Not a Highway, but a Place:
Joint Activity on the Net
 by the Jupiter Project Team
Xerox Palo Alto Research Center

  Most descriptions of the National Information Infrastructure fall into two broad categories; let's call them the "cable TV" model and the "telephone" model. In the cable model, the network is full of information and entertainment resources that the user browses or retrieves, such as home shopping, "movies on demand", and digital libraries. In the telephone model, the network is just a communications channel that allows users to talk to one another directly, through media like audio/video conferencing, electronic mail, and voice mail.

   While each of these views of the future Net is probably accurate, to a certain extent, and while each also contains much that is good and useful, they are both unnecessarily sterile. In the cable TV model, the user is relatively isolated; the services have a one-to-one style, provider-to-user. In the telephone model, users have as much company as they like, but no coherent notion of a context for the communication; it takes place, in a sense, outside any environment, without a shared situation. Here again, even though the point is communication, the lack of an apparent context isolates the participants from one another. We propose an alternative model for the Net: one that enables those who use it to do so together, jointly and in close contact.

  In the real world, people who do things together do so in the same place; the very act of sharing a location enables joint activity, whether it's playing, teaching, collaborating, or just meeting each other. A joint participant may be someone you know or someone you've never met; you may not even meet them as part of the activity. For example, if I wanted to learn how to roller skate, I might go to a nearby rink and just try it in the presence of those who can already do it, watching and learning and jointly participating without necessarily meeting anyone.   
"We would like to see the richness of 'place' ... such an intrinsic part of the infrastructure that it is taken for granted." 
  We would like to see the richness of "place" conceptually embedded in the network, such an intrinsic part of the infrastructure that it is taken for granted. We would like the network designers to realize that users needn't be forced to choose between being with others and using a service. If the network were a place, not a highway, this apparent dichotomy might resolve itself easily, intuitively, and with great synergy.

   The rest of this article offers stories about users of the Net we envision, about the network places they go to and the other people they meet there, on purpose or by chance. We hope that these few concrete visions will help others to see the potential we see, and encourage them not to settle for isolation in the Net.


  "Another Wednesday night," Mayumi sighed as she arrived home from work. This was always the low point in her week. Wednesday had usually been bridge night for her, back in San Jose, but she hadn't found a Portland-based group to play with yet in the three months since she'd moved. Determined not to get depressed, she logged onto the new "community computer network" someone from work had told her about. She wasn't sure if it was some type of information service, home shopping, or just a bunch of games, but she figured it had to be better than another night of sitcoms.

   On connecting, she found herself in something called "the community courtyard," with small live video images of several people, including herself, arranged around the floor-plan of a courtyard. The voices of the people "nearest" her came out of her computer's speaker:


"I really think we should organize a committee to see if we can convince the city to put a stoplight on 17th Street."


"No, they'd never go for it; too expensive. Besides, a stoplight would just cause mondo traffic jams. What we need is a pedestrian bridge...."
  Mayumi was bored already. Who cares about stoplights? She was just beginning to think that maybe sitcoms wouldn't be so bad when a new voice piped in: "Excuse me, but does anybody know where I might find a local restaurant guide?"

   Mayumi perked up immediately; she'd been looking for a good sushi place, preferably in her neighborhood.

   Someone suggested scanning the yellow pages, but a couple of others pointed the newcomer, whose image was labelled "Lucia", toward the "online coffee shop." A nicely-labelled door to it was visible at the edge of the courtyard. "There's a good one in there, with reviews and an index, on the bookshelf. It even has up-to-date menus."

   Lucia thanked them and her video image slid over to the coffee shop door and disappeared. Taking a guess, Mayumi clicked on the door, and was pleased to see her own image follow Lucia's into the shop.


  Mashoud had been saving from his after-school job for two years, and now it looked as if he could finally prepare the gift for his mother. He knew that she would be both surprised and pleased with the pendant he'd designed, but first he had to find the two small rubies that fit into the centers of the two halves.

   There weren't any good gem dealers near the small Pakistani town where he lived, so he planned instead to use the PC that Mohan rented out of the back room of his coffee house. It was just an old 386 machine, and couldn't run anything really fancy, but it did have a modem connection to the Net, so it'd be just fine for what Mashoud needed.

