The Leviathan and Facebook Messaging

It’s incredible how quickly social norms have developed on facebook since its founding in 2004. For the most part, we all have an idea of what’s socially acceptable behavior and what’s unacceptable, inconsiderate or even downright creepy. Much of this social awareness on facebook has to do with the fact that most interactions start off Face to Face (FtF) before moving to the social networks computer-mediated communication (CMC) basis before finally ending up as mix-mode relationships. There are, however, a few gray areas that aren’t quite so established. I will examine the facebook messages feature.

The Norm

It seems like the growing trend with facebook messages is to treat them the same way as you would treat a new email in your inbox. Most people have the email notification feature for facebook messages turned on. As such they are notified very quickly when someone leaves them a message. The standard, socially acceptable behavior when receiving a facebook message seems to require responding promptly to the message, just like you would to any email that requires a response. Responding later than a few days is considered unacceptable and often raises concern for the original sender.


The Leviathan

Failure to follow the social norm and respond quickly usually leads to a few negative consequences. As with many people, I’m very busy during the week juggling work, grad courses, a nonprofit and a healthy interest in technology. In addition, I turned off the facebook email notification feature for messages that come into my email inbox—I simply found the feature a little annoying and not worth the hassle of spending time cleaning my  inbox each day.

The combination of being very busy and not having the email notification for messages turned on has led to my breaking the norm of timely response on a few occasions. My cousin in London and I communicate frequently about our weekly activities and how our respective families are doing. I usually respond promptly to her messages and multiple questions about how I’m doing.

However on one occasion, I failed to respond to her facebook message for just over a week. This led to a lot of anxiety on her behalf as she thought I may be ill or depressed. She ended up calling my mom and frantically explained how worried she was. This of course made my mom worried about my well being. Before I knew it everyone in my family—both immediate and extended—was calling me to ask how I was doing and to offer their own medical advice. I quickly realized that I ought to respond to facebook messages as soon as possible if not suffer from a barrage of inquiries about my well being, which were well taken but slightly embarassing.

 FtF Departures from CMC

Facebook messages don’t really have a face-to-face equivalent. As such, it is difficult to discuss the enforcement of norms and the leviathan. On the whole, FtF violation of norms usually lead to less sympathy and more hostility. Typically, if you see someone and they try to engage you in conversation and you ignore them, they will take offense or decide to ostracize you. In that sense, the consequences of ignoring another person when inhabiting the same physical presence are much more severe. After all, CMC is far more conducive to concepts like deception and practices like butler lies than FtF interaction. So it should come as no surprise then that the enforcement of CMC norms do not directly translate over to FtF communication.

From Ithaca to Qatar: Mix-Mode Relationships

A few summers ago, I was in Ithaca working for a start-up and learning how to write code and query a database using SQL and the MySQL framework. Aside from this adventure, I also helped lead an incredibly unique program: the IthaQatar (IQ) Ambassadors program. The IQ program hosted close to 30 pre-medical students from our campus in Doha, Qatar during the summer. We helped them adjust to life on the Ithaca campus and went on a number of adventurous excursions in the surrounding area (such as Niagara falls, Boston and Syracuse).

In the process I became very good friends with the leader of the Qatar team—a student named Maen. Maen was originally from Lebanon and was headed into his 3rd year at the medical program in Doha. Maen and I worked closely together via Face to Face (FtF) interaction in planning a number of events—including a large scale dinner event where numerous leaders of the Cornell community and surrounding Ithaca community were in attendance. At the end of the summer, before Maen returned to Qatar, the two of us pledged to stay in touch via email in order to continue to bridge our two campuses together and ensure that future generations of Cornellians could benefit from a vibrant interaction between the two undergraduate student bodies. Unfortunately, Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) has been far more challenging than what we had originally assumed.

Cues to Choose By

In his work on mix-mode relationships, Joeseph Walther argues that there is an optimal match between the communication task and the communication medium that ought to be used. The utility of the communication mechanism or “richness of medium” is determined by four factors: multiplicity of cue systems, availability of immediate feedback, message personalization and language variety. Ultimately, Waltham argues that email is a relatively poor medium of communication or a “lean medium.”

My experience with Maen since he went back to Doha has led me to concur with Walther. Email does not allow for multiplicity of cue systems as there is really only one form of communication: electronic, text based messaging. In addition, feedback is not readily available. Because of the time difference between Ithaca and Doha and our extremely busy schedules it often takes us several days to respond to one another. Language variety is often fairly academic and formal. We rarely resort to colloquial dialect, which in turn causes us to lose a sense of message personalization and our interactions become more business oriented.

Cues Filtered Out

This sense of business oriented or task-oriented communication is a direct result of CMC. Waltham hypothesizes that the greater the bandwidth—number of communication cue systems a technology can convey—of a technology, the greater the social presence of the communicators utilizing that technology. He also argues that central to a sense of social presence is the availability of non-verbal cues. Thus, CMC is impersonal due to a lack of physical appearance, co-presence and dynamic non verbal behavior.

Again, I would have to agree with Waltham. Email has a very low bandwidth—the only available cues are an additional message in one’s inbox. Thus, when Maen and I communicated via email, our social presence was very weak. Being thousands of miles apart, we lacked physical appearance, co-presence and dynamic non verbal behavior. These concepts simply can not flourish in the text based, task oriented nature of email. As a result our relationship—in particular our ability to stay motivated towards the long term goal of uniting the Ithaca and Doha campuses has struggled.

