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ETCON: Social networking tools

February 14, 2004 :: by Lee 2 responses  

2003 was the year of the first-generation online social networks: Friendster, Ryze, Tribe, LinkedIn and so on. 2004 began with the flight of the Orkut, a new and popular online social networking site that has provoked much debate among practitioners.

So, where do we go from here? There were lots of ideas around at ETCON about this. Most people now agree that the codification of relationship types is a big problem. Services like Orkut let you define people in terms of friend / not friend, which is highly problematic and leads to people accepting friend requests simply out of fear of appearing rude. Another big issue here is context - the future of these services surely lies not in being highly generalised stand-alone services, but as embedded tools in specific applications that have a narrow purpose or scope. MeetUp, which was showcased during the Digital Democracy Teach In on Monday, was a good example of how useful these types of online activity can be when they are related more directly to issues that matter to people. Finally, the meta-level issue of interoperability will always be an issue: can we have a single identity/reputation/logon model that is persistent across sites, or will we continue to have to teach each new site about ourselves.

Most of what was discussed this week relates in some way to online social networking, but the following ideas stood out for me.

Danah Boyd gave a talk that skimmed over recent academic thinking related to online social networking, and also took part in a panel discussion with Joi and Mimi Ito and Howard Rheingold that tried to draw out lessons from the emerging behaviours of Japanese youth using mobile technologies. Howard pointed out that people have a long history of appropriating technology for their own social ends, and asked whether users will continue to be able to hack/modify new technologies to make them do what they want. Mimi talked about the culture of 'full time intimate community' being created by mobile communications, with its own subtle features such as blank SMSs being sent as a form of handshake to ascertain whether the target (often of the opposite sex) wants to talk, and the ways in which people use quick changes of subject to indicate the end of a conversational thread on SMS.

Molly Steenson took these ideas further in her Fluidtime presentation by analysing the behaviour of a group of women arranging meetings using SMS, phone, Instant Messaging and Email. Her main idea was that we are moving from clock time ('let's meet at 3pm') to fluid time, where arrangements gradually come together through constant contact and negotiation. In analysing this phenomenon, her fieldwork started to uncover types of communication roles in groups (.e.g. group leader, time manager, connector, time juggler and time pace setters vs pace takers) and scenarios of types of meeting that require different communication methods.

The talented team at Ludicorp are working on a way of integrating mixed media, quick fire communications with a shared game-based immersive environment. Their flagship project, which has been in development for some time, is called Game Never Ending, and it will allow users to manipulate a social game-type environment from outside via SMS, blogs, email, etc. They speak about a transition from application-based, through document-based to relationship-based computing, and they are immersed in trying to understand how online environments can support greater fluidity in social networking. They also showed their new online social network that is focused on photo-sharing called Flickr, which was very impressive and went down well. Stuart Henshall has posted a detailed review of Flickr here.

Marc Smith, an in-house sociologist at Microsoft, gave a talk about catalyzing collective action in social cyberspaces and covered some useful background research into the difference between groups, communities and associations, and the various components of collective action, such as implicit and explicit reputation systems, sites of coordinated action and design principles for the bounding and operation of groups. He then went on to look at datamining work he has done on large information stores about people's online conversations in newsgroups and similar environments, and showed some visualisation tools and results that have come out of this reaesrch. He also talked about the use of mobile connected devices that can embed conversation threads (via web pages) in everyday contexts, linked to everyday objects. He focused on the example of using a barcode scanner in a PDA to view product information and reviews from around the web whilst in a supermarket, but there are obviously less mundane and possibly more useful potential applications for this.

In the area of technical applications and protocols,Dave Sifry from Technorati showed some new web services that they will make available to help people create linkages between their weblogs and online interests. David Weinberger has some good notes on this here. There was also more discussion on the Friend of a Friend protocol (see also FOAF project website), and Lili Cheng from Microsoft talked about her research into social networking tools.

In addition to online social networking in the conventional sense, the conference also contained several sessions about mobile devices and phones as networking tools. The Chief Technology Officer of Nokia, Pertti Korhonen, gave a talk about their work in this area and their pursuit of openness and 'hackability' by the developer community whilst maintaining acceptable levels of durability and reliability. He also spoke of Nokia's acquisition of Symbian, which has 80% of the mobile Operating System market and heralds potentially great things for both phones and handheld devices. However, Pertti will forever be remembered for 'The Slide' - a powerpoint slide he returned to as a kind of default wallpaper for his presentation that contained a series of small, wacky mobile phone graphics that became cult viewing for ETCON attendees and prompted hilarious IRC chatter.

Finally, one session I was sorry to miss because of my schedule was Chris Heathcote's 35 ways to find your location, which was an education in some of the techniques that can be used to find where we are, which is obviously a major issue for mobile providers and others involved in Geolocation projects. The most thought-provoking elements of Chris's presentation seemed to be ideas around social geo-location - i.e. sharing or deriving geolocation infomation within a group where one or more accurate points are known.

What do you think?

Headshift linked here on May 9, 2006 03:10 PM
The Emerging Technology Conference 2004 was a fascinating and thought-provoking event, and these are my general impressions
Headshift linked here on May 9, 2006 03:13 PM
Chris Heathcote suggests we sticker the city with barcodes to help us develop reliable geo-data

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