"One advantage of typing instead of talking ... is that you don't have to interrupt to ask a question."
    He knew the qualities he was looking for in the gems; now it remained only to find the right kind of seller. He didn't want to go to one of the major dealers; their Net storefronts were so impersonal, really just a listing of what they offered and the prices. Mashoud would feel more comfortable with a smaller place like the shops he had grown up around, run by a shopkeeper he could talk to about his options. 
  He started his search by visiting the electronic "Village Square" hosted by Mohan's network service provider. It was an active place, frequented mostly by Net users from Pakistan and northern India. Mashoud had been there many times, "talking" to others by typing back and forth. Unlike the users of most similar social places on the Net, almost none of these people had connections or machines capable of supporting easy audio and video communication. The conversations in the Square were just as lively, though, the hand-typed equivalent of the noisy half-arguments Mashoud could hear coming from the front room of Mohan's coffee house.

   One advantage of typing instead of talking, Mashoud thought, is that you don't have to interrupt to ask a question. He smiled to himself as he asked the people in the Square about good Net places to check for the kind of gem shop he sought. He resisted the urge to get caught up in an on-going discussion of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan while he waited for a response to his question; he didn't want to get distracted just now. Nobody seemed to know about gem shops in particular, but several people "handed" him pointers to Net malls they'd been to that brought together entrances to smaller, family-run businesses. He thanked those who'd helped, watched a bit wistfully as more of the Afghan discussion scrolled by, and then started following up the pointers he'd received.


  Kate fairly shook with glee as she ran into the main hall of the science museum. She had loved being at the Exploratorium on weekends with her parents, and now her whole class had come on a field trip. She stopped in front of something called the "voice spectrum exhibit" and looked it over, considering whether it was interesting enough to play with. Just then, a young voice, coming from the computer monitor in the background of the exhibit, called out her name and said hello. Kate looked up in surprise to see a TV picture of another girl, about her age, next to a smaller image of Kate herself. Hah! thought Kate, she must be looking at me through the exhibit camera. She smiled, waved, and yelled, "Hi, Jenny! Where are you?", reading the label on the girl's image just as Jenny had the name-tag on Kate's shirt. Jenny said she was in Tennessee, and that her third-grade class was also on a field trip today, using the Net to visit the San Francisco museum.

   Kate and Jenny quickly agreed to explore the place together, starting with this exhibit. They ignored the carefully-written instructions and tried singing different notes, giggling at the funny pictures their voices made. Other voices started coming in after a while, and they noticed that more kids had joined them, both in person at the museum and from across the Net. They decided to find a less crowded exhibit, and Jenny, consulting the map she saw on her computer screen, said that nobody was using the "gravity tray" right then. "That's my favorite!" exclaimed Kate. "I'll race you there!" Jenny shouted.


  Mashoud jumped to the first mall he'd had recommended and searched the directory for gem stores. There was a listing for a jewelry store, but the description on the "front door" of the shop made it sound as if they only sold completed pieces, not loose stones. He noticed another person there, also perusing the mall directory, and struck up a conversation. He was never this forward face-to-face, but somehow it was easier to talk to new people on the Net. Rochelle, the other person, was connected from Chambery, France, and judging from the short paragraph and small bitmap photo she used as her self-description on the Net, she was somewhat older than Mashoud's seventeen years.

   After exchanging the customary Net pleasantries, Mashoud described his quest to her in his best school English (her Urdu and his French being equally nonexistent). Much to his surprise and delight, Rochelle said she knew of "just the place," a small shop run by a family somewhere in South Africa; she'd come across it in her Net travels only a week before. While Rochelle hadn't been interested in buying anything for herself, she'd saved a pointer to leave for her husband to come across, as a hint for their upcoming wedding anniversary. Rochelle gave Mashoud a copy of the pointer and, after thanking his chance benefactress, he followed the pointer into the shop.


  The sounds of the courtyard disappeared, to be replaced by the soft background murmur of the coffee shop. It was nearly empty just then, with only a few clusters of people in booths; the sounds Mayumi heard seemed like hushed conversations, but she couldn't actually make out any words. "Hmm," she thought, "I guess this is one coffee shop where you don't have to worry about eavesdroppers."

   Then she noticed Lucia's image over in a corner of the room, next to the icon of a bookshelf. She moved over to join her and tried clicking on the icon; a list of the "books" appeared. The restaurant guide was easy to spot, being highlighted on the list, so she clicked there too and found herself looking at the "French" section. Several entries flipped by on her screen, but then the other woman seemed to pause on one of them.

