Towards a Proxemics of the Intranet

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Relationships are funny things. A combination of formal and informal roles, responsibilities, and feelings, they’ve given the designers and users of social software a hard time. How do we make explicit something as subtle as friendship? How often does “friend” just not seem at all like the right term to be using in Facebook to describe an acquaintance? The result is often not very pretty.

In a business setting, enterprise 2.0 tools have a slightly easier time of things. Relationships can be formally codified within an organization. He’s my direct report. She’s my boss. That’s my department. This is my project team. These are relationships that, while they may change, don’t vary or depend on my day to day emotional state and how I feel about them (wish as you may).

So we’ve been thinking, wouldn’t it be useful to utilize those relationships to tune your notifications from the intranet?

Keeping abreast of what’s happening in your organization through monitoring the activity of your intranet is something that we’ve been working on in the design of ThoughtFarmer for a while. The current incarnation is fairly basic: we have a simple filter of recent changes on the home page that shows who’s updated their status (People), what pages have been edited (Pages), and what comments have been made (Comments). It’s enough to provide you with some signals that stuff is happening and you may or may not be interested in that stuff.

What we’re working towards in an upcoming release of ThoughtFarmer is a model that provides somewhat more fine-grained control of what’s happening. Our current model, if there’s lots of people in your organization, is a bit coarse: seemingly random noise from the knowledge repository of your company. To help us refine that concept, we’ve sought inspiration from the real world and the pioneering work of American anthropologist Edward T. Hall, to introduce a concept of proxemics to the intranet.

Proxemics was Hall’s contribution to the study of how people relate to each other interpersonally and socially through their physical proximity to each other. Hall identified four expanding zones of relation: intimate distance, personal distance, social distance, and public distance. Each of these distances represented boundaries of physical space from centimeters (intimate) to tens of meters away (public) and represented the ability to engage in certain relationship-defining acts between people across those distances.

These then represent a nice lens through which we can look at the relationships we have with each other, our company, and our content on the intranet. Intimate distance represents information all about you: your page edits, your comments, your status, etc. Personal distance represents stuff that’s been done to you or your content by others. Social distance is everything within your network, including your management relationships and group / division / regional relationships. Finally, public distance on the intranet is everyone and their activity in the organization.

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Individuals, groups, their activity, and their content have a gravity to each user. Like Grover from Sesame Street, some are near, others are far. We acknowledge this model doesn’t take into account the interpersonal ties and informal social bonds that exist throughout an organization, but hope that intranet proxemics will help provide a subtle and useful mechanism for keeping aware of what’s going on within the organization.

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