The Zephyr Help Instance as a CSCW Resource

  • Mark S. Ackerman
  • Leysia Palen
Part of the Computer Supported Cooperative Work book series (CSCW)


This chapter discusses, as an example of a resource in use, the Zephyr Help Instance as used at MIT. The Zephyr Help Instance is a chat-like system that allows users to ask questions and other users to answer. The Zephyr Help Instance has the social and technical affordances for continued use as socio-technical system in its environment of use and has become a resource for its users.

This chapter highlights many of the structures and interactions necessary for the adoption of a system to serve as a sustained and dependable resource in people’s environment. To continue providing help, the Help Instance requires, like any sociality, a common-enough understanding of the space’s purpose, a shared understanding of the key roles (i.e., questioners and answerers), some norms about acceptable and preferred behavior, and a positive adaptation to the organizational culture. In other words, in order to continue as a social place, there must be a negotiated social order. The Zephyr Help Instance is a simple but successful and effective example of this. The way these social mechanisms work together and reinforce one another allows Zephyr to function appropriately for its users-to become a resource for them.

As well, in the Zephyr system’s technical capabilities for new instances (for policing of the topics), the system speed (for background attending), the public messages (for rewarding and recruiting answerers), as well as, paradoxically, the lack of memory and the poor display options (for background attending) provide technical affordances for these social mechanisms.

We found that the Help Instance’s users have made creative use of system affordances to organize and regulate their electronic social space. Users were able to seize upon the system features for their own social purposes. The Zephyr Help Instance became a resource in the users’ world, allowing them to create and maintain a socially useful and usable system over time.


System Feature Dependable Resource Social Mechanism Social Purpose Public Performance 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Aaronson A, Carroll JM (1987) Intelligent help in a one-shot dialog: A protocol study. Proceedings of CHI + GI’87, pp. 163–168.Google Scholar
  2. Ackerman MS, Palen L (1996) The zephyr help instance: Promoting ongoing activity in a CSCW system. In: Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI’96).Google Scholar
  3. Berger PL (1967) The Sacred Canopy. Anchor, New York.Google Scholar
  4. Bowers J (1994) The work to make a network work: Studying CSCW in action. Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW’94), pp. 287–298.Google Scholar
  5. Campagnoni FR, Ehrlich K (1989) Information retrieval using a hypertext-based help system. Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Information Retrieval (SIGIR ‘89), pp. 212–220.Google Scholar
  6. Davis F (1968) Professional socialization as subjective experience. In: Becker HS, Geer B, Riesman D, Weiss RS (eds.) Institutions and the person: Papers presented to Everett C. Hughes. Aldine, Chicago.Google Scholar
  7. DellaFera CA, Eichin MW, French RS, Jedlinsky DC, Kohl JT, Sommerfeld WE (1988) The zephyr notification service. Proceedings of the Usenix Technical Conference, pp. 213–220.Google Scholar
  8. Finholt TA (1993) Outsiders on the inside: Sharing information through a computer archive. Carnegie Mellon University, Ph.D. thesis.Google Scholar
  9. Garfinkel H (1967) Studies in Ethnomethodology. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.Google Scholar
  10. Grudin J, Palen L (1995) Why groupware succeeds: Discretion or mandate? Proceedings of the 4th European Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (ECSCW’95), pp. 263–278.Google Scholar
  11. Hiltz SR, Turoff M (1981) The evolution of user behavior in a computerized conferencing system. Communications of the ACM, 24(11): 739–762.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Hutchins E (1995) Cognition in the Wild. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
  13. Hutchins E, Palen L (1993) Constructing meaning from space, gesture and talk. Proceedings of NATO Workshop on Discourse, Tools and Reasoning.Google Scholar
  14. Kearsley G (1988) Online Help Systems: Design and Implementation. Ablex, Norwood, NJ.Google Scholar
  15. Malone TW (1985) Designing organizational interfaces. Proceedings of CHI’85, pp. 66–71.Google Scholar
  16. Orlikowski WJ (1992) Learning from notes: Organizational issues in groupware implementation. Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW’92), pp. 362–369.Google Scholar
  17. Randall D, Hughes JA (1995) Sociology, CSCW, and working with customers. In: Thomas PJ (ed.) The Social and Interactional Dimensions of Human-Computer Interaction. Cambridge University, New York.Google Scholar
  18. Sproull L, Kiesler S (1991) Connections. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
  19. Strauss A (1991) Creating Sociological Awareness. Transaction, New Brunswick, NJ.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag London Limited 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mark S. Ackerman
  • Leysia Palen

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations