Marie LeBlanc Flanagan

Exploring Design Dimensions in Online Spaces

A year ago, when the pandemic pulled us all online, I made a list of video meeting tools. I later made a list of more experimental spaces for connecting online, hosted meetups where we toured around online spaces, and even shared online spaces on the morning news.

In this work, I've noticed at least 19 fascinating design decisions or dimensions in online spaces. Some of these dimensions also apply to offline events, some relate to time, space, or access, some are a bit wriggly and defy easy categorization (my favourites). These are not binary oppositions, they are more like spectrums of possibility.

I'm not really sure why I wrote this. I hate when people divide things into categories, it always seems so imprecise and intellectually violent, but somehow I find myself doing the same. I think the categorisation is - for me - an excuse to more deeply burrow into interesting questions about the ways people come together, the relationships between architecture and connection, and the spaces between us.

List of Dimensions

  • Time
  • Space
  • Interaction
  • Access
  • Identity

    Dimensions of Online Spaces


    Scheduled <<<>>>> Spontaneous

    • Scheduled Spaces are designed for gatherings with a clear starting time. Example: Jitsi, a video-call platform that you could use to host a weekly reading group, work meeting, or performance.
    • Spontaneous Spaces are designed for spur-of-the-moment connections, allowing you to show up at any time. Example: Chatroulette (nsfw) is designed for you to connect with people on a whim.

    There's growing tension between event organizers who prefer scheduling gatherings and over-committed attendees who want to spontaneously assess their energy in real time. Some events are always better scheduled: no-one prefers waiting three hours on hold over a scheduled phone call. But people also crave informal 'drop-in' online community spaces that resemble offline spaces, like libraries, cafes, and pubs. Spontaneous Spaces allow for social connection without the burden of planning an interaction, and perhaps most interestingly, for chance and serendipitous connection.

    Scheduled gatherings are useful when coordinating complicated schedules, planning detailed events, and minimizing security problems. Spontaneous online spaces are useful for managing your social energy responsively and deciding moment-to-moment what you have the energy and capacity to do.

    Synchronous <<<>>>> Asynchronous

    • Synchronous Spaces simply require people to be online together at the same time. They are always real-time, or as close to real-time as the technology and the human brain allows. Example: Google Meet allows people to talk over a video call with each other at the same time.
    • Asynchronous Spaces are designed for people to be online or communicating at different times. A good example is email where you can have a conversation over hours, days, or even years.

    The difference between synchronous and asynchonous spaces seems to be a matter of speed. We are not inside eachother's heads, communication is inherently riddled with pauses and gaps. But big gaps are very different than small gaps, as anyone who has ever sat through an uncomfortable silence knows. There are tricks to making asynchronous communication feel more synchronous, like the animated "..." you might see when someone is typing.

    I'm also deeply curious about the effects of backchannels on synchronous communication. These tiny, near-constant pieces of feedback can help align (sync!) the feelings and thoughts of people, but this seems more superficial than the slow, vulnerable, and contextless emotional alignment of people communicating asynchronously.

    Synchronous spaces are effective for generating social energy, dynamic connection, and quick feedback. If you are confused by something, you can type a question, or even just squint your eyes, and the speaker may know to stop and explain. Asynchronous spaces allow for more control over how you process and communicate your emotions. They are more like the online version of writing letters, buffering experiences and communication through time and space.

    Temporary <<<>>>> Permanent

    • Temporary Spaces delete or hide content after a certain amount of time. An example is Snapchat, where posts disappear after 24 hours. Another example is Riseup Pad, where the shared document is deleted after a predetermined period of inactivity.
    • Permanent Spaces keep content up forever. An example of this is a message board, where posts are visible for decades, as long as someone pays the server fees.

    There are many different forms of permanence. Our current tactics for persisting knowledge are very much like books: think, write, print, transmit. Our language is changing constantly, and an emoji or phrase can easily take on new meaning while your use of it five years ago is crystalized permanently. Oral traditions, in contrast, allow for a kind of permanence that carries the content through thousands of years by allowing the form to change as needed with the shape of the storyteller.

    Spaces with permanent content can help people share knowledge across time and space. A message board for a specific illness allows people to surface shared experiences and resources, even if they live decades and continents apart. Temporary spaces have a very different advantage: they relieve pressure from the ever-present anxiety of social surveillance and the permanence of the internet. Even though we know that anything on the internet is surveilled, tracked, and stored somewhere, it is a relief knowing that it is not easily accessible to anyone with a search engine. Temporary spaces also offer relief from the modern predicament of an overwhelming deluge of content. We are limited beings, with limited attention and limited time, and we are drowning in limitless content. Temporary spaces save us from the feeling of "I'll look at it later" by making that impossible. Ironically, temporary spaces also seem to create more content than previously imaginable.

    Centralized <<<>>>> Decentralized

    • Centralized Spaces are designed so everyone is connected to a central hub or owner. An example of a centralized online space is a personal Newsletter. The person writing the newsletter has access to all the recipients and total control over what is written and sent, if you are a recipient you have no relationship with other recipients or control over what is sent.
    • Decentralized Spaces have multiple hubs or owners. No single person has control over the platform or the relationships between people. Example: Mastodon, an open-source social media platform where many people run self-hosted social networks.

