Although the concept of social networking on the web has been steadily active for only the last decade, the phenomenon of social networking is ancient. Social networking thrives on an inherent need of people to know about each other’s lives. As stated by Danah Boyd a social media researcher at Microsoft Research “We all poo-poo the reunion, but secretly, we really want to know what happened to Bobbi Sue.” People are curious about other people and social networking gives them a dynamic platform to see what is happening in everyone’s lives. Current technology is playing a role of an enabler to suffice this basic need. Many physical and virtual arenas have played the role of social enabler and facilitated people to interact with each other. For example, a job portal where one can recommend a colleague’s work, a coffee table for sharing pictures of graduation with friends and family and an MMORPG where flirting with other avatars is made safe.
One such enabler that has evolved for the specific purpose of enhanced social networking is Architecture. Human settlements from times immemorial have had dedicated spaces like residential, administrative, etc. which served specific purposes. Each one of these spaces has a specific role and thus the power to create and sustain patterns of social systems. I believe understanding the underlying fundamentals of social spaces in architecture may unveil new possibilities for the design of digital social networks. I decided to try to find some parallels between a popular social network Facebook and a south Indian medieval temple Brihadeshwara for social spaces in virtual reality and reality, respectively.
For years I have been particularly intrigued by the architecture of a famous Dravidian temple–Brihadeshwara, in the city of Tanjore. Being a native of the city, the Brihadeshwara temple was a part of my daily life. I had an opportunity to visit the thousand-year commemoration festival of this temple where a thousand dancers danced together to revive the pride of this heritage. Witnessing this extravaganza made me ponder how the spaces in this temple would have behaved centuries ago.
1000 years commemoration celebration of Brihadeshwara temple
The impact of the form and space on human thought and behavior is well established. In his classic book ‘A pattern language,’ Christopher Alexander delineates close connections between the nature of matter, human perception of the universe, and the geometries in which people construct buildings, cities, and artifacts. The pattern language talks about how architecture connects people to their surroundings in a subconscious level.
Brihadeshwara temple has endured the entropy in societies, religious and political revolutions, millenniums, technological breakthroughs and is still standing as powerful reminder of the social structure of the medieval era in south India. A primary purpose of articulating this constructed space was to reinforce the beliefs and thoughts of existing social systems on generations to come. Like a typical Dravidian temple, Brihadeshwara consists of the following major elements: an entrance, often with a porch; one or more attached or detached mandapas or halls; the inner sanctum called the Garbagriha, literally ‘womb chamber’; and the tower build directly above the Garbagriha.
Layout plan of Brihadeshwara temple
Section of Brihadeshwara temple
The above elements are the key transitional spaces a visitor experiences as they navigate through the temple. I compared these spaces to the transitional screens present while navigating through Facebook. Just as certain elements of design have been effectively employed in the temple layout to kindle certain thoughts and emotions in the eyes of their beholder, the Facebook interface is also designed to evoke emotion and guide a user through the site. In both cases, the transitional spaces invoke different social roles in visitors as they move across them. Facebook currently has these key features – Home, profile (user’s profile and a friend’s profile) and settings. The user navigates from his/her profile to friend’s profile, home page, and status updates etc. These pages create an identity as a group, as a community and as an individual entity. The following diagram shows structure of Facebook with different interactive elements.
Structure of Facebook ( as on 22nd May 2012)
We can see that some of these elements are repeated in different pages thus marring the uniqueness of each page. Now we can take a look at how the social identity of a user undergoes a metamorphosis from a world being to an individual while traversing the temple and Facebook space:
Layout plan of Brihadeshwara temple with visitor's movement pattern
1. The visitor enters as a group, with friends, family, strangers. The visitor is still an entity with the world distracted by events around.
2. As visitor transcends into the praharas smaller group of people in closer social circle are with him/her, like friends and family.
