspects of social computing. Initially when I started on the team I was skeptical of social computing as Surface defines it: multiple people working around a single computer. Since that time, I have seen some of the great innovations and situations that Surface style social computing allows. With its vision system (instead of capacitive or infra-red), Surface can recognize 52 simultaneous points of touch, as well as physical objects, making it a computer for a truly social environment.

Social computing is described as the intersection between social behavior and computing systems, and often in somewhat ambiguous computational terms. I question how much of what happens on social sites like FaceBook [et al] is really social (I don’t often come to work sharing a list of 25 personal oddities about myself). The only real social aspect is that you’re sharing items with other people in an easy way across geographic divides. Although the web seems like a macrocosm of that definition. I’m not sure why things like instant messaging are not considered social computing, but they are more social than most sites bearing that label.

I would like to implore readers to expand their definition of the term social computing and realize it can apply to many more situations than it currently is; those being actual social situations. I would describe that as what Surface is aspiring to be, the first true social computer. It provides context and use for multiple people, on all sides. Although true social computing can be done with a single computer and two or more people, it may not be optimal. Below are a few of the ways I’ve come to think about social computer usage:

  • Driver as a presenter: this happens when you’re showing someone a YouTube video
  • Driver (w/ an influencer or back seat driver): this happens when you’re searching the internet for someone and someone is telling you what do type in
  • Turn taking: passing a laptop back and forth to share information
  • Simultaneous: both playing a game on Microsoft Surface. I’ll call this synchronous social activities. Very different from the three above it

Of course none of what I describe here is the current way we define social computing, which is why I’m asking people to expand their thinking. Perhaps there is another word to describe these situations? Whatever happens, it’s become clear to me that the computer cannot simply stay as the personal device it has been and designers should begin to think about social proximity activities and behaviors. As technology becomes more pervasive and cultures become more acquiesced to computers, there will be a need and desire to continue and expand the social aspects.

As an aside, while I bring up Surface several times in my posts, please don’t take that for blindly selling the technology. I am very aware of its flaws and issues, and part of my opportunity at Microsoft is to make those better. For those interested, here is my talk from MIX09 on Surface and touch computing where I discuss both my love and discomforts on those topics.

Joe Fletcher

Joe Fletcher is currently an associate creative director at frog, and previously a design lead at Microsoft. After graduating college in 2001 with a degree in Communication Design, he taught school before moving back into the design field.

3 comments on this article

  1. Pingback: Links for 28-04-09 | burningCat

  2. Pingback: Brad’s Ramblings » Do you network or compute?

  3. Pingback: context aware computing