together alone

The phrase “alone together” came up in a couple of different contexts this week. In both instances it was expressed as being physical with other people participating in a solitary activity: checking email at Starbucks, flying without talking with your seatmates, and the like. This is not unlike Ducheneaut’s use of the phrase alone together (paper) in reporting that the social activity in the game World of Warcraft was less than had previously been estimated. Within this umbrella there are some distinctions that I’ve been mulling over.

As Ducheneaut observes, the café is a lot like the WoW experience. People are surrounded by background chatter and social interaction, even if they choose not to participate. The person who checks email at Starbucks did not attribute his behavior to seeking an environment, but instead to seeking serendipitous social interaction even though he does not actually experience this interaction when he goes to Starbucks. I am curious about how broadly this applies, and if it is generalizable to experiences like WoW.

There is also another potential distinction linked to the split between what the person says he is seeking (social interaction) and what he gets (a social environment). For most visitors (or is it most locations?), Starbucks does not meet Oldenburg’s criteria for a third space. In a “true” third space, the person’s expectation of serendipitous social interaction would not be unreasonable. Working backwards through the analogies (perhaps more than is reasonable), Ducheneaut et al’s work on the limits of sociability in WoW may bound or even push back against Steinkuehler and Williams’s persuasive argument that WoW is a third space.

The inside of an airplane is not the same and currently has more in common with Marc Augé’s description of non-spaces. People are not transiting airports and flying for the experience of being confined with 300 neighbors. Yet the people environment is similar, as are many of the things that people do in cafés and airplanes: read, consume beverages and small amounts of food, watch movies, listen to music, and catch up on work on paper or on laptops. In the economy section of an airplane, the people are too close, while in the coffee house people seek out others’ presence.

The media, though, is being used in part for different reasons. At Starbucks, it might be to relax or to get things done. This is true on the plane, sure, but it is also an escape from the environment. This is not a new observation, but bears repeating. Both sorts experiences suggest, though, that virtual realities are no more likely than truly virtual communities — more and more day to day situations are becoming intermingled, hybrid experiences. As hybrid environments become more prevalent and in more mundane settings, the design possibilities start to get exciting.