Keeper: Online conversation support scaffolding modeled after ancient and modern social technologies

Maggie Hughes

Emergence, when an entity is observed to have properties its parts do not have on their own, is an awe inducing phenomenon seen within nature, complex organization theory, physics, art, and philosophy. Humans can experience emergence or interdependence, a perhaps less potent version of emergence, when they come together, transform, connect, and grow in a way they could not alone through co-creation, playing games and sports, and telling stories. As such moments are scarce, cultures and groups ancient and new have developed technologies (in the sociological sense meaning techniques, processes, and material objects to produce goods, provide services, and connect people) to help groups reach those moments more easily, technologies I define as ancient social technologies (ASTs).

Some ASTs, such as narrative coaching, circle practice, and dialogue across differences, have been developed for decades, even generations, to help groups reach emergence together in person. Now, as computational social technologies like video conferencing and social media have been ground breaking by connecting across distance, many facilitators have shown great creativity and resourcefulness as they use these platforms to implement ASTs online. Yet, computational social technologies do not scaffold or ease the implementation of key AST components that are deemed essential to the practice, making virtual AST use challenging.   

I present in this thesis Keeper, a tool designed to augment virtual communication by scaffolding the use of ancient social technologies within modern computational social technologies. With a design informed by a deep investigation into four ancient social technologies, Keeper visualizes and mediates online, synchronous, audio and video conversations. Keeper challenges a traditional two dimensional interface through use of “space” and tone. The tool scaffolds ASTs with features like a talking stick and guidelines, but retains key affordances of the digital medium by incorporating private messaging and conversation data visualization. Keeper fosters socially beneficial group dynamics by making visible conversation measures to promote equitability, and it prompts reflection and learning by offering visual maps of a conversation over time. The reception of this tool through experiments and interviews is discussed, and reflections on future work offered.