In this interview we’re going to read Tom Erickson. Tom is an interaction designer and researcher and he works for IBM. He works in the social computing group at Watson Lab in New York and he’s actually been working there since ’97. And before that he worked 9 years for Apple, so he is an expert on social computing. And this is what we’re going to talk about today. So Tom, what is social computing? Sure, so social computing are systems that support social behavior among people within the system and then make use of that behavior for various purposes. So it can range from systems that just make use of a few things. So like, take Amazon. You go to Amazon and they have people rate, you know, reviews of books. And then other people come along, and as they read them they say, I like this or I don’t like this. And so there are 2 levels of social computing. One is simply, you can look at a book and you can see how many people liked it and how many people didn’t and read the reviews. And then you can also judge something about the quality of your reviews by seeing, you know, how many people thought this was a good review or not. And Amazon actually has done something I think that’s quite nice which is, one of the types of reviews they foreground is, the most liked critical review. That’s a review where they didn’t give it a top rating, but a lot of people still found it useful. And I always try to go right for that, that review. Are there different kind, different types of social computing? Yeah, so there are a couple of answers to that. One has to do with how social computing surfaces in the system. So when I just described Amazon. That gives us a few social computing mechanisms in it. Right. You could get rid of the reviews, you could get rid of the, you know, liking or disliking ratings. And Amazon would still be pretty much the same, it’d be a place to go and buy books or other things. But other types of systems are don’t just use social computing mechanisms. But they’re fundamentally social computing things so take something like you the economical example is Workipedia where, you know, it’s all produced by the contributors so they produce the content. They, you know, edit it. They assess quality. So on and so forth. So, that’s sort of almost pure social computing and that it’s all coming through users and it’s all shaped by social interaction among users. Another way to distinguish between types of social computing systems is, this is something I’ve been puzzling over. I mostly like examples, and I tend to avoid defining things formally. But one of the continuums that you can look at social computing systems along, has to do with the type of interactions that are happening . So, in Wikipedia for example, the content that is being produced, where the knowledge that is being produced or the wisdom of the crowd, if you like to think of it that way, is coming through conversational interaction. Right? Let’s contrast that with another type of social computing computing system. One example i’m very fond of is that of an online auction. So, there you have something for sale, you have an audience of people who want it and the way in, what people do is they go in and they place a bid. And you know, I bid for something, and then you see that somebody has bid so much for it and you want it more, so you bid a bit more. And so the interaction is very simple, right? You’re simply placing a bid of a certain value. And those repeated interactions auctions are, in a sense a way of socially computing a price for something, right? And auctions are very useful things. So, if you have a rare piece of art. You know, how do you figure out what that costs, right? And the answer is you let people socially figure it out. We often hear the term social media. And can you tell us, in your opinion, what is the difference between social media and social computing? That’s a hard one. I see social computing as a very general term. I mean, the way I think about social computing is, I think of groups of people, who are actually collectively computing something, where I mean “computing” fairly broadly. It might be figuring out the price for something, like you do in the auction. It might be composing an encyclopedia article, as you do in Wikipedia. But in some sense, at a very general level, that’s all a computation. Right? Or a market is another type of computation. We all collectively, you know, place bids for things and you know, that shapes the price of commodities or whatever it is you’re buying and selling. So computing, I think, covers a large range of territory where, so in a market, we’re anonymous to one another, right? And that’s actually important because don’t want people conspiring to fix the market. They don’t want us conspiring to, you know, I’ll bid, I think they call them shills in auction, where you insert people who are false bidders to sort of drive the price up. Yup. Right? So in social computing systems, you might have cases where people are interacting a lot. Very deeply getting to know one another like in Wikipedia, or you might have a very, almost an anonymous type of interaction where all I know about you is that you’ve just outbid me. And how am I going to react to that? So I think social media, the way I think of the term, has to do with people actually having a rich communication among them. Right? So, Wikipedia, it’s not all social media but for example the talk pages. Yeah. Are purely social media. Whereas an in eBay auction, I wouldn’t call that social media. Okay. So it’s actually a scale and you can say it’s more or less social. Yes, yes. You know, and you can imagine that you know, you could take an online auction system. I don’t know to what extent eBay does this. I haven’t looked at it in a while. But you can imagine creating some kind of online community of customers who are, say, interested in, you know, some type of art that they collect through eBay. And so you might have little place where there’s, you know, very rich social interaction. That would be social media. But then you have other niches: the auction where people go in, and they’re anonymous, and all you do is bid, right? So you can compose all these different things together depending on the type of interaction you want to support. Yeah. Can you pick out one main goal of social computing? Well for me the main goal is in face to face situations at least in the ones that work well. They’re interesting. They have a life to them. They give a bit of energy. They have some