The Zephyr Help Instance as a CSCW Resource
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.
KeywordsSystem Feature Dependable Resource Social Mechanism Social Purpose Public Performance
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