17 Sep

New Tools, Same Rules

mobile phoneMyspace and Facebook have gone mobile. And new companies are cropping up each day to get in on the new mobile socializing. An article in the Boston Globe this morning featured two companies seemingly making a dent in this field – Utterz and MocoSpace each offer phone-based services for the never-disconnected set. So, with all these services to enable connection-on-the-go, one has to wonder how users are going to cope. The inundation of services and features on phones might just create a conservative backlash where people start using their phones to call people. But I don’t want to be hysterical here.

Social media can assist in maintaining connections – the successful type rationalizes the everyday tasks of social management (consider Facebook’s feed feature). What is not needed is anything that makes social management more complex. The business of Web 2.0 is all about constructing needs – creating the impression that the tool accommodates a problem or a project. So, complexity is a matter of construction. What might seem terribly complex today – using Flickr, Facebook, Myspace, etc. to communicate with friends – is in fact framed as simple. Even the most complicated technologies promise to simplify.

Mobile social media promises to simplify. It used to be that you had to take a break from your day to manage social relations. Now, it can be integrated seamlessly into your routine. Users can be immersed in their networks – making it redundant to externalize the process of connection. For instance, having to stop what you’re doing to call a friend on the phone to make plans. Those connections (excluding extremely strong ties such as family) that require disengagement with the network are more likely to be ignored. I have a friend who never checks his email. As a result, I see him less.

Most importantly, as social life is “simplified” through mobile media, it is re-connected to social space. The fortitude of social networks is not isolated, but it follows us wherever we go and is, as a result, more strongly associated with location. This is what I’ve been calling net-locality – when networks that require no physical proximity are re-instantiated in physical space.

30 Aug

More Thoughts on Net-Locality

Allen Smith, who works for WHERE, contacted me about my last post with an interesting corrective:

“I always thought about recent phone technology as allowing the
internet to come out into the world and overlay it with information, I
never thought of it the other way around, “extending the idea and
functionality of location into the network.”

I agree that “net-locality” is about the internet coming out into the world; however, it is equally true that social norms and meanings of physical location are constructing the norms and meanings of networked interaction. In other words, people are compelled to use the tools to assist with the sorts of social interactions they would like to experience in physical space – sharing ideas, sharing places, making plans, and benefitting from the wisdom (or madness) of the crowd. Perhaps it’s like the difference between a manual and electric screwdriver – each can get the job done, but one can do it more efficiently. Net-locality, in some respects, is more efficient location.

My question for Allen, and my question in general is: what’s the relationship between face-to-screen and face-to-face?

If, in fact, net-locality is about more efficient location, how can we keep the technology from displacing us from location? Manuel Castells predicted that the space of flows was to overtake the space of places. But I’m convinced that the space of places continues to influence the meaning of social life – as an idea in the network as much as a physical location. But how is this engineered? It gets back to the above question: if we’re really interested in enhancing human connections and place identification through computer augmentation, how do we negotiate the user’s focus? How do we use the technology to build meaningful places and relationships, and not just meaningful networks?

29 Aug

Location widgets

Location is the next frontier in computing. The company uLocate has announced a competition for developers to make location-based widgets. uLocate’s new location-widget feature, called simply Where, is essentially a collection of little programs that mash-up data from the Internet with a user’s location. And this competition is intended to facilitate the rapid expansion of these widgets within the Where platform. But, what’s the point of these applications besides being clever or cute? What is the social function of location? In other words, what’s the life of these applications in the larger context of mobile computing. Is location truly the holy grail?


Location aware software is net-locality. It is extending the idea and functionality of location into the network. Net-locality can either serve to colonize places into systems (in Habermasian terms), or invigorate places through communication. It depends on context. What is intriguing about the commercial fervor over mobile computing is that the result of net-locality is not considered. The goal is to locate. But the reason for locating is neither here nor there.

Constant access to information is convenient and potentially useful, but when we consider mobile computing, we have to consider how that computation enters into the existing practices of space. For instance, how are people using phones to gather information when in public spaces? Are they looking down and disengaging from their surroundings or are they integrating the tool into the environment? In short, does net-locality hinder engagement with location? If the answer to this question is yes, how can we design spaces or tools that might minimize that result?

There is another interesting tension that I’ve yet to fully explore – and that’s the distinction between business rhetoric and user rhetoric. On one hand, computing has gone mobile. On the other, mobility has extended the functionality of computing. There is a distinction here that I will tease out in future posts. But for now, suffice it to say that location is a product – and it is being heavily marketed to unsuspecting consumers.

28 Aug

Putting Theory into Action

Everything is going full speed ahead. The Boston Redevelopment Authority has agreed to fund the first phase of the Hub2 program. They’re going to pay for student tuition, evaluation, TA support and design. It’s great news and we’re thrilled that they’ve taken a chance on this experimental program. Now that the money is in place, we actually have to contend with the realities of starting and managing a successful program. This is the “oh shit” moment. Gene Koo and I have spent countless hours thinking about the theory behind the Hub2 initiative – we have written an article entitled “Placeworlds” that lays out the general theory behind what we’re trying to do, and we have developed a curriculum that will deploy the theory. Now all there is left to do is implement.

This is where all those uncontrollable factors come into play. For instance, there will be sixteen students in the class, all with divergent agendas, there will be snags in the technology, and we will find ourselves in the position of having to compromise the theory for practical application. I know this is all part of the process – and there is much to learn about how people learn and engage with new technologies – but this all becomes more difficult when the theory or methodology is so clear at the beginning. We have to be willing to adapt to unforeseen conditions and more importantly, we have to be willing to acknowledge inaccuracies in our theoretical agenda.

As Labor Day approaches and school begins, we are at the precipice of that exhilirating and horrifiying collision point between theory and practice. I just hope I have to time to process the exhilarating part as I’m sure I’ll be spending much of my time gazing at “the horror, the horror.”

11 Jul

Tracking Kids

Appealing to kids is big business. This NPR story covers the various technologies meant to appeal to children – but more importantly, meant to give parents new ways of keeping track of them. Most interestingly, it introduces the concept of GPS enabled phones designed to appeal to kids under 12. They think it looks cool and does cool stuff, and it does. But it also lets their parents know precisely where they are at all times. Tracking through design – very clever.