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Want to play Dodgeball?

Heres how it works: Say youre young and single, and youre out on the town one Saturday night. You take out your mobile phone and tap in the name of the restaurant where you’re hanging out. You get a list of friends, and friends of friends, within 10 blocks. You can message each other about getting together, and maybe send a photo of yourself. We’re taking social software off the desktop and moving it into the environment where people actually socialize,” says Dennis Crowley, co-founder of the service, which spread this spring from New York to nine other U.S. cities.

The buzz about Dodgeball gives one glimpse of the future of the mobile phone. Probably no other product in human history has evolved and been adopted worldwide so quickly. Hundreds of millions of people own a mobile phone, and many replace it every year or so. Its use has already changed how many societies communicate. It already comes with good social connection services such as group text messaging and the ability to share camera-phone snapshots directly with friends or on a mobile weblog. But its about to produce far more radical changes in how we communicate.

Conceived as a school project by two graduate students, Dodgeball began in 2000 as a mobile city guide for New York. In its present incarnation, Dodgeball leverages that city guide location database plus the information about yourself and your friends that you fill in when you sign up.

Here’s how it works: When you tap in your location, an e-mail message zips out to the Dodgeball server, which sends back a quick update on who else on your list is in the vicinity. You can also broadcast messages to all your friends, or all nearby Dodgeball users. The service is free; Crowley hopes to bring in revenue from sponsorships and text-messaging services.

Experience has highlighted a number of nuances in how Dodgeball devotees manage their lists of friends. Who do you want to seeand who dont you want to see you? Crowley gives the example of what he calls the ex-girlfriend bug: You cant say yes, cant say no if she wants to stay on your list. Additionally, concerned about the potential for digital stalking, Crowley tweaked the service to let Dodgeball users make themselves invisible to specified individuals.

At least two companies are thinking along similar lines for business conferences, although they employ specialized hardware rather than mobile phones. Both nTag Interactive (with nametags equipped with liquid-crystal displays and infrared links) and Spotme (with a custom handheld) offer customized wireless network services designed to help conference-goers get the most from each other and the overall event. With Spotme, for instance, you can get a photograph and professional information about anyone within 30 metersand then, if you’d like, shoot them an instant-message. Nathan Eagle and other researchers at MITs Media Lab are working along similar lines with their Serendipity project, which exploits Bluetooth-equipped mobile phones to instigate interactions between you and people you don’t know, but probably should. And overseas, where cell phone services are often way ahead of those in the United States, Japans Imahima (which translates to Are you free now?) has pioneered social networking with location features, claming more than half a million users.

A wilder form of social experimentation is taking place in Europe, where large numbers of phones are equipped with Bluetooth wireless links. If youve got a Bluetooth-enabled phone, you can see another nearby phone on your phones list of devices. You then can send a simple message to the owner by temporarily renaming your phone. This is dubbed Bluejacking, and a variant known as toothing is sometimes exploited to set up anonymous sexual encounters. Unsurprisingly, this behavior doesnt thrill public health officials. I have a friend whos an epidemiologist, and he calls it an epidemic in a box, says Marc Smith, a sociologist with Microsoft Research.

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