Dimensions of Social Relationships in the Online World
we ask the question of how to visualize social relationships in
the online world, we should first ask what aspects of social relationships
are important or interesting to a user? I've made a cursory list
to brainstorm some possible dimensions below...
is the person? Name, monikers
does this person want to be identified stylistically? icon, font,
is the nature/categorization of our relationship? Business, friends,
activity partners, romantic interests, long-time friends?
active is the person in his/her online messaging activities?
active is the person with me in his/her online messaging
are his/her interests?
can be said about his/her lingo/discourse style and what does
that say about his/her identity?
much do we know about them?
which contexts have we interacted, and to what magnitude?
we have overlapping social networks?
long convos VS. short, frequently convos?
was our last contact?
is his/her reply time versus mine?
we regularly share our latest news with each other?
is the depth versus breadth of our conversations?
superficial is our interaction?
we have a common friend, or group, or topic of interest which
we consistently refer to?
is the nature of our language and use of emoticons? Flirtatious,
we refer to shared events and activities that we've done outside
of our online interactions?
does his/her relationship with me compare to that of her other
friends, and similarly, how does my relationship with him/her
compare to my relationship with other online buddies?
are some of our more memorable episodes?
talks more and more often?
there a pattern of interruption?
responsive or attentive is the person?
Ware's Information Visualization: Perception for Design is
a bible of information visualization through basic abstract color
and spatial dimensions. One troubling realization is that to create
an effective, at-a-glance visualization, a designer will likely
have to constrain the number of communicated dimensions to just
3 or 4.
Metaphors for Online Relationships
I sketch three visualizations of online relationships, each harnessing
different visual metaphors for conveying the essence of a relationship
in an intuitive at-a-glance manner.
#1: Strength of a Relationship
this sketch, I chose to visualize the very basic nature of a relationship:
its strength. First, the iconic face representation is meant to
give the user an at-a-glance recognition, not unlike with other
icons such as basic shapes and typographic symbols, as discussed
in Information Visualization. The system makes no effort
to represent the online identity of the user in this situation,
and the icon is merely meant to evoke the user's own memories or
impressions of the depicted buddy. The strength of the relationship
is modulated along two color dimensions: luminance and saturation.
luminance (bright), high color saturation icon (leftmost) indicates
a healthy relationship where the buddy in question is actively engaged
with the user in discussions. A lower luminance, low saturation
icon (middle) indicates that somehow the relationship has
soured. Perhaps there was a fight, or someone's response was ignored
for long periods of time, or a general falling out where the relationship's
previous prominent and active role has been diminished. A low luminance,
high saturation role (rightmost) indicates that a relationship
has begun to fade, but on more amicable terms. For example, perhaps
the user's interaction with the buddy is casual and periodic, or
the buddy has generally diminished all online activity and not just
the relationship with the user.
an icon is placed in isolation, luminance is hard to distinguish,
but imagine that the pic is placed next to a reference normal luminance,
normal saturation pic of the buddy, or placed in history sequence,
or against the pics of other friends. Suddenly the contrast of luminance
begins to convey a buddy's presence. Those we love and
interact with have a strong presence, represented by a bright picture.
Those we are not actively engaged with are darker. And those we
feel distant from or emnity toward are greyed out.
dimension that is harder to see, and may or may not work is sharp
versus blurry. A blurred or otherwise perturbed photo can indicate
that the user doesn't know the buddy in question. Perhaps the buddy
is too new or is too distant. But the crispness of a photo is being
used as a metaphor for the crispness of the mental impression that
the buddy has made on the user.
#2: Social Exchange
the capitalistic context of present day society, it seems sadly
appropriate that we think of our social relationships too, in terms
of an "exchange" of commodities. Our relationships with
different people are characterized by an exchange of ideas, or of
business, or of love, inter alia. In this visualization,
the exchange of information is made explicit. The green connector
edge has a width and length. The stronger the exchange, the stronger
and thicker the connector, pulling people close to the user's icon.
Of course, each person has his/her own notions of the value of each
social commodity, and these valuations will change under different
life contexts (e.g. the user values love most after a recent breakup).
The user can specify the value of each type of currency, and the
composite score determines the strenght of the relationship.
advanced visualization may try to not only model each buddy's relationship
with the user, but also amongst each other. This would let the visualization
leverage the visual power of groups, perhaps viewed under the filters
of different commodities. What are the love groups and circles?
Which are the business groups and circles? Who is the person with
all the ideas flowing from him?
#3: Planting Friends
beauty of flowers is that there is already a strong metaphorical
connection between the state of flowers and relationships. A small
budding flower represents a budding friendship (or relationship,
if we make that a red rose instead of a yellow tulip). A full, blossoming
flower is symptomatic of a relationship healthy and in its stride.
A withering shriveling darkening flower is close to death. Luckily,
whereas real flowers must eventually die, virtual flowers do not.
chief import of the social relationship as flower visualization
is simplicity. Everyone understands the flower metaphor. Another
major boon is that the flower visualization is ambient and artistic
and is something that a user might want to keep on the screen. Flowers
can be expressive too... different types of flowers to symbolize
love, friendship, fortune, etc. Certainly your local botanist or
florist can help you pick the right flower to match any person's
are visually distinct. In the vocabulary of Colin Ware's Information
Visualization, there are several pre-attentive features being
employed. When flowers are first budding, they are smaller and brighter,
thus, they stand out. When flowers are wilting, their orientation
changes, and that is also pre-attentive. There is the possibility
for grouping of flowers based on characteristics of friends, or
maybe keeping different pots for friendship, love, business, etc.
Of course, those special friends who cross categories may have to
be visualized as vines ;)
is the psychological side effect of planting flowers that creates
a need in a person to nurture and care for the flowers/friends.
This can create a desire in the user to take more responsibility
toward maintaining good social relationships.
what of history? How might we visualize that in our flower pot?
Flowers grow at different rates and mature in different ways. Some
flowers grow quickly, straight stemmed, and blossom and wither quickly.
Other flowers grow slowly, have lots of little knots, twists and
turns, and mature slowly. A blossom may persist for a longer period,
causing the petal and stem colors to saturate and darken. These
subtlies allow us to map history of a relationship into the form
of the flower. It's more of a pity for the most delicate and intricate
rose to wither than a smaller bloom that is coarser. In general,
I suspect that people have deep intuitions for interpreting detailed
cues about flowers, and other natural objects, albeit these intuitive
perceptions may be subconscious.
representations of social relationships can be artful, non-intrusive,
and intuitive. Nature nurture metaphors can be very intuitive, detailed,