Ritual Reality: Social Engineering in Online Communities

Amy Jo Kim, NAIMA,

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University December 6, 1996


Every day on the Net, we are confronted with an ever-widening variety of online social environments - graphic MUDs, voice-enabled avatar chat, video conferencing, fast-action gaming networks - each of which is building community in a particular way. Though diverse, these environments share a common theme - the tone and style of interaction is heavily influenced by the "social engineering" of the environment. This includes the depth of participation and personality of the host, the rules and requirements of membership, the style and mood of the visual design, and the structure and mutability of the environment itself.

As designers and builders of online communities, we can learn powerful lessons by studying the social rituals that have succesfully shaped real-world communities, and applying these lessons to our own work. In this talk, I will examine a variety of "community-building organizations" in both the online and offline worlds, and describe how each of these organizations is using time-tested social rituals to build and maintain community.

I will also present a demo of "ambient.com", a graphic MUD-like environment that demonstrates how ancient customs can be translated into specific design tactics for building online communities.


Amy Jo Kim has been creating innovative user interfaces for more than 15 years. Trained as a research scientist and computer programmer, she received her Ph.D. in 1986 , at which point a promising career in Neuroscience was derailed by a fascination with building things that people use. Since then she has become a specialist in online design, with a deep and diverse background in client-server engineering, multimedia interface design, multi-player gaming environments, and bass-playing in African dance bands.

Ms. Kim is the founder and Creative Director of NAIMA (www.naima.com), a 21st century design studio specializing in cutting-edge online environments. Her clients include America Online, AT&T, CyberCash, Electric Communities, Fujitsu, Mpath Interactive, MTV, NetNoir, Nickelodeon, Oracle, Paramount, Redgate, Viacom, Vincent New Media, and YAHOO. In addition to designing Web sites and online environments for her clients, Ms. Kim has written and lectured widely on social engineering and online design, and is actively involved in the research and academic communities. Her most recent project, "Digital Dixieland: Multi-player Karaoke," was a featured installation at the Siggraph '96 Digital Bayou.


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