   "Oh, dear, don't go to that one," Mayumi blurted out. "I just tried it last week and the service was really rotten."

   Lucia's image looked up suddenly, and then smiled. "Oh, hello. I didn't notice you come up. Thanks for the tip! Um, I'm Lucia, but I don't see any name on your video."

   Mayumi introduced herself, explaining that this was all new to her. Lucia smiled again, nodded, and said she remembered how overwhelming it had all felt to her, too, when she'd first used the Net. She showed Mayumi how to put her name on her image, and then they turned back to the guide together, Lucia pointing out a few of the less obvious features of the browser. After a short while, Lucia had made reservations for next Sunday at what looked like a good French restaurant, and Mayumi had gotten a list of new sushi places to try.

   Their conversation eventually came around to Mayumi's nostalgia for her old bridge nights, and Lucia offered to direct her to one of the local gaming lobbies. "I don't play bridge myself," she said, "but maybe you can find some other players there." Mayumi quickly agreed and, after being shown how, let Lucia "take her hand" and lead her along the way. They passed through a number of interesting-looking places before they got there, and Mayumi jotted down a couple of notes to herself, meaning to come back and explore more later.


  Jackie was bummed. She'd actually had a ticket for the World Cup final, and all of the travel arrangements set, and now she couldn't go! What a rotten time to break her leg, she thought. Well, at least she could attend the game across the Net. She hobbled over to her computer and slowly eased herself down into the chair. Once connected, she made her way first to her favorite online sports bar, and then found the game in a list of pointers maintained there for the convenience of the habitues. She noted with some disgust that she was the only one in the bar right then. "The bums," she grumbled, "they probably all got to use their tickets...."

   When she arrived at the virtual stadium for the game, Jackie faced a choice. On the one hand, she could buy her own copy of the game feed, so that she could either watch it by herself or try to set up a private party to watch together. Alternatively, she could just join the crowd of people sharing the public feed inside the virtual stadium. Jackie didn't feel like watching the game alone, and she didn't have any close friends who'd caught the soccer bug the way she had, so she decided to try out the stadium crowd. She clicked on the stadium entrance and was presented with a diagram that showed where the rest of the people were "sitting." "One place seems just as good as another," she thought, letting the system randomly choose a spot for her near the other fans.

   There were about a dozen people in Jackie's "row," some with video images and most with audio. She was seated between a Colombian woman, Eva, and Armondo, a fan from Italy, and had apparently arrived in the middle of a heated discussion of the relative merits of the finalist teams. Her neighbors broke off the conversation as she arrived, though, and greeted her enthusiastically in two quite different varieties of English. Eva, it turned out, coached an amateur soccer team in her regional league. Jackie took the opportunity to ask some pretty detailed rules questions she'd been considering, Armondo kibitzing with great solemnity about Eva's answers. "Football is a very serious matter," he intoned, and all three laughed.

   During the game, Jackie mentioned where she lived, whereupon both Eva and Armondo pressed her for stories of the Brazilian team and fans, who'd been hosted in Jackie's town. In the middle of her account, though, one of the game officials made a particularly bad call, which brought all three fans to their feet yelling, Armondo in heartfelt Italian. "The next best thing to being there," Jackie winced as she carefully settled back into her chair.


  "A nice, family dinner," Izak thought, sitting down with his children to wait for his wife Anna to bring in the roast she'd been cooking all morning. "All of us together in the middle of the day to break br--" Izak's complacencies were interrupted by the sound of a bell tinkling, coming from the computer in his den. As his wife appeared at the door with a great steaming platter, Izak sighed and rose from the table. They exchanged a resigned look, and he moved toward the den; they couldn't afford to ignore potential customers. "For a shopkeeper's family, some things never change," thought Anna.


  Jenny won the race, of course, since Kate had to run all the way across the room while Jenny could simply click on the exhibit on her map. She was just panning the exhibit camera across the apparatus when Kate got there, all out of breath. Jenny couldn't actually manipulate the wheels and rings and blocks to race them down the ramp, but she enthusiastically offered suggestions for Kate to try while they both watched the numbers change on the exhibit's various timers and sensors. "Hey!" Jenny shouted after a bit, "there's a pointer here to a bunch of animations in Chicago of gravity stuff like this! Oh, cool!" "No fair!" Kate wailed, "I can't see it from here!"   
"They agreed on a place to meet on the Net later, each from her home computer." 
  Just then, Kate could see Jenny turn away from her computer, apparently listening to someone back in Tennessee. After a moment, she turned back and said with disappointment that it was time for her to leave; the school day was already over there. Kate was confused for a moment until she remembered how time zones worked, but then she brightened. "Maybe we could both go look at those animations after I get home from school! You'll be done with dinner by then, right?" Jenny was all for it. They agreed on a place to meet on the Net later, each from her home computer.

