Blogging was where we began, and how we built our company so we have preserved this archive to show how our thinking developed over a decade of developing the use of social technology inside organisations

Intimacy gradients online

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Back in May, Adina Levin posted on BookBlog about how architect Christopher Alexander’s ‘intimacy gradient‘ was relevant to improving what could be termed the emotional usability of online social spaces. In short, simply dividing web social spaces as ‘private’ or ‘public’ does not adequately meet our need for nuanced levels of privacy online.
In architecture, an intimacy gradient exists when you start off in public areas and progress through semi-private to private and then intimate areas – consider a house with a porch, hallway, living room, bedroom, and increasing levels of privacy as you move through the building. This progression is something that we have all experienced and, on an unconscious level, we both understand and appreciate it. Removing it creates jarring and uncomfortable spaces that we prefer to avoid because, on an emotional level, it feels all wrong.
Similar social requirements exist online, but as Flemming Funch points out, deep linking removes the possibility of easily creating an intimacy gradient on a website because people can bypass the porch area and the hallway area completely and skip straight to the bedroom. This has led to a binary private/public system where you are either in or out. Even sites or IT systems with a complex structure of areas and permissions still rely on someone somewhere deciding whether you are going to be permitted or denied access to given resources.
On Many 2 Many, Ross Mayfield mentions a Socialtext case study which attempts to create an intimacy gradient:

  • The broadest tier is a guest space, available to all.
  • The second tier is a knowledgebase, accessible to all employees and contractors.
  • The third tier is product development, for employees and contractors bound by a confidentiality agreement.
  • The fourth tier is for the core management team to share confidential financial and HR information.

Yet, this system again requires someone to give or withhold permissions, so although it may be suitable for a corporate that’s still wedded to command-and-control tactics, it’s not of much use in social software situations where groups are self-organising
Christopher Allen of Life with Alacrity fleshes out the discussion further, pointing out that there is a requirement for some way to delineate the public, semi-private, private and intimate areas:

In architecture there are always some areas of the house or building that are more public — the entry, the living room, the atrium, etc., and areas that are more private such as bathrooms, bedrooms, and offices. In a good design there is some marker of change between these different areas — it might be a difference in ceiling height, a stairway leading to a different floor, or a narrow entrance. As an example, in the classical Japanese tea house, you have to bow low before entering. [...]

The need to provide for an Intimacy Gradient in social software is clear; however, the techniques for showing the transitions between the gradients are not. For instance, in the original Netscape Communicator, when you connected with a secure SSL connection, the border around the edge of the window would turn blue, and a solid blue key would show up. However, most people didn’t notice this change and no current browser does this; even the little locked icon at the bottom of Internet Explorer and often isn’t visible if you have the status bar turned off or if you are using frames.

Levin responds to Allen’s post with further thoughts about IRC and the use of IRCbots such as jibot in #joiito to provide ‘heralds’, (i.e. a short announcement of personal information), everytime someone enters the room as a marker for level of intimacy. She posits that by providing a herald, one immediately marks out #joiito as a more intimate channel than one without heralds. IRC is a good example to quote, but not because the use of jibot “Creates a social protocol where newcomers are expected to introduce themselves, and there’s a bit of banter where the social tone is established”.
IRC is interesting because it’s a good example of emergent intimacy gradients created by users self-organising. Channels like #joiito are public and, amongst bloggers at least, fairly well known. At any one time you are likely to find around 120 people logged on, even if only a fraction of them are active. If a conversation between friends becomes unsuitable for public consumption, then a semi-private temporary channel can be easily created into which that select group of people can be invited. If there’s then a need for yet more privacy between just two people, they can open a private message. This is an self-organised intimacy gradients at work.
A similar thing happens at conferences, with the public conference hall leading to semi-private groups congregating inbetween sessions, a semi-private back channel being opened (semi-private because not everyone at the conference will use it), and then private messages. These intimacy gradients are even more flexible, utilising different tools for difference sections of the gradient
These are all emergent behaviours, they’re people using the tools at hand in a way that feels comfortable to them. A good example of an imposed/self-organising intimacy gradient is that used by Zoetrope. A website for film makers and writers, it has a public area and a private area which you need to register to access. That’s the imposed section. Once registered, users access the self-organised section where there are ‘public’ messageboards to which anyone can post, ‘private offices’ which require an invitation from the owner before access is granted but which are semi-private areas, and ‘z-mail’ which acts as a private messaging system
I think the difficulty is not so much the creation of an intimacy gradient, but finding the right way to do so and deciding when to impose a system and when to give people the tools to self-organise.
Flemming Funch, in a further post, also asks some pertinent questions about markers, but I think what we need to do to find the answers is examine existing emergent behaviours and extrapolate good practice from that.

2 Responses to Intimacy gradients online

  1. By Many-to-Many on September 9, 2004 at 4:18 am

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  2. By Abject Learning on September 10, 2004 at 12:54 am

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