On Social Translucence

When you wake up in the morning, ready to go about your day, you do so in the real world. You have a coffee, commute to work, and talk to people in the office—or you might be self-employed, work remotely, or just be very well-off; this is just an example, so let’s not the dwell on it.

You—a complex being—have a myriad of social interactions on your typical day, and the range of these is vast. You talk to your spouse or partner, you pet your cat, and it purrs back, or maybe you live alone and look out the window to check the weather and see people doing their thing. On your way to work, you see strangers and both inadvertently and invariably take social cues from them—be it a passing glance, a conversation you overhear, or a million other things. In the office, you greet your colleagues and maybe do some small talk.

Yet when you go online—much of your very very complex social behavior and perceptiveness goes away. The act of merely logging in online immediately reduces you to an actor with an agenda. The world is connected and a lot of the things we do today—from browsing for entertainment to making life-changing decisions—we do online.

The chances are, whether you realize this or not, when online, you are almost always a part of a community. You interact with community members, collaborate and contribute by generating content. As the number of the community members grows, it becomes harder and many times straight impossible to make sense of the actions of the others.

That’s where social translucence comes into play.

The term social translucence was proposed by Thomas Erickson and Wendy Kellogg as part of their work at IBM T. J. Watson Research Center in a research paper titled Social translucence: an approach to designing systems that support social processes and published in 2000.

The definition that I like the most, however, is the one coming from a paper by David W. McDonald, Stephanie Gokhman, and Mark Zachry titled Building for social translucence: a domain analysis and prototype system and published in 2012:

Social translucence is a socio-technical term to describe how systems can facilitate understanding with regard to the actions of people in online environments. Social translucence includes three key design attributes: (a) mutual awareness of activities, (b) contextual propagation of socially salient cues (visibility), and © accountability for one’s actions. Through support for these three characteristics, members in a community can better understand the types of activities that transpire, understand the norms of the community, and the consequences for the actions that they may take.

Social translucence means that the digital world and the interactions of members in online communities not only come closer to the real one to increase the level of involvement of the complexity of our human being designs but also enhances us as beings through the virtue of connectedness.

In short, when you go online, you should be able to be aware of other people’s activities (to a useful degree, which is a vast topic for a separate debate) in your community, be able to take the social cues that matter, and be able to seize how accountable the members you interact with are.

When talking system design, however,—like that of a social network—social translucence is not a feature that can be developed for a system at a later stage. It’s not something that can be put as an overlay. Social translucence must be a part of the architectural design, and it has been implemented in many Web 2.0 systems partly as features: from Wikipedia, where you can see article changes and discussions to various forums with badges, karma digits, past messages of the members, and so on.

Why in Web 2.0 though? To make it short, the connectedness of the world is going through changes (well, like anything in life), and the key characteristics of Web 1.0 was dumping information on users through websites, which was a one-way process; Web 2.0 is interactive and social—the communication process is two-way, and Web 3.0 is supposed to fundamentally change how people interact with each other online.

The way I see it, social translucence emerged in Web 2.0 and crept in as one of the essential features that people needed. As a feature. As a community member, more often than not you would like to understand useful you are to the community and how your contributions influence the growth and the effectiveness of the community. And you want—nay, need—to trust the implementation of the social translucence.

In Web 3.0, social translucence must be both designed and implemented at the level of software architecture, it must be a thing that’s at the core of the project and is there right from the start, and it must be a clear concept in the heads of those who design it before they even sit down to draw up a rough blueprint of the system.