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Social Lives of a Cell Phone

New wireless services will maximize your connections to others and minimize your need to plan ahead
July 12, 2004

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.

Those Obscure Objects of Discussion

Microsoft Researchs Aura project picks an offbeat place to start a group conversationany object with a barcode stuck on it. We think of Aura as the new mousethe thing you click on things with, Smith says.

You point a phone or other device (outfitted with Aura software and a barcode reader) at the object of interest and scan it. Then the Aura server kicks in to give you Universal Product Code information (or whatever other data the label carries), results from Web searches about the object, and comments about it from online discussion forums. What’s more, it gives you an opportunity to share your findings and to write a public or private blog entry about the object.

Going down a supermarket aisle with an Aura handheld, Smith explains, he scanned his favorite breakfast food and up popped a headline: The FDA had just recalled it because its list of ingredients was wrong. Every object has a story to tell, and one of the stories is: If you eat me I will kill you,” Smith says. You can e-mail such Aura findings to friends, and spread the word on your Aura blog.

The next step in the research project is to outfit 20 Microsoft employees with Aura devices. Among other tasks, Smith says, they will be encouraged to do blog annotations of the art in the companys offices. People are more likely to comment on something when they are actually looking at it than when they are back at their desks, Smith notes.

Technologies such as Aura do bring worries in their wake. “I don’t want to suggest that social tools on mobile devices are uniquely positive, Smith says. They are so useful that you will pick them up, but how do you build a handle for such a sharp tool?”

Privacy is a huge concern, since Aura and other mobile services constantly leave electronic tracks that may be followed in ways you dont expect. We are getting a large and invisible audience that is difficult to be aware of and difficult to control,” Smith says. Aura is being built to safeguard your privacy as much as possible, since it gathers an ongoing record of your daily activity.

Time for Negotiation

Ever picked up a cell phone to call ahead and say youll be ten minutes late? Yes, and so has everyone else whos ever used a cell phone. In the future, though, youll enjoy much more flexible ways to adjust your schedule while meeting others expectations.

Mobile phones allow you to postpone planning, to do approximeetingIll meet you about a certain time, says Clay Shirky, consultant on the socioeconomic effects of Internet technologies and adjunct professor at New York University. People just walk out of work, and find the tribe wherever it is.

Mobile data services could provide a similar capability for the business world, Shirky suggests: Automatically figuring when everyone needed for a certain meeting is in the same building, and messaging them then for a quick but fruitful get-together.

Fluidtime, a project started by Michael Kieslinger, an associate professor at Italys Interaction Design Institute Ivrea, goes deeper into post-industrial ways of playing for time. Our main base will be the mobile phone,” Kieslinger says.

One Fluidtime project targets a mundane task: scheduling the washing machine shared by 50 students at the institute. The Fluidtime team built an online scheduling system that allows students to book time on the machine via SMS text messaging. If a student suddenly realize that he desperately needs the machine, the laundry system lets him negotiate with the person who has it booked. The system also gives updates on the status of the laundry, which lets students manage it more closely. For instance, you can visually track how close your wash is to being done, which turns out to be far more helpful than receiving a simple alert when its completed.

Kieslinger sees similar techniques applied to help groups negotiate schedules with each other, or with doctors and other professionals. Whether its a laundry machine or a doctor, its a resource and has to be managed, he says.

Microsofts Smith is working with Paul Resnick of the University of Michigan, who focuses on improving social relations through information technology, to bring a similar just-in-time twist to carpooling (see “Car Pool Coordination,” TR July/August 2004). While you can find lots of carpooling groups around the country, theyre generally not all that successful, because people don’t want to plan,” Smith says. In this approach, you would gather your own carpool group, including folks you know and give a certain level of trust. When you need a ride, you check your phone to see who was driving by, drop them a message, and wait for their car to pull up in front of you.

Through the Cell Wall

You cant operate that well in todays society without a cell phone, says Dan Bricklin, the software developer who co-created VisiCalc, the first computer spreadsheet program. With the Web, blogs, e-mail and cell phones, were seeing a resurgence in community. Technology is now something for bringing people together. And mobile is a big piece of that.”

Right now, these mobile networking tools are used mostly by people in their teens and twenties. But just as college students are bringing instant messaging into corporations, theyll also bring in the latest mobile services. The clans that form in college seem to have more durability than they used to, because these people are better connected,” Smith says. And, he adds, todays phones are rapidly morphing into powerful, highly programmable computers bristling with sensors and outfitted with broadband connections. Were just starting to see all the kinds of things they can do for us and to us, he says. This is like a tsunami.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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