A while back, I wrote a rant on Joel Spolsky's conception of something he calls "social interface design." Now there's a thought-provoking piece out of IBM that defines "social interface" in a second and completely different way:
Social interface theory is built on the results of various studies demonstrating that humans respond socially in their interactions with machines.7-9 Humans are inclined to treat everything as social and natural. Therefore, they automatically and subconsciously use, whenever possible, what they know about their natural and social experiences to help them with their technological experiences. Carroll describes an experiment in which simulated intelligent help was given to users. Although the users praised the help system for assisting them in certain situations, in other situations the users blamed the system for their problems and attributed social traits to the system such as "fussy" and "distrustful."
In this version of social interface theory, what we are studying is the ways in which humans relate to machines as social beings. Note that this approach also has implications for social interface theory in the way that Spolsky means it; since facets of the machine interface are proxies for the interactions of the humans who are using them (e.g., avatars, smiley faces, textual expression...even presence indicators), then understanding how we respond socially to these computer interface devices in general can teach us something about how effectively they can represent communication cues from human beings.