    One way to think about this dimension is in terms of the actual servers that host the space. If one individual wanted to close down the platform, could they? Another way to think about this dimension is in terms of implementation, or social organization. Most online spaces are centralized spaces, in that all decisions relating to the spaces are made by a single company or individual. But socially these spaces can feel decentralized. Example: many different people (anyone really) can create and moderate their own Facebook group or subreddit.

    Centralization is generally disempowering (unless you are at the center) and seems to always perch on top of exploitation. Decentralization is better for more people but seems to fall short as well. There always seems to be a lot of glossing over who has the power and knowledge and resources to run one of these smaller hubs. I had hoped that Distributed Spaces, where everyone shares ownership of the space could be a third option, but it's still unclear to me. I have more to learn here.

    Centralized spaces are easier to control and have smoother consistency of experience. They are relatively easy to build and maintain, since everything goes back to a single source. Centralized spaces are ideal if you are aiming to hoard wealth or exert extreme control. Decentralized spaces are more flexible and more generally resilient. If one part goes down, the rest can stay up. Decentralized spaces allow people to have more agency over their own environment, resulting in greater diversity.

    Public <<<>>>> Community <<<>>> Private

    • Public Spaces are designed for connections between strangers. An example is Dialup, an app that matches you with a random stranger over the phone to discuss a specific topic.
    • Community Spaces are designed to connect you with broader community circles, whether they are friends of friends or interest-based communities. One example is on Facebook Groups, where people connect over shared interests in smaller groups.
    • Private Spaces are designed specifically for connection with friends, and family. Examples of private spaces are a Signal group chat, or the friends-only social network, Cocoon.

    Totally public spaces are thrilling, there's a feeling that you can connect with anyone. They also tap into people's desires to see and be seen. Private spaces are more intimate, assuming shared context and feeling like an extension of the home. Most online spaces are somewhere between these two, making space for interacting with friends-of-friends or people with shared interests.

    Community spaces often allow for the adventure of connecting with strangers, with the safety rail of a shared contact or shared community.

    Spatial <<<>>>> Flat

    • Spatial Spaces use the idea of "space" as a design element. Example: Gather, a space where your avatar can wander around and interact with others.
    • Flat Spaces present all participants identically. Example: Skype, when you see every participant in the video call in identical boxes, and hear all participants equally.

    Spatial Spaces often have "rooms" or "maps." They may include visual spatiality, like an avatar wandering into a virtual kitchen to have tea. They often have audio spatiality, so your avatar can wander closer to people to hear them talking.

    Spatial Spaces allow for complex architectures in the space. In physical space, you would have very different conversations on the sidewalk than you would in your kitchen, or in a public bathroom. Most online spaces are designed without accounting for these spatial differences, everyone is just dumped into a grid or an open page.

    Text <<<>>>> Voice <<<>>>> Video

    • Text-only Spaces are designed to be used only with written text. An example is Midnight Pub, a virtual pub that lets you write posts and create pages.
    • Voice-first Spaces are designed for people to communicate using their voices. An interesting example is Cozy Room, where you are represented by an avatar and you see their mouth moving as you speak.
    • Video Spaces are designed for video communication. Some spaces might only allow others to see you, like Twitch or YouTube. Some spaces might allow everyone to see everyone, like any video call. The far extreme of video connection would be a body-rigged live-cam VR hangout.

    Text-only spaces have the lowest environmental impact, and can be accessible to people with low internet connections. Voice-first spaces are ideal for fostering intimacy, tone of voice carries so much extra context. Voice also allows for vocal backchannels. Video spaces are ideal for people who want to communicate visually or with body language.

    Audio can feel even more intimate than video. Written words can be interpreted in many different ways, and tone of voice carries more information and can be clearer. Audio spaces can be a relief for people with video-call burnout, exhausted with policing their bodies to show up in particular ways.

    Structured <<<>>>> Sandbox

    • Structured Spaces have strict pre-designed structure with very little intentional creative freedom. Example: Google Meet which has very few features and a strict structure.
    • Sandbox Spaces are created as you go, sometimes offering creative tools but mostly relying on participants to create meaning. A good example is Minecraft where people can build and explore the environment.

    Facilitated spaces that have specific rules around engagement can really transform how you feel about the space.

    Ambient <<<>>>> Direct

    • Ambient Spaces are generally used for passive copresence. Example: Focusmate, a site where you can sign up to work in silence with a stranger.
    • Direct Spaces are spaces that require full attention and interaction with others. Example: a traditional video call on Zoom.

    Ambient spaces can provide feelings of connection and community without asking much of participants. Like spontaneous spaces, they allow for more flexibility and responsiveness to meet the needs of people. Ambient spaces allow people to be co-present and engage in parallel play. They have the feeling of long-haul truckers driving with the CB radio on, or the long silences of a road trip.

    Direct spaces are better for focussed connection between smaller groups, and are nearly always also designed for scheduled gatherings. There is magic to focussed spaces, like poetry readings, conversation groups, or birthday parties. It's not just that you are together, it's that you know that everyone is paying attention to the same thing.