   As Jenny's image winked out on the monitor, Kate ran away to try making a arch out of some big funny-shaped blocks.


  When she and Mayumi reached the gaming lobby, Lucia said, "I don't play games much myself, but I've gotten good at finding this particular place; my boyfriend is a chess maniac. He just loves the portal they have here to the Net-wide player rankings. I'll look for him in the chess room later, but first let's find you the bridge room."

   When they consulted the map in the lobby, Mayumi was just amazed at the size of the complex; there seemed to be a separate space for nearly every game she could think of, and several others besides. Lucia explained that each room was heavily customized by its aficionados, with pointers to Net-wide resources, tournament ladders, reference works, and so on. "It's really impressive how much they've built for some kinds of games," she said.

   They found the bridge room in the index and had the map walk them along the halls to the right place. Lucia then said it was time she went to find her boyfriend, but invited Mayumi to meet them later in the coffee shop. Mayumi thanked her for her help and they agreed on a time to meet. As Lucia waved and her image slid off down the hallway, Mayumi entered the bridge room.


  "Welcome, welcome!" boomed Izak as he sat down at the computer, but then he noticed that the person in his Net "shop" was using only plain text, not the audio and video he was used to from most of his customers. "So this `Mashoud' fellow has money for gemstones and not for his computer?" he mused skeptically as he typed out his customary greeting instead. As they talked, though, Izak began to warm to Mashoud, who described what he was looking for with great precision. Izak was impressed; it was always a pleasure to deal with a knowledgeable customer, and this Pakistani youngster had certainly done his homework.

   After a time, Izak said that he thought he could acquire a matched pair of rubies meeting Mashoud's requirements, but that it might take as much as a few weeks. Before going to such trouble, though, Izak explained that it was usual to have some proof of the customer's ability to pay. "Just a formality, you understand," he typed.

   Mashoud said that he had been led to expect something of this nature. He opened a user interface to his local bank, acquired a signed certificate giving a suitable lower bound on his current balance, and handed that to Izak. Izak then had his own software check both the validity of the signature and the reputation ratings for Mashoud's bank. The chain of recommendations, extending from Lloyd's of London through the Pakistani national banking authority, was a bit unusual in Izak's experience, but otherwise seemed solid. Izak thanked Mashoud for his indulgence.

   After assuring Mashoud that he would send him e-mail as soon as he found appropriate stones, Izak stayed at the computer barely long enough to watch him leave the shop. He then left his den for the dining room and the roast whose smell had tantalized him throughout the transaction.


  Mayumi was a bit taken aback. The bridge room was all Lucia had said it would be, with all kinds of useful bridge-related paraphernalia practically littering the space. She looked at something called the "Events Board" on which she discovered an announcement for an amateur duplicate tournament two months later, right in downtown Portland. "Great," she sighed aloud, "Now all I need is a partner...."

   "Well, you've certainly come to the right place, haven't you?" a male voice broke in. Mayumi jumped a bit. She hadn't even noticed, among the clutter, that there was someone else in the room.

   "Oh! Hello, um, Rich," she said, reading the label on his image. "I'm new here. Are you looking for a partner, then?" Rich laughed and said no, but he directed her to the "Players Seeking Partners" rolodex in one corner of the room. Clicking on the icon brought up a simple database interface, and Mayumi soon had the name and e-mail address of another woman who was new to Portland and in need of a partner. At Rich's suggestion, she wrote a quick note to the woman, inviting her to join Mayumi for an evening of bridge on the Net. "That way, you can see if you're compatible before committing to play a whole tournament together," he explained.

   Mayumi thanked him and then logged out of the system, sighing once more as she leaned back in her chair. Only now, it was because Wednesday night was over, so soon.

Converted to HTML by Michael Brundage ( as part of the Network Places exhibition. The original version can be found at  The Jupiter Project Team has since left Xerox PARC to form their own corporation, PlaceWare, so I removed the outdated contact information from the original document.