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{ Monthly Archives } March 2007

just for fun: people markup

For one of our Networked Cities projects, we were asked to explore urban markup. While looking at existing projects, my teammate David Hutchful and I got the feeling that tagging spaces is a pretty crowded space. Tagging or otherwise marking people with the intent of learning more about them or feeling more connected to them appeared similarly crowded.

Inspired loosely by Steven Johnson’s work Everything Bad is Good for You, we began thinking about intermixing the ideas of place and people markup with play. This led to imagining a game in which you tag other people. If tag from two strangers match, aside from some stopwords, within a certain range of time and place, each player might get points.

The idea of being tagged by strangers ultimately feeds into peoples’ curiosity of what others think about them. This became our focus for the project, which we are calling Mirror. We built in anticipation (you can only check how you’ve been tagged once per day) and ambiguity (tags, for you, are only localized to the resolution of a cell tower). You can only be tagged by people who are not in your social network.

These tags also build identities for places. Imagine a space that displays the way people currently in it have been tagged — reflecting its current occupants. Browse a map that shows the way people have been tagged in a neighborhood. We also imagine games, such as scavenger hunts in which the goal is to go out and get tagged in certain ways.


We tell show some of the possibilities in the above storyboard. There is another write up on the project’s page, as well as (an admittedly hand-wavy) tech/design explanation (pdf).

We actually believe that such a product could be bad for both you and community in general, but that doesn’t stop it from being fun to think about.

openid and social networks

As an ischool student, I like to see what folks at other ischools are thinking about, and I had experimented some with claimid in the fall. In the developers’ own words,

One of the greatest things about having a claimID page is that you can easily provide people searching for you with a real picture of your identity. With claimID you can claim your blog, your website and news articles that mention your name into a central place. If someone is searching for you, they previously might not have found all of those important pages. With claimID, you can put your best face forward and let people see the identity you wish to present.

It’s an interesting idea, but I had a lot of trouble figuring out the right way to use it. I manage my online “identity” through my website, including this blog, and various sites including flickr, linkedin, upcoming, and even Links to things about me can sometimes go on under the aboutme tag, but that’s something I try not to do too often. ClaimID, aside from providing an OpenID account, did not really fill a new enough a niche for me to continue using it.

Earlier this month, ClaimID added an OpenID and XFN based contact system. It is a first step, and in its current implementation the value proposition is pretty thin. The blog post announcing the new feature talks about the relationship between contacts and reputation — fair enough, but LinkedIn seems to have staked out that territory already. That does not stop me from being a bit excited about the feature and its potential, and it makes ClaimID’s territory a lot more interesting.

My optimism for OpenID + XFN is that it can enable a single-sign-on version of social networking. This isn’t a problem whose solution can be distributed as easily as OpenID style authentication — everyone’s OpenID server could start serving up a list of the OpenIDs of their friends, but with such a decentralized approach, identifying people that are more than one degree away starts to get very expensive — but it has its appeal.

Imagine an eBay or Amazon Marketplace style transaction, only know you know that you are a 3rd degree contact of the seller — someone in your network knows someone in their network. This changes the transaction experience. This is the basic idea behind LinkedIn’s hiring and B2B services sections. There are many web applications where knowing users’ social networks can add value, but it might not add enough value to get users to go through the process of adding their contacts. Importing social networks (privacy concerns aside) might also allow a site to identify n-degree connections between the site’s users, even if someone in the network is not a user of the site.

Importing social networks also can help handle the cold start problems on many social sites. Going back to the eBay or Amazon example, adding social information to a transaction may be most important for first time sellers and buyers, but these are also the people are most likely to need that added bit of reputation since they have not otherwise developed one on the site.

Of course, there are some challenges to this use of social networks that go beyond implementation details. My Flickr contacts are not my LinkedIn contacts, and I don’t really want them to overlap. I doubt that the current XFN profile offers users enough flexibility to manage who gets to be a contact on which website just by filtering values. This may mean that an OpenID approach to social networks may be limited to websites in which social social networks are not a central feature.

I’m not the first person to get excited about the combination of social networks and OpenID, and claimid is not the first OpenID service to manage relationships. It’s an encouraging sign of things to come, and I’m hopeful that there is some good momentum building in this direction.

together alone

The phrase “alone together” came up in a couple of different contexts this week. In both instances it was expressed as being physical with other people participating in a solitary activity: checking email at Starbucks, flying without talking with your seatmates, and the like. This is not unlike Ducheneaut’s use of the phrase alone together (paper) in reporting that the social activity in the game World of Warcraft was less than had previously been estimated. Within this umbrella there are some distinctions that I’ve been mulling over.

As Ducheneaut observes, the café is a lot like the WoW experience. People are surrounded by background chatter and social interaction, even if they choose not to participate. The person who checks email at Starbucks did not attribute his behavior to seeking an environment, but instead to seeking serendipitous social interaction even though he does not actually experience this interaction when he goes to Starbucks. I am curious about how broadly this applies, and if it is generalizable to experiences like WoW.

There is also another potential distinction linked to the split between what the person says he is seeking (social interaction) and what he gets (a social environment). For most visitors (or is it most locations?), Starbucks does not meet Oldenburg’s criteria for a third space. In a “true” third space, the person’s expectation of serendipitous social interaction would not be unreasonable. Working backwards through the analogies (perhaps more than is reasonable), Ducheneaut et al’s work on the limits of sociability in WoW may bound or even push back against Steinkuehler and Williams’s persuasive argument that WoW is a third space.

The inside of an airplane is not the same and currently has more in common with Marc Augé’s description of non-spaces. People are not transiting airports and flying for the experience of being confined with 300 neighbors. Yet the people environment is similar, as are many of the things that people do in cafés and airplanes: read, consume beverages and small amounts of food, watch movies, listen to music, and catch up on work on paper or on laptops. In the economy section of an airplane, the people are too close, while in the coffee house people seek out others’ presence.

The media, though, is being used in part for different reasons. At Starbucks, it might be to relax or to get things done. This is true on the plane, sure, but it is also an escape from the environment. This is not a new observation, but bears repeating. Both sorts experiences suggest, though, that virtual realities are no more likely than truly virtual communities — more and more day to day situations are becoming intermingled, hybrid experiences. As hybrid environments become more prevalent and in more mundane settings, the design possibilities start to get exciting.


I’ve had a busy couple of months. Among the highlights:

  • My team’s submission for the CHI student design competition was accepted. Like a lot of good news, this begets more work, but it’s fun and I’m really looking forward to the conference.
  • I’ve been accepted to the PhD program at SI. I’m pretty excited; among the programs at various schools, I haven’t seen a better fit for my interests. My interest are broad, and it is going to take some work and reaching beyond SI to make sure I get what I want out of the PhD. Talking that through may be a future post.
  • I went back to Boston for a short weekend to interview candidates for Olin. Going back was strange. I couldn’t help but feel like I should be picking classes and settling into a dorm. It was a good time, though, and great to see people.

Boeing work continues to be a good complement to my SI activities. I’m having a lot of fun with my current portfolio of projects. I’ll admit, though, that after two trips in the last month, I’m feeling a bit spread thin.