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Apple, the iPhone, and the Friend-Finding Paradox

As a recent patent application from Apple reveals, it’s a zero-sum game between creepiness and utility when it comes to data-based friend matching.
June 27, 2011

A newly published patent application from Apple shows that the company remains interested in getting into the game of social networking. How does Apple hope to succeed where it has already more or less failed, with Ping, its “social network for music” that’s hardly a Facebook killer? The key might be in your pocket. Apple wants to mine data on your iPhone to help you find your next friend. Hardware, rather than software, might be Apple’s way in.

As is always the case with such patent applications, half the fun is reading in staid, scientific language about a world most often expressed through chatty messages and emoticons. “Social networks are a well known phenomenon,” says the application, in a segment that feels like the abstract to a journal article. “Identifying like-minded people, however, often requires a substantial amount of and time and effort because identifying new persons with common interests for friendships is difficult. For example, when two strangers meet, it may take a long and awkward conversation to discover their common interests or experiences.”

Apple’s solution? Mine data on the iPhone (with the user’s permission) to help speed that icebreaking process. Plenty of apps already exist to help you find friends or dates based on interest and location (MeetMoi, the “Google Alerts of dating apps,” is just one of many). But such apps tend to rely on basic information you plug in to the app itself–that you like Lady Gaga, walks on the beach, sushi, and so on. The connections forged by that kind of data tend to be lacking in that curious chemistry that makes up a lasting social bond.

Apple, though, makes the iPhone itself, not just the apps on it. Which means it potentially can have access to reams of obscure data, if you let it. And its patent application proposes creating matches based on bizarre bits of data you’d never bother to load into a dating profile. If you learn that someone in the bar down the street also likes the Beatles, let’s be honest: you probably don’t have a ton to talk about. But what if, by contrast, you learn that they also have the phone number of Greg Harplestein, that wild-and-crazy guy from your hometown? Or that they, like you, have signed up for weather forecasts on the Hawaiian island of Molokai? Or that you’ve both bookmarked the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Richard Rorty? Or that facial analysis software has discovered that you have pictures of the same mutual friend on your phone?

The Apple patent application envisions all these scenarios. (For the detail-oriented, have a go at the 15,000-word application itself.) Each of them, though, simultaneously points to the promise and peril of “friend finders” like these. The more obscure the data you allow Apple to mine and make public for you, the more serendipitous are the connections that can be forged. At the same time, though, the more obscure the data you give Apple free rein with, the creepier the service becomes. Concerns over privacy may constitute a greater barrier than concerns over all that ice that might just need to be broken in the old-fashioned, manual way. After all, there already exists an time-tested technology to aid in social networking, a booming commodity that Apple nonetheless probably won’t get into any time soon: alcohol.

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