impressionistic visualization of newsgroups as social ecologies
task of designing visualizations for newsgroups is a challenging
one, in part because there are so many possible factors which can
be modeled in the design. There is also a sheer overload of data
for possible inclusion in the visualization -- posts, threads, groups,
supergroups, and super-duper-groups -- creating a complex fractal
system. Netscan is a visualization which attempts to model
the fractal nature of newsgroups, visualizing supergroups as neighborhoods
in a city, where each neighborhood can be recursively deconstructed
into further smaller neighborhoods. Although successful at conveying
the relative sizes of different communities, the chief disadvantage
of this design is that the building blocks are all similar, even
self-similar at varying granularities. One challenge taken up by
the sketch presented below is trying to convey something more about
the milieu and the dynamics of each community,
beyond just relative magnitude.
we have argued that each newsgroup has a social ecology to it, meaning
that it is characterized by a unique system dynamic. We have described
three basic archetypes which can be a useful vocabulary to start
with: 1) information-seeking communities, 2) persona-building communities,
3) and community-building communities.
our sketch, we also choose to visualize communities as neighborhoods
in a city, as the city metaphor lends us the concept of fractalness,
and are also evocative of collaborative social spaces. Rather than
choosing generic base building blocks for the construction of our
city, we use a vocabulary of building blocks to convey first and
foremost, the ecological milieu of a group based on the three aforementioned
information-seeking community is one in which membership is not
stable, tenure is short, and the nature of dealings is akin to opportunistic
bartering of information. There is an aura of business (be it formal,
or informal) to this. Thus, we can visualizing this type of ecology
as a commercial space, as below:
commercial milieu pervades, but does not restrict the visualization
to repeating homogeneous units. Rather, there is an opportunity
for different compositions of commercial spaces to reflect factors
about the history of the space. The community above would represent
a commercial community that has been in service for a while. Tall
buildings are more or less representative of the established and
built-up nature of this community. Suppose that this community mapped
to a supergroup whose constituent groups were at various stages
of development. Skyscrapers represent well-established, smaller
buildings represent fairly established, and primordial agoras and
fairs represent a place just being built. Consider the powerful
contrast in the lifestages of a fairly advanced commercial space
(above) versus a fledgling space (below).
should the development of city structures be visual metaphors for
the lifestage of a newsgroup? In many ways, development suggests
that there is an established process and an established
reputation that a newsgroup exists for some information service
value. Some information-swapping newsgroups which have long been
in existence have some organization, such as FAQs, and threads and
sub-groups constituting a fairly clean and organized partitioning
of the information-space. Other newsgroups such as misc.kids.pregnancy
have established information partitionings inherent in the topic
matter (pregnancy happens to involve a small, fixed set of events
and stages). Although I have argued that the tenure is short in
information-seeking communities, what participants do leave behind
is some notion of process, molding some structure in the
types of questions, responses, and threads.
on, persona-building groups have a social ecology focused around
the satisfaction, entertainment, and catharsis of the members. There
is a sense of competition rather than cooperation, and a sense of
theatrical exaggeration rather than down-to-earth modesty. In such
ecologies, the niche roles played by members can be highly differentiated
from each other as there is a pigeonhole-type competition which
seems to exist. A good visual metaphor for this can be found in
entertainment and amusements, such as a coliseum, circus, casino,
nightclub, etc. Amusements and spectacles convey the ecology's sense
of social indulgence, catharsis, theatrical performance, exaggeration,
and competition. The sketch below could represent an amusement and
as skyscrapers and flea markets demonstrate a contrast in the lifestages
of information-seeking forums, the sophistication of the amusements
and spectacles can demonstrate the varying lifestages of persona-building
there are the community-building forums such as cancer support newsgroups.
The primary characteristic of these social ecologies is communion,
and long tenures. I like to think of these neighborhoods as the
residential variety, with plenty of public works, and playgrounds,
which to me represent artifactual symbols of the common good.
People don't move very often, and thus, the long tenure of forum
members. We can conceive of such forums as communities, as pictured
show the contrast of lifestages of such a community, we can think
of a mature community as one with many public works, population
density, and well-manicured houses and lawns.
the proposed visualization design, the emphasis has thusfar been
on helping a person understand the milieu and social ecologies of
groups, super-groups, and super-duper-groups. We have introduced
a vocabulary of three basic neighborhood types: commercial, entertainment,
and residential. We've also introduced the notion of lifestages
and explained how the developmental stage of a community can communicate
the history and organization of a forum. However, we need to further
address how the day-to-day dynamics of groups can be conveyed.
buildings and physical structures in neighborhoods represents the
established order of each forum, then the good maintainence and
up-keep of these structures represents that a newsgroup is healthy
and not in decay or abandonment. The populatedness of neighborhoods
can be represented by an animation of people fluxing within a neighborhood.
The volume of communication and posts within a community can be
visualized as transportation such as planes, roads, and trains.
This is also a possible way to communicate that forums are strongly
linked by cross-posting and common membership.
planning is another give away. Forums which have built up slowly
and evolved steadily will look like an intricately planned and populated
neighborhood like a european neighborhood. Forums which have been
conceived with a cut and dry organization and mission statement
will look like a monoculture california neighborhood. Forums which
built up very quickly around a hot topic and then suffering abandonment
will look like a Calico of sorts. The decay of buildings seems like
a perfect way to represent the decline of a forum's prominence.
very clean neighborhood would map well to a neighborhood with structure
and formality while an moderated spammed neighborhood might look
like the wild wild west, with crimes and decay represented by police
and fires and slums.
versus high-turnover of membership can be represented by animations
of emigration and immigration into a community.
these ecological milieus as building blocks, and given the range
and complexity of social dynamics that can be realized as visual
animations of these neighborhoods, we can think of combining and
composing these neighborhoods into burroughs (to represent super-groups).
We can either tile these building blocks as below, but better yet,
we can take just the major components and only show those (to reduce
our visualization model has focused on a landscape scale of public
newsgroups. Because we have chosen a very fractal-friendly representation,
we can also focus on the happenings of a particular newsgroup at
the conversational scale. At once, we realize that we can leverage
our three socio-ecological building blocks to guide us in deciding
what to visualize.
information-seeking groups, the transaction is commercial. If we
go for an abstract visualization, we can certainly just bubble up
topic keywords representing the information transacted and super-impose
this over the neighborhood. Or we could create transactional animations
within particular structures. In an agora, or in a bank, or a business,
answers and questions are transacted in various ways.
persona-building groups, the development of individual larger-than-life
characters is the emphasis. Perhaps each important person can be
visualized as an amusement or spectacle, such as a circus ride or
sporting venue. Thus the patronage success of the spectacle can
visually codify the reputation of a person.
a community-building group, a person is measured by the contribution
and acceptance of a person into a community. We can visualize members
with tenure as houses in a residential street. The better their
reputation, the more well-manicured and pristine and grand are their
general, there are a plethora of available metaphors for codifying
as much or as little information about a conversation as the designer
desires, be it the abstract superposition of topic keywords over
a neighborhood, or codifying information in the behaviors and activities
of particular buildings and people in a neighborhood.