hugo :: brainstorms in sociable media (mas.961 '03)
"only as an æsthetic phenomenon is
existence and the world justified"

- nietzsche


emotus ponens picture
::: visualizing discussions :::
~In Staten Island, New York, it is illegal for a father to call his son a "faggot" or "queer" in an effort to curb "girlie behavior." ~ Anonymous

monty tagger picture

An impressionistic visualization of newsgroups as social ecologies

The 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.

Previously 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.

For 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 archetypes.


An 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:

The 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).

Why 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 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.

Continuing 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 spectacles neighborhood.

Just 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 groups.

Finally, 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 below

To 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.


In 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.

If 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.

City 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.

A moderated, 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.

Tenure versus high-turnover of membership can be represented by animations of emigration and immigration into a community.

Given 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 information complexity).


Thusfar 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.

In 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.

In 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.

In 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 property.

In 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.







H U G O . . L I U ...
interactive experience group

commonsense computing group
counter intelligence
hugo at media dot mit dot edu