    An in-between for this dimension is something like Club Quarantine, a Zoom dance party where everyone dances alone at home but different dancers are given the "spotlight" for a few moments at a time.

    Used-As-Intended <<<>>>> Repurposed

    • Used-As-Intended Spaces are used more or less for their designed purpose. Of course, design often shifts with use, so this is a bit flexible. A good example is Twitter: designed for microblogging, and used more or less for this purpose.
    • Repurposed Spaces are spaces designed for a specific use that are repurposed for other kinds of use. A good example of this is Google Spreadsheet Parties.

    Collaborative <<<>>>> Competitive

    • Collaborative Spaces are designed for many people to contribute, often in interactive and cumulative ways. Examples include fanfic communities or collaborative whiteboards for online drawing.
    • Competitive Spaces encourage competition by design. Example: most online games are competitive spaces.

    Creation <<<>>>> Consumption

    • Creation Spaces inherently invite you to actively contribute creatively to the space. This might be drawing, music, dance, writing, or even creating the environment.
    • Consumption Spaces, in the most absolute sense, don’t belong on this list, because they aren’t really spaces for connecting with other people online. But many spaces invite you to consume more than create while simultaneously allowing for interactivity. An example for this is a Twitch Stream or a Netflix party.
    • We feel differently when sending vs receiving.

      Artistic media might be different than communication tech.

    Moderated <<<>>>> Unmoderated

    • Structured Spaces have a set of rules that are enforced by special users. If you break the rules you are penalized or kicked out. Some spaces are community moderated, where anyone is able to kick anyone out, or users are kicked out by vote. Example: that drawing game where you vote to remove someone.
    • Sandbox Spaces have no rules. Of course, all spaces have unspoken rules and power structures, so unmoderated spaces can be understood as secretly moderated spaces (Tyranny of structurelessness). Unmoderated spaces can be useful when you are curious about the state of the community, they communicate a lot about who is present.

    Curated <<<>>>> Open

    • Curated Spaces only allow for certain kinds of content. Usually there are single figureheads or tight groups of people who define and decide what is welcome in the space. These spaces tend to foster passionate communities.
    • Open Spaces are open to any kind of content you want to throw at them. Because of the lack of cohesiveness, they often have many people coming and going.

    Accessibled <<<>>>> Inaccessible

    • Accessible Spaces are spaces that people can access. Of course, there is no space that all people can access, so like all the other dimensions, this is a spectrum. More accessible spaces might take into account features like captions, read-aloud text, support for different languages, platforms that work with low-internet, simple and no-flashing visuals, flexibility around camera use, and space for people to show up as they are and be welcomed.
    • Inaccessible Spaces are spaces that block access. Often this involves expecting people to use the platform in a rigid way, making no allowances for differences in experiences and environments. Questions around inaccessibility might start with: who has access? Who doesn’t have access? Who has partial access? Why?
    • Built with people who have specific needs, not for them.

      Reminder that you are in your physcial body

    Privacy-first <<<>>>> Data-Selling

    • Data-Selling spaces generally exist to collect and sell your data and social graphs to advertisers. An excellent example of this is Facebook. This is worth mentioning because it’s often the financial model of connecting spaces.
    • Privacy-first only collect data with your informed consent, and only uses this to make the experience better for you. Example: inviting you to share your location to match you with other local stamp collectors.

    Humanizing <<<>>>> Dehumanizing

    • Humanizing Spaces flatten people into “other” or simple representations.
    • Dehumanizing Spaces invite complexity.

    Anonymous <<<>>>> Persistent Identity <<<>>>> Onymous

    • Anonymous Spaces allow you to participate without identifying yourself to other participants (you are never completely anonymous online). Example: an online text editor that allows you to collaboratively write a story with friends without knowing who wrote which part. Anonymous spaces can be enormously liberating, especially if you feel pressure to behave in a certain way.
    • Persistent Identity Spaces are on the other end of the spectrum, forcing you to verify and publish your username with a passport. Sometimes this is necessary for legal reasons. They often exclude people who don’t have documentation or have a different name than the documentation.
    • Onymous Spaces allow you to create a name of your choice, but encourage you to use only that name, designing for a singular persistent identity. Persistent usernames can increase accountability and allow for richer relationships.

    Connecting <<<>>>> Alienating

    • Connecting Spaces are
    • Alienating Spaces are

    Obviously no one wants to make an alienating space for connecting online. But many people do.

    The uncanny valley of connection, feeling like you are almost connecting but not quite.

    Last Thoughts

    There have been platforms for connecting online since the beginning of the internet. The internet itself is a platform for connecting. But since the first wave of COVID we’ve seen a massive emergence of online spaces and experimentation with how people connect online. It’s strange that the social media giants didn’t leap into this opportunity and shoulder everyone else out of the way. They are perfectly positioned, and already have hooks in most of us. But I’m delighted that they didn’t.

    Lately I’ve been thinking about how these different platforms vary. About how online spaces shape our connections, and how we might reimagine what online spaces could be.

    Now I’m done here I’m going to the park.