Friday, August 08, 2008

friendship buckets

(i realize now that this post is on the order of a lara post.. something i try to avoid, noting that blog readers have no attention span these days [i certainly don't!] .. but i feel the temptation to leave it all in)

a friend recently used the phrase "friendship bucket" as a metaphor representing the state of a relationship. when i read this phrase i thought of leaky buckets, buckets with patches, refilling a bucket with water, or leaving a bucket out in the sun and seeing all the water dry up (the bucket above represents a really really old friendship!).

but then i got all geeky and started thinking about the effectiveness of such a metaphor (i think we can thank jono for that, who often pontificates on things like this over on his blog). for example, the state of a relationship is really an intersubjective thing -- so either friends share the same bucket and compromise on the representation ("i thought our bucket had two holes, a small patch and was 3/4 full -- how could you think it was only 1/2 full!") or, more reasonably, the friendship bucket is an individual's view on a particular relationship.

ok. but there still seems to be something missing. for instance, if i had a metaphor for the state of a relationship, i'd want it to either cleanly capture the current state, or the history. ideally, both. i don't think a bucket does either of these very well. for instance, if your bucket is meant to capture history, then how do you make sense of the current "fullness"? obviously there was some reason we'd say the bucket is 3/4 full (it got there somehow?) -- but what was the pour history? if that seems a bit ridiculous, and your bucket is really just a reflection of now, then you also run into problems because the way we (or at least i) think about relationships is hardly ahistoric -- the history is there and immediately foregrounds when i bring a friend to mind. and a bucket is an object i think of as having history -- indeed, a patch on a bucket was placed at a particular time, and in this metaphor might represent some form of friendship repair that may not be immediate but is nonetheless important.

so friendship bucket isn't resonating with me. and you probably think this is quite ridiculous -- who meditates on the effectiveness of such a metaphor? well, i do! :)

i think a few elements are missing in this metaphor. here they are:
- a clear distinction between what i think of the relationship, what i think the other person might think, and maybe some objective measures (when we last met up?)
- a way of tracking the movement of the relationship
- a method for thinking about this relationship in comparison to other similar relationships in your life

this actually leads me to discuss a fantastic work by intel seattle. in elder care homes, a major problem is social isolation amongst the elders. having had a grandmother who was in a nursing home, i intimately understand the problem. workers at homes really try to keep the elders engaged with various others (family, friends, people at the home).

so what intel did was create a very simple display. it shows a solar system, with the central object, the sun, representing the elder. the orbiting "planets" are people in the elder's social network. the distance between a planet and the sun is a reflection of the social closeness of the elder and the person, at that time. in this case, the proximity was based on interactions (phone calls, visits, length of these interactions). the display showed preliminary success when compared to a control case. indeed, elders who used the display would try to bring in outer planets by getting in touch with the represented people.

so, now the question -- why is this just for elders? it likely seems strange to think of having such a detailed reflection on your relationships. we keep this stuff in our head. but as a mechanism for self-reflection, and potentially as a mechanism for mak

i'd want to incorporate a few things into this display:
- reflection of my impression of the relationship. maybe just an emoticon on the planet?
- a method for seeing the movement of the planets over time, so you can see how different relationships have evolved. the faded trajectory above tries to do that

anyway i think i'll end here and continue these thoughts in the future.


neha said...

why is this labeled stupid omar? This is a great post!

I would love to have that solar-system type thing in my life, or at least something that would sort of remind me of people i haven't contacted in a while so i could initiate something. there are too many people in my life i really like but never remember to connect with.

a pretty graphical presentation seems so useful!

Jono said...

Excellent metaphor reflection. I think it's really important to question metaphors as they have such a power to subtly mislead.

I learned about a bucket metaphor from the book How full is your bucket Like any metaphor I think it highlights and hides.

It's nice because it's a simple way to consider the state of a relationship, which is otherwise always so abstract, and a good way to remind you to keep 'topping' your relationships up. Like you, I also remember thinking it was a kind of awkward metaphor. The argument went that if I fill your bucket (improve your current state), then I also end up filling mine. It's a great way to encourage giving and sharing, but the metaphor for both buckets rising is somewhat confusing given most people's understanding of the laws of physics.

I love your idea of incorporating some sense of history for a relationship. And in fact, I think your bucket picture does a good job of that for me. (I think you could also argue for the opposite though, of leaving people's past actions behind - though it's tough to do).

The elder visualization is fascinating. We once tried something like this when (using prefuse) we built a visualization of the social networks at our weddding, which we then had on a big poster at the wedding. When we did it though I remember realizing the value sometimes of keeping some of this implicit. We had one person (a friend of a friend) who unfortunately was stuck out all by themselves - so we carefully modified the network so they wouldn't feel as out there as it would suggest. So the artifact itself can have a big effect. Maybe just private visualizations are good, a little like the xobni email stats of when you've last contacted people...

Lara said...

Given the way your blog post started out, I am picturing my little star in your solar system as an emoticon that flashes between the long-standing smiley face and this morning's (post-reading-your-blog) frowny face. Writing a lot is not always a bad thing!!!