Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Communication Breakdown: Activity Theory On the Road

Groupware has had many definitions since its existence. The controversy of definitions is due to the multiple levels of networking in which it exists. My present research has been in the field of social software, specifically in computer-mediated communication (CMC). Popular CMC applications include social communities like Myspace, Facebook, Blogs, forums, and peer-peer applications like instant messaging. I am currently interested in how these social mediums can effect communication in travel with comparison to recent observations in the CMC field, and also what kinds of communities can be established through this new medium.

I would like to provide a brief overview of how social networking in travel would function. Projected design of such an application seems to be most easily imagined as an iPhone app. After successful retrieval of the app, one would be prompted to make a user profile (similar to Facebook). The object of the profile is to lure other users into a conversation with you. Users with similar profiles will be matched via connection server. Imagine each user with a data bubble around their vehicle projecting their profile to nearby users. When two profiles of similar interest are matched, both parties are notified with some kind of audio signal to avoid distraction from the road. By letting users know about surrounding “like interests,” possibilities are created for an ad-hoc communication environment. If the parties decide to connect, they are now free to chat through a voice call and discuss their similar interests.

The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook points out a list of issues that might occur when dealing with groupware applications. I would like to address a couple of them in context of a mobile-CMC (Andrew Sears & Julie A. Jacko, 2008).

2. Critical mass and Prisoner’s dilemma problems. Groupware may not enlist the “critical mass” of users required to be useful, or can fail because it is never in any one individual’s advantage to use it.

Critical mass would have direct correlation with whether or not a mobile-CMC is sustainable. For a social network to exist on the highway there would need to be a mass amount of users, or else not enough “similar interest matches” would be made to hold the user’s interest. Taking a look at Facebook in comparison, its online culture has changed dramatically since its creation. When Facebook was created it was limited to the culture of college students. Once it expanded to allow all sectors of society, online cultures started forming infinite new relations. Not only did new bonds form online, but through virtual activities real-world connection also are affected.

3. Disruption of social processes. Groupware can lead to activity that violates social taboos, threatens existing political structures, or otherwise de-motivates users crucial to its success.

I think this issue is related to similar issues in value sensitive design. With Facebook, the most common VSD issue is that of privacy. In the evolution of Facebook’s growing capabilities, multiple social taboos arose including privacy. The issue of privacy arose as an ethical issue and threatened the growth of Facebook’s culture. With people afraid to share content and develop deeper profiles, creations of new virtual subcultures seemed to come to a standstill. It is not hard to believe that comparable situations could arise in the mobile-CMC scenario. However, I think there is another value that has higher importance in mobile-CMC design. Human welfare is always the first topic brought up when discussing new entertainment for travel. Entertainment while travel provides a stimulus for the mind to keep alert while driving. It can also induce distractions that have negative effects on welfare. Obvious precautions can be designed to keep the mobile-CMC “hands free” or semi auto-mated, reducing distraction.

I would like to refer to a theory pulled from Kari Kuutti’s research on Activity Theory in response to welfare and distraction while driving. Kuutti explains that, “A good example of action-operation dynamics is learning to use a manual gearbox when driving a car.” Kuutti describes how actions like using the clutch, brake, gas, and shifter all require planning, sequencing and decisions. However, after a while the actions become part of a bigger equation, which is called an “operation” (Kuutti, 1995). I believe after a prolonged use of social networking applications in travel, users will acquire a more “operational view” to communication while driving. I believe communication while driving will become part of the operation of driving as is shifting, thereby eliminating communication from the list of distractions.

It is important to identify the type of social software exhibited by this system to properly predict issues it might have with information flow. I mostly imagine this system as a Peer-Peer application. However, most instant messaging applications are not necessarily designed for social networking. Facebook, on the other hand, is specifically used to provide friends or acquaintances with status information about you. Through this method, a chain reaction of finding users with similar interests can occur. Consequentially groups are formed, activities are scheduled and knowledge is traded. In essence, the traveling social network takes on the “hive mind” characteristics and abilities of Facebook, while harnessing the more privatized communication of instant messaging.

Judging from the progression of communities that have formed on Facebook, blogs, and forums, it seems that a mobile-CMC would develop a related social structure. Looking at the chart taken from Jonathan Grudin’s article one “Computer-Supported Cooperative Work,” I will compare today’s common Social applications to my theoretical mobile-CMC (Grudin, 1994).Facebook interactions occur generally in the middle time row. If a message is posted on Facebook, one can expect a person to receive it in an average amount of time. I believe this to be true for the mobile-CMC situation. If both users are aware of each other, a conversation should be expected to start within an average time. The two types of communication differ when it come to place. Since users are connected from distance through Facebook, it is appropriate to say that they are in different locations. It is also appropriate to say that it is predictable that the user being messaged will get on Facebook to receive said message. This would place Facebook somewhere in range of electronic mail. With the mobile-CMC situations, users are technically in the same location (the highway) since they have to be within short range of each other to communicate. This places the mobile-CMC more in range of tele/video conferences (real-time conferencing).

It has taken a good four years for Facebook to yield so many virtual subcultures. Building from that existent framework and placing social communication in a real-time medium could increase the rate for social development of mobile-CMC. Coherent and familiar interfaces will allow users to quickly adapt to the new form of entertainment/communication. Given that critical mass is met users will be able to new cultures specifically based on highway travel. For example, maybe “user 1” travels at the same time during rush hour as “user 2,” after multiple connections “user 1” is informed by “user 2” that there is a shortcut that cuts 20 minutes off the trip. In turn “user 1” shares this information with “user 3” which met on the way to the mall. Not only does this create opportunity for collective intelligence and problem solving, but it also creates superior chances for marketing.

Today “user 1” is traveling down the highway thinking about the broken toilet that sits at home. In the upcoming stretch he notices that “user 2” (a plumber/contractor). “User 1” is granted a connection and asks “user 2” if the company services his area. “User 2” regretfully replies no, but provides the suggestion that his mother company resides in “user 1’s” town. The first user efficiently got useful information (that was allocated out of a set schedule of time wasted driving) from the second user who just brought in a possible client for his company (on his way to another client). These real-time efficiencies make this social networking system a great benefit to the travel experience.

Computer-mediated communication has come a long way since the 1980’s. Building from past frameworks and HCI studies can prove to be very beneficial to design. Grudin and Kuutti have found logical ways to organize the data gathered about HCI statistics. Although at this point in time social networking while driving may seem to project negative effects on human welfare through distraction, I believe the product of social activity and collaboration weigh out positively.

Works Cited
Andrew Sears & Julie A. Jacko. (2008). The Human–Computer. New York: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates.
Grudin, J. (1994). Computer-Supported CooperativeWork : History and Focus. Irvine: University of California.
Kuutti, K. (1995). Activity Theory as a potential framework for HCI Research. Boston: Cambridge: MIT Press.

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