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Social Interactions in Computer-mediated Public Spaces


Place-making in public spaces is an important and worthy objective in the field of architecture. Sense of place is rooted in the dynamic interaction among people, space and activities. Hence, scholars observed human behaviors in successful public spaces and explored how the physical environment supports users' goals, expectations, activities and social interactions. Consequently, designers adopted the findings of these studies and created inhabitable public spaces in the urban area in which activities are diverse, social interactions are plentiful and sense of place is attached.

What distinguishes public spaces from private spaces is the interaction partners. In public spaces, people interact with strangers whereas in private spaces, users participate in interpersonal behaviors with acquaintances. However, the ubiquitous use of digital media devices has blurred the line between public and private spaces. It modifies human behaviors and produces new genres of public spaces: the socializing private space and the privatizing public space. In the socializing private space, people participate in public activities and interact with strangers in social networking sites, online video games and news forums while the body is physically situated in private environments, e.g. home; whereas in privatizing public space, through digital media devices, users isolate themselves from other participants and build private zones to interact with acquaintances in physical public environments, such as local coffee shop and urban plazas. The juxtaposition of public and private life has challenged the existing theories of place-making in public spaces.

Following the step of previous studies in social interactions and public spaces, this research adopts behavioral observations as the major methods to investigate current public spaces. Different types of computer-mediated public spaces were selected and examined. After careful investigations and analyses, the findings of this research pointed to two directions. On one hand, in the same type of computer-mediated public spaces, the ability to closely observe the interaction partners facilitates social interactions and enhances sense of place. If users are able to perceive more visual cues of appropriate behaviors, they experience better social interactions and attach sense of place to the environment. On the other hand, each type of computer-mediated public spaces is equipped with its social potentials and design problems. Although users somehow experience perception and interaction difficulties in the socializing private space due to the limited visibility to the interaction partners, the worldwide social pleasure, unexpectedness and exclusive activities associate the environment with sense of place. In the privatizing public spaces, people are able to directly sense, consciously understand, and automatically response each other; however, their ignorance of physical surrounding decreases sense of place.

Therefore, by learning from different types of computer-mediated public spaces, the outcome of this research contributes to the design of both physical and virtual public spaces. It provides practical suggestions to the designs of information technologies as well as spatial designers. Furthermore, the analysis scheme and experimental process of this research extend the methodological approach for the future research of social interactions in public spaces.

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