We have all been in discussions where one or a few members of the group dominated the conversation, while others felt left out. Group discussions, whether in the public sphere, or academic and business settings, are usually intended to disseminate knowledge, survey opinions and reach consensus on matters relevant to the group. New electronic communication mediums, from conference calls, instant messaging and Web 2.0 online discussions offer the means to modify meeting dynamics, but so far they have often amplified existing behavioral patterns.
American culture tends to value speech highly, and those who are the most vocal are generally more respected, perceived as more intelligent, and have a disproportionate impact on the group decisions. However, there is a wide range of individual and cultural variation in the amount that people speak, whether due to introversion or shyness, politeness, language difficulties, or other factors. However, no correlation has been shown between amount of speech and knowledge, competence or intelligence, leading one to ask if there are other ways to mediate discussions to allow for a more equitable distribution of input, and to increase the overall quality of the discussion content through the inclusion of diverse perspectives.
Big Mouth is an interface for online discussions. The conversation space is reconceptualized so that the time or space each person uses is a limited resource. Users’ messages will appear next to their icon each time they send a message, and the message will gradually shrink, fade and move towards the center. If a user speaks too often, their words will overlap and be illegible, so it encourages them to slow down, wait, listen and allow others to speak. The conversation space is now more representative of a “public space” or the “public sphere,” and the users’ contributions to it (and whether they are exceeding their share) are readily visible.
Big Mouth hopes to expose the dynamics of group conversation. For those who may normally participate less, or who may feel limited within a particular group, it hopes to reduce that frustration as well as provide the satisfaction of being heard.
Big Mouth was created by Derek Chung and was based on SparkWeb, an open source IM client written in Flex/ActionScript. It uses the core interface with new code for the chat room interface. It was created for Persuasive Technology: Designing the Human, a course at the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.
Thanks to the SparkWeb developers (Jive Software/Ignite Realtime), Kati London and the Persuasive Technology class, and my user test group.
Virginia Richmond, James McCroskey, Communication: Apprehension, Avoidance and Effectiveness. (Scottsdale: Gorsuch Scarisbrick, 1985). The book describes a number of studies, documenting perceptions and behaviors that are associated with “low communication apprehensives,” (i.e., the less shy) – in summary, “as a person’s habitual level of talk increases, the person is perceived more positively.” The effect only diminishes when the person is perceived to have a low quality of contribution. There are some cultural and gender variations in these perceptions.
Min-Sun Kim, Non-Western Perspectives on Human Communication. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2002). In this book, Kim argues many of the models for communication and the associated assumptions and studies are rooted in Western attitudes about individuals and their relationship to society.
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