Beyond Being There was a research project at Bell Communications Research in 1991 and 1992. Its key insight was that computer and communications technology cannot in the foreseeable future achieve the same quality of human interaction as that afforded by PPR (physically proximate reality - our somewhat obscure term for meeting in person). Thus, while most other projects aimed at every-higher communication bandwidths and higher-fidelity video, we aimed at making computers help people communicate in ways that cannot be done in PPR (for example, anonymous interactions). In other words, we wanted to be better than reality and move beyond being there!
One of the major inventions of the Beyond project was the ephemeral interest group. An ephemeral interest group is a discussion group that is linked to some originating information object (e.g., a news article or a web page) and consists of comments and follow-ups on the original information. Unlike web pages, bulletin boards, netnews groups, and mailing lists, ephemeral interest groups can be created at virtually no transaction cost to users or to system administrators. The groups can be thought of as disposable, intended to last only days or hours.
In the ephemeral interest group system we implemented in 1991, people could indicate their interest in a topic by "joining" postings to a bulletin board system in order to get follow-up messages to the postings. Every single message posted was a potential seed for an ephemeral interest group, and the groups only lived for as long as members posted additional follow-ups. This scheme was very successful in increasing the value of the messages seen by any individual participant: on a 1-5 scale (where 1 indicated completely irrelevant material and 5 indicated very relevant material), users rated messages from the ephemeral interest group system as 3.9 on the average, whereas the exact same messages only received a 2.7 rating when we tried sending them to a control group.
For more information about the Beyond Being There project, please see
Brothers, L., Hollan, J., Nielsen, J., Stornetta, S., Abney, S., Furnas, G., and Littman, M.: Supporting informal communication via ephemeral interest groups. Proceedings of the ACM CSCW'92 Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (Toronto, Canada, 1-4 November 1992), pp. 84-90.
Hollan, J., and Stornetta, S.: Beyond being there. Proceedings of the ACM CHI'92 Conference on Computer-Human Interaction (Monterey, CA, 3-7 May 1992), pp. 119-125.
The main participants in the Beyond Being There project were:
- Steve Abney
- David Ackley
- Laurence Brothers
- George Furnas
- Will Hill
- Jim Hollan
- Michael Littman
- Jakob Nielsen
- Joel Remde
- Scott Stornetta
- Jeff Zacks