I told myself that I would refrain from posting today, having perhaps posted too much last week. But sometimes a post simply gets stuck, and like a ditty on spin cycle, begins writing itself. There’s naught then to do but wring the thing out.
Alongside buzz on Buzz last week there was also the much less polished but in ways more magnetic attraction of tiny video phenom ChatRoulette. There’s little to say about the service itself, for it’s really just a couple webcam windows on a page. But it occurred to me this morning that in some ways ChatRoulette is a good illustration of a social interface principle I’ve been repeating for a couple years.
I like to say that the social interface has three modes: Mirror, Surface, and Window.
The Mirror mode is reflective, and is what is involved in our self-reflection and self-image as constructed or produced online. You can go back to Freud for more on mirroring, or leaf back to the Greeks and the fable of Narcissus. I need say little more, I suspect, on the fact that we get mirroring from our presence and participation online.
The Surface mode corresponds to the surfaces the medium is capable of rendering. All visual media, online included, render content on their surfaces. Films are projected, television is broadcast, print is printed. The interface can handle whatever kind of visual presentation its technologies and designers can muster: applications, images, full-screen video, animations, games, etc. And computer screens are the most flexible of any of our contemporary screens. One reason that this medium presents such an industrial threat to old media.
The Window mode provides for the possibility of seeing others through the screen — either quite literally (meaning, visually!) as in webcams, or by means of text chat. I consider the window mode to be at work in text chat because the user’s focus of attention is another person. The modality of the UI isn’t constrained to what’s on the screen, but includes the user’s interior focus of attention. In either case — seeing another person or thinking about another person — this communicative functionality is enabled by the medium.
These three modes come together brilliantly in ChatRoulette. In fact the simplicity of ChatRoulette makes a good case for the degree to which social interaction design is “off the page” and involves construction and production of socialities.
ChatRoulette is a surface on which both mirror and window are combined. This isn’t in itself unique. What is unique is that your audience is selected at random — hence the roulette. The author’s origin being Russian, roulette here refers to the Russian version, and not the Vegas version, although there’s a “What happens in ChatRoulette stays in ChatRoulette” aspect at work in its appeal.
To further illustrate the point that social interaction design addresses the particular production of sociality, the random selection of audiences, which pairs you up with somebody on a cam, is a button that enacts a socio-logical operation.
This operation creates a sociality of anonymity. Anonymity permits the play of seeing oneself, seeing oneself being seen (face or some other part), performance, intimacy, proximity, and other social effects of a surface that brings these together. And anonymity escapes social normativity of being one among a known audience of peers.
Consider the normative constriction that would immediately take effect if it were hooked up to your twitter followers or social networking friends. There would be much less nudity and self-pleasuring on ChatRoulette. In fact this suggests to me that privacy is not the best concept for understanding social outcomes in social media. For privacy in ChatRoulette is not just a personal or individual right protected by the medium, but is a constraint that enables very public exposure: to wit the fact that some users feel the need to get into and expose their privates.
The intimacy of anonymity on full display on ChatRoulette also demonstrates the normative function at work in social media. Being seen, and knowing by whom, is key to engagement of a normative constraint. Norms of use in ChatRoulette include transgressions of common codes of civility. By means of the absence of a collective or unifying experience (audience of more than two).
A similar kind of behavioral effect occurs when twitter streams are shown on stage during presentations — and differently when the stream is visible to the speaker. The twitter stream that in normal twitter usage is one’s own personal and specifically individual view is now a common view — by virtue of the stream being one stream seen by all. And if it is behind the speaker, it is a public backchannel, and tweets will often reflect the audience’s awareness that their public commentary is literally behind the back of the speaker. This disrupts the normal speaker-audience relationship and, for better or worse, permits new ways of speaking.
Some have remarked on ChatRoulette’s utter simplicity, and asked why it took the internet so long to produce such a thing. ChatRoulette is not new, but its popularity outside the adult web idiom is. And it shows that some of what the medium does and does well, that which compels by means of voyeurism, curiosity, the arbitrary, creating experiences both self-conscious and in ways liberating too, derives from some very simple combinations made possible by the medium’s unique use of mirrors, windows, and surfaces.
ChatRoulette, from my perspective by danah boyd
Some Interesting Facts About Chatroulette by Fred Wilson