Clearly there is a large amount of validity to what Waltham outlines. My own experience with Maen draws to the conclusion that email is both a “lean medium” and has a weak social presence—both concepts predicted by Waltham in the sections “Cues to Choose By” and “Cues Filtered Out.” One interesting application to these theories that Waltham doesn’t really address in his work on mixed mode theories is the concept of CMC in government and foreign policy. Waltham seems to argue that FtF interaction is generally better than CMC. Yet when it comes to foreign policy, diplomacy and international relations not only is CMC far more convenient, it is also far more preferred for many nations, strategically speaking. It would be interesting to see Waltham’s take on this issue.

Startup Idea: The Computer as Health & Fitness Monitor

Health and Fitness are two of the most discussed topics in modern western culture. It seems as though everyone from doctors to health gurus to gym trainers has an opinion on how to stay healthy and fit. The number of magazines, television shows, fitness products, medical appliances and health related personnel is simply mind bogging. Entire industries and political interest groups are organized around the human body and how one can preserve its physical, mental and emotional sanctity. Because of the decentralized nature of all this knowledge and information, people often spend lots of money and hours of their time simply trying to organize their lives so they can stay healthy and fit.

Let’s take for example a diabetic female who is trying to lose 20 pounds – we’ll name her Sally for simplicity. Because Sally is diabetic, she must constantly monitor her insulin level and take the appropriate quantity of the right medication at a set time each day. If she forgets to take her medication she will suffer physically from fatigue and other complications. Because Sally is on a diet, she must constantly consult with her doctor on the appropriate foods, vitamins and minerals she ought to be taking. In addition, she is probably working with a fitness trainer each week to burn fat via exercise. She is also most likely weighing herself each day and trying to chart her own progress. This weekly routine involves interacting with many different people, devices and information sources. For Sally the gap between the gulf of execution and gulf of evaluation, at each phase and collectively as a whole, is extremely wide. If there were a way to aggregate all this information into one computer operated device with strong visibility and solid feedback, Sally would be much better off.

This is where my invented Health and Fitness monitor would come into play. This device would be a ring shaped product that a user, we’ll continue with Sally, could place on her finger and wear each day. The ring would monitor and store to memory all activity within the human body. At any point in time, Sally could turn on a display mode which would pull up a 3-D visual of her body in mid-air. All action done with the device would be via interaction with this 3-D visual floating in the air:

The Health and Fitness monitor would allow Sally to view her body from a whole range of angles: the skeleton, nervous system, blood vessels and organs, muscle tissue, etc., It would also allow her to monitor her insulin levels and weight fluctuation—giving her a running analysis week by week, day by day.  The monitor would send her reminders, in the form of vibrating sounds or flashing lights, when she needed to take a certain medication, go for a run or get some rest. The monitor would also be integrated with other systems including her doctor and fitness monitor’s computers, her tread mill, her digital cook book and her personal calendar allowing for Sally to take complete control of organizing and centralizing information.

The design of the Health and Fitness monitor would be intuitive in the sense that there would be a number of constraints that would make each action easy to see, complete, interpret, evaluate and reverse (if necessary). Sally would probably be most interested in using the command mode of the monitor, but for more tech savvy individuals, a direct manipulation mode with open source software would be made available. The monitor would also map the relationship between all controls and actions—in particular the touch sensitive buttons hovering in the air. The feedback from the device would utilize both sound and visual changes to ensure that Sally knows what the effects of her actions are. The ultimate goals would be to aggregate information into one centralized source and narrow the afore mentioned gap between the gulf of execution and gulf of evaluation.

From a user point of view and from a technological point of view, this would be a really great invention that could help many. However, two important factors to consider are: privacy and patient confidentiality. These topics raise a number of questions that would need to be answered if the Health and Fitness Monitor were to be produced and integrated across multiple systems, where many people would have access to personal information. But from a design perspective there are quite a few benefits.

Doing it the Right Way at Dunkin Donuts

Have you ever had a problem with transporting liquid in your vehicle? Ever spilt coffee in your car and had to put up with wet seats, leather stains or the stench of week-old coffee? I’ve certainly had these problems before but hopefully that will all change due to a convenient discovery I made this weekend.

Sunday I had to bring coffee and donuts to an event for 20 people. Because I’m not hugely creative when it comes to food, I immediately narrowed my list of options to one vendor: Dunkin Donuts. But I’ve never been very lucky with transporting liquid in cars and, as such, I was concerned that there would be a lot of spillage. This would, of course, translate into a big clean up job and more work for me. It is for this reason that I was extremely pleased when I pulled up to the drive through window and the Dunkin Donuts employee handed me a “box o’ Joe” coffee box.

Perhaps, the best thing about the box o’ Joe is that its cubic shape affords more stability than most containers. It rests securely and comfortably on any car seat. The weight of the coffee is distributed evenly across the box, ensuring that the box remains stable rather than rolling around and spilling its contents. Another important affordance is the handle, which clues the user in on the appropriate way of holding the box and laying it down on his or her car seat.

Once the user has arrived at his or her destination and is ready to consume the coffee, the box o’ Joe continues to be worthy of Hall of Fame status. The box has a visible shape that mimics the traditional coffee-pot or tea-pot shape, allowing for quick perception of the method in which the box should be used. In addition to the already mentioned handle, the white capped nozzle acts as a pseudo-spout. These design functions allow for more ease of use—mapping out the relationship between the controls (handle and spout) and their action (pouring the coffee).

The only criticism of of the box o” Joe is the use of the box at the end. Initially, when the box is full of coffee, liquid flows out steadily and the user can visually gauge how much coffee is being poured out. However, as the liquid dwindles the user must lift the box higher and higher in the air until the width of the box actually blocks the view of the cup into which the coffee is being poured. This can result in too little or too much coffee being poured. Nevertheless, box o’ Joe coffee is on the whole a great product that ought to be replicated in other similar restaurants. Great job Dunkin Donuts.