MAS.961 | Spring 2008 | Graduate

Special Topics: Designing Sociable Media


Assignment 3: Mapping Conversation

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Conversations are one of the most important forms of interaction, both face-to-face and online. The information exchanged within them goes far beyond the facts that one person tells another: how people use words, whether they interrupt each other, how they use greetings, etc. provides key information about their relationships, the importance of what they are saying, and the impact of this exchange.


Bonvillain, Nancy. “Communicative Interactions.” Chapter 5 in Language, Culture and Communication. 5th ed. East Rutherford, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2007. ISBN: 9780135135686.

Small, David. “Navigating Large Bodies of Text.” IBM Systems Journal 35, nos. 3-4 (1996).

Donath, Judith. “Words as Landscape.” Draft of paper prepared for Beyond Threaded Conversation, CHI Workshop, Portland, OR, April 3, 2005. (PDF - 1.1MB)


  1. Please read all the papers.

  2. Write a short essay about what elements Bonvillain discusses apply to online interaction and which do not.

  3. Observe conversations in various places - at school, in stores, over dinner, at parties.

    Using one such conversation as a basis, draw an abstract representation of it.

    • You will need to decide what you want to show, e.g. who is there? What was said? Non-verbal communication events (glances, gestures, surroundings etc.) How do people start and end discussions, how do they join in existing ones?
    • How do you want to use space of your drawing: to show the temporal evolution of the discussion? The key points? Relative status of the participants? The setting? Given your choice of things to depict, how do you want to use graphics - shapes? Color? Symbols? Words?

    Use this as an exercise both in thinking about what is important about conversations and in pushing the way you think they might appear when visuallly depicted.

  4. Observe online conversations in various formats - mailing list, discussion boards, IM exchanges, Twitter feeds, etc.

    Using one such conversation as a basis, draw an abstract representation of it. In addition to the questions you thought about in the face-to-face sketch, you may find it useful to think about:

    • How many people are there (and do you know how many others might be silently participating)?
    • What constitutes a “conversation”? How do threads and topics emerge, mutate, disapper? Are multiple conversations carried out at once?
    • What is the situation - and what is the purpose of the conversation? How is this maintained?
    • What constitutes a “conversation”? How do threads emerge, mutate, disappear?
    • What is the social structure of the group: do the participants seem to know each other? Are there distinct subgroups? Are there problematic participants? If so, how do the other members deal with them?
    • How do the participants use the medium to convey social information (e.g. turn-taking, greement/disagreement, etc.)? Are there discernable gradations of communicative competence within the group?

    In particular, show how your design can be used as part of a living conversational landscape - that is, not just a visualization of an archived discussion, but as a context for ongoing interaction.

Student Work

Seth Hunter

Sohin Hwang

Lana Swartz

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Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2008
Learning Resource Types
Problem Sets with Solutions
Projects with Examples