Social Proxies: Supporting Online Communication and Collaboration through Shared Visualizations [Dal Comp Sci Lecture]

Join us on Thursday, November 8, 2012 – 11:30am at Faculty of Computer Science (Slonim Room – Room 430) for another great talk at Dal this week. The speaker is Thomas Erickson, IBM T.J. Watson Research Centre
Social Proxies: Supporting Online Communication and Collaboration through Shared Visualizations

As humans we are social creatures. We pay attention to people around us, we shape our behavior in response to theirs, and as a consequence we are remarkably skilled at coordinating our activities with others. However, when we are separated by time or space and connected only by digital networks, much of our skill at coordination vanishes. Many of the things that are easy to do when we are together – taking turns when talking, carrying on a coherent discussion, noticing when someone is not participating – become cumbersome, if they are possible at all.

For over a decade I’ve been designing systems that attempt to address these issues. My approach involves creating shared minimalist visualizations that I call “social proxies.” The core idea is to make participants in online interactions mutually visible to one another, so as to support the communication and coordination that is a normal part of face to face interaction. Beginning with an examination of how we manage to coordinate our face to face interaction, I suggest some principles that underlie this ability. Next I describe how these principles may be embodied in online systems. I then illustrate their application with examples ranging from implemented systems to concept pieces, and that support activities ranging from conversation to auctions to waiting in queues. Ultimately, my hope is that we can learn to design online environments that not only allow us to effectively carry out our work, but that also have some of the engagement and grace that characterize our face to face interactions.


Thomas Erickson is a Research Staff Member in the Social Computing Group at IBM Research. He is a blend of an interaction designer and a social scientist, and he studies how people interact with systems in their daily lives and uses what he learns to design new systems. His goal is to improve the ability of people to communicate and collaborate over large distances, and he is particularly interested in ways of combining online conversation with visualizations to foster productive interaction. These interests have led to work on computer-mediated communication, virtual communities, social visualization, pattern languages, crowdsensing, and, most recently, Smarter Cities. Erickson’s approach to systems design is interdisciplinary. It is shaped by methods developed in the field of human-computer interaction, and theoretical and analytical approaches from architecture, rhetoric, sociology and urban design. Erickson has published numerous peer-reviewed articles, edited two books (most recently HCI Remixed from MIT Press), and is a Fellow of the ACM. Erickson holds a number of patents, and has co-designed systems ranging from research prototypes to commercial products. Originally trained as a cognitive psychologist, his three-decade career has taken him from a small startup to Apple’s Advanced Technology Group to, for the last fifteen years, IBM Research.

Free to all. Mark it in your calendar!