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Social Computing Group - Babble

Babble (1997-2001) was a pioneering persistent chat system that used a visualization to show the presence and involvement of participants in a conversation; it was designed, implemented, deployed and studied over about four years.

Babble is a chat-like communication tool that allows its users to engage in synchronous or asynchronous textual conversations, and provides visual feedback regarding who has recently participated in a conversation.

It differed from other chat systems in two ways. First, a visualization called a social proxy was used to provide a sense of who was present, and who was paying attention that proved surprisingly engaging. The proxy uses a large circle to represent the conversation, and colored dots to represent individuals. A dot inside the circle represents a user who is "in" the displayed conversation; a dot outside the circle is in some other conversation. When a user interacts with Babble — either by posting a message, or simply by scrolling or clicking on the interface — her dot rapidly moves towards the hub of the circle; with inactivity the marble slowly drifts out to the edge of the circle. In the figure, five participants have recently "spoken" or "listened," two have been idle, and one is in a different conversation.

Babble also differs from other systems in that its conversations are persistent: the chat stays on the server permanently, thus permitting asynchronous conversations and activities. A user who is not on-line when a comment is made can see it later, and can scroll back through the entire history of a conversation. A second proxy — the Timeline — showed a tickertape-like trace of who was present and talking.

Babble was deployed to a number of groups in IBM over the several years, and its usage was studied and described in a number of papers. Babble laid the foundation for a system called Loops, and the design of many other social proxies.

Click here for an interactive tour of Babble.

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