spontaneity. To me, they’re, you know, a good face to face situation, where you’re with people and things are happening. It’s just energizing and alive and it’s, I think something that’s very fundamentally human, right. At the base we are social creatures and we get something from that interaction and so, I guess, when I think of the sort of primary goal for social computing, it’s to create online places or applications or even services, call them what you may, that have some of that life to them. That you know, is fundamental to being human. Can you give us some examples of some of the methods and theories you use to approach this goal? Let’s start with the theory. I draw on a couple areas of theory. One is actually, for a couple of decades I’ve been very interested in urban design. And then also there’s a body of anthropology that studies behavior in public places. So perhaps the best, most famous example of this is William White who wrote a couple of books. So, one called The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces and then a larger book that includes that actually, called City, Return to the Center. And White looked very closely at how people interacted in public spaces and he observed a lot of interesting things that I think have direct applicability to online systems. So, one thing he talked about, he called triangulation. And by triangulation, what he meant is, something would happen in a public space that would cause 2 people who didn’t know one another, to start talking. Right? So it might be walking down the street and seeing a juggler, or somebody walking a new puppy down the street. That often get people to stop and, oh what a nice puppy, and there’s a focus for the interaction and there’s a reason for people to approach and begin talking. So that’s one example of that type of work. In addition to, so there’s, so urban designers think a lot about how to structure spaces so that they can support that kind of interaction. There is a Danish architect by the name of Jan Gehl who has a book called Life Between Buildings and he has some very interesting ways of thinking about public space. He designed things and he thinks about things in terms of interactive radiuses. So he talks about how far, he talks about a radius. He says if you’re within this distance, let’s say it’s 50 meters, I don’t remember what his numbers are, you’ll be able to notice somebody that you weren’t expecting to see, but you know. If you go into a place looking for somebody whom you expect to know, you can see them at a longer distance, maybe, you know, 150 meters. And so he looks at spaces in terms of the types of interactions they might support and how close you would have to be to get that interaction. So that’s another interesting way of thinking about designing either face to face situations or online spaces which is, what do you have to provide to make a particular type of interaction possible. And in urban settings, what you want is, you want a space to afford many different types of interactions. Right? So a good public square for example has places where people can meet one another. Right? I’ll meet you by the big clock. Or I’ll meet you by the statue of so and so. Can you translate that to a social computing system? A very good question. Often you can’t. But you might well want to. So, certainly there are 3D online environment like set up life, right? So now we can’t say let’s go into second life and here is, you know, the second life URL that we can meet at. Or, you know, if we build the environment, yes meet by the upside down purple pyramid. So that’s one thing. To go further back in history, looking at things like IRC, right? So you could agree to meet somebody in a particular IRC channel at a particular time. So you can do that. Or an online community where you have, you know, general conferences and withing conferences you have topics. Right? Oh, let’s go and talk in this topic. Okay. So if we take a step back, how did research into social computing start? Are you asking about the field in general or? Yeah, the field in general. Well, I would trace it back to I guess the study of online communities. I mean, you know, social computing is a relatively recent term. I don’t know exactly when it started but certainly not as a name that people used commonly before the late ’90s at the earliest. But, you know computing in the sense that you have systems that are trying to support social behavior among their users and to make that behavior either produce useful things or make it useful on it’s own. That certainly goes way back to online communities. I think the earliest online community, back then they called it computer conferencing, was Murray Turoff’s system used in the U.S. in the ’70s. And that was a private system actually used to administer the U.S. wage and price control freeze of the Nixon era. So that probably was not social computing, that was just a bunch of policy people trying to sort of regulate things. But not long after that, you saw the emergence of more public online communities, I don’t think I can pull the history out of my head, but there were some early chat communities. Turoff went on and built a system called Eyes of the New Jersey Institute of Technology. There was a system called Planet by Folks at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto. There was something at Michigan. So back in late ’70s, early ’80s, there were a lot of online communities emerging and certainly that’s where you can see the beginning of what I’d call social computing research. Because you have lots of people, they’re interacting and you’re trying to understand what on earth is going on? And you start to see the beginnings of people self organizing. Or people, orself-organizations fragmenting. So you have the emergence of flaming. Right? And, you know, various types of cyber vandalism where people are sort of working counter to online order. So I think it all goes back to that era. Thank you so much, Tom for sharing some of your knowledge and perspective on social computing. It’s been very interesting. You’re most welcome. It’s a great pleasure. Thanks. If you want to know more about how to put these insights into use when you’re actually designing interactive products, you should have a look at our second interview with Tom. You could also take a look at the chapter he has written at patronactiondesign.org, and you also could find other videos and other chapters written by other important leaders and inventors. Thanks for watching.