3. Even further on when visitors in prayer hall (mandapa) or while encircling the Vimana this unit becomes smaller still, consisting of a close friend or family.
4. Finally in the Garbagriha this unit shrinks to its minimal, it’s just the visitor and the divine. Therefore the thoughts throughout this transition will also be dependent on what is the society around the visitor, visitor’s friends and family.
It’s interesting to see that the transitions of spaces are pivotal in narrating a single social experience in this layout. This might be an interesting direction in social system design, to understand importance of transitional spaces. In the following paragraph I draw some parallels in social spaces in architecture and corresponding counterpart in a social networking site.
Temple: Let’s start with example of the Gopuram. These are lofty gateways usually at the quadrangle of a temple complex. These are of a big scale and imbibe a strong sense of ‘entry’ into the visitor. The Gopuram uses the design elements of scale to establish to the devotee, that he is entering the abode of the almighty. The gateways are guarded by massive demon like gods. These Gods represent might and strength. Another element used in the Gopuram is that of storytelling. There are numerous statues in Gopuram, which together present a preface of stories that lies within the complex.
Facebook: This Gopuram can be extrapolated to the Login feature in a social networking site. Although not same in scale, but both these elements reinforce the ‘entry’ aspect of a social space.
Temple: Next in line is the Vimana. This is the most massive and impressive part of the temple. The façade of the temple carries stories that ancestors wanted to share. This space is one of the best examples of how visual storytelling can preserve thoughts for ages.
Temple Vimana (gateways)
Facebook: This is a little similar to the ‘wall’ feature in a social network, where user communicates casually with the friend circle using comments, pictures, videos etc. Recently Facebook has introduced timeline as an alternate to the ‘wall’ view. Timeline employs mnemonic elements in design and archives the events on users profile. For example, the feature called ‘ life event’ in timeline is similar to carving out an important story in temple façade
Temple: And finally there is the Garbagriha. This term means “womb chamber.” So far the visitor of the temple, who was an entity with the rest of his/her social circle, enters a very personal space here. This zone is between the visitor and the divine. This is the inner chamber, the sanctum sanatorium that hails the main deity. As the visitor approaches this, the roof height keeps diminishing. This helps the visitor recollect all prayers or verses used to communicate to the Super power (in this case the temple deity). This is the place for visitor’s penance. All the thoughts and memories here are strongest, most private and intimate. These are not thoughts visitor would want to exhibit out aloud, but to share nevertheless.
Facebook: This is equivalent to the home page, a space meant to be a private space for a user, within a social space. Facebook ‘s homepage showcases the news feeds of friends, acquaintances and applications together. There is hardly a ‘me’ space in this home. This flat structure is devoid of a personal flavor. Although customization while sharing is available in privacy settings, it’s very subtle.
As observed in transitional spaces in temples, just as much socializing is enjoyed in social spaces, need for privacy is also appreciated. Temple space does not create physical barricades to differentiate private and public spaces but rather employs design elements to achieve the same. Privacy is expected not only on user’s profile but also while looking at other user’s profiles. In the temple space there is a zone that is respected by everyone to be fully private, in the midst of a public structure. Privacy need not be defined by spaces alone, but also by time. In temples during the ‘pooja’ or prayer time there is a unanimous pact between the visitors to disconnect from worldly realm and connect with the divine.
Comparison of social spaces in reality and virtual reality
In temples an important aspect of the design is that it is intended to lead from the temporal world to the eternal. Today, social networking sites are a portal for users to get in touch with each other be it in their past, present or maybe, even future. Social networking sites give a platform to glorify cherished events in life and to create autobiographies everyday. Social networks can preserve profiles even if the people in it cease to exist. Death and Our Digital Legacy addresses an interesting issue of what digital legacies can we leave behind for our future generations. This is an interesting area of exploration and applying the time tested architectural principles of medieval social spaces and patterns can significantly enhance user experience in social networks.
Photos by Shayak Sen