Helsinki's Aula
By Howard Rheingold, Wed Jul 17 00:00:00 GMT 2002

Where geospace, sociospace, and cyberspace meet...

The Aula community in Helsinki and cyberspace is still my favorite smart mob - five hundred Finns who design and use mobile media to flock and blog, socialize and collaborate in geographic and virtual places simultaneously. When I spent an evening in June, 2002 with some of the Aula members, I had the opportunity to hang out in the "urban living room for the networked society" they were still constructing when I first met them, a year previously.

In July, 2001, I wrote in an article for TheFeature that "Virtual communities and mobile communications each have their own uniquely powerful characteristics. When those characteristics combine, powerful hybrids are likely to emerge, just as the merger of the PC with the telephone network created a wholly new medium, the Internet." As an example of one of these emergent hybrids, I mentioned that "Jyri Engeström is opening a social club in the middle of downtown Helsinki that combines physical location, virtual community, and SMS messaging."

Engeström, Tuomas Toivonen, Aleksi Aaltonen, and Marko Ahtisaari designed a cultural experiment that combined a physical community center in Lasipalatsi, one of Helsinki's busiest pedestrian and public transportation crossroads, with Internet-based virtual communities. With a foot in both the non-profit and for-profit sectors, the founders described Aula as a public space where "consumption was possible, but not obligatory, and where production and exchange were also present." Legally, Aula is a cooperative, owned by the people who design, build, and use it.

Project Hunaja

When I first visited, in June, 2001, the physical clubhouse was still under construction, although the online community had grown to 300 people. Aula members were sawing and hammering together the physical gathering place when I first visited in April, 2001. By my next visit, a year later, the place was fully furnished, wired, and inhabited. When I arrived, more than a dozen people were sitting around one of the long, cafeteria-style tables, talking, logging onto the Net, or both. Others were lounging and talking in twos and threes on the raised, cushioned, no-shoes area. The self-service beverage area, the whiteboards, digital media they had envisioned in their planning documents were there for anyone to use.

We talked at Aula and a nearby restaurant for six hours. Part of the conversation was recorded in digital video for eventual webcast. I received my own hunaja key. Among other things, the small radio frequency identity chip, designed to hang on my keychain, enables me to enter their clubhouse in the middle of downtown Helsinki at any time and use their beverages and 802.11b connection. Like other Aula projects, Hunaja has both public and commercial possibilities that combine social networks, mobile communications, and RFID tags through a kind of geographical buddy list. If I had decided to let myself into the clubhouse in the middle of the night, other Aula members could log onto the Internet or receive SMS messages on their mobile devices and see that I was there:

The purpose of Project Hunaja (Finnish for "honey") is to create an access control system for community spaces that enables users to stay aware of others in the space remotely by using the Web or a mobile phone. There is currently a prototype in use at the Aula cooperative in Helsinki.

Imagine you're out in the city at lunchtime, and realize you're nearby Aula. Should you bother making your way there just to see if any of your friends are in, or head for the nearest coffee shop and have lunch by yourself?

Hunaja saves you from this dilemma by letting you check who's there with your phone.

For the members of the Aula cooperative, Hunaja facilitates encounters among members of a social network. Appropriating network communication media for social purposes is an old tradition in Internet years, going back to the first webcam, which was aimed at a coffeepot in a Cambridge laboratory.

The first ubiquitous computing experiments in 1990 at Xerox Palo Alto research center also involved a network-linked sensor on the coffeepot. Not only do people want to know when a fresh pot of coffee is available, they also want to know who is in the coffee room, where informal conversations often take place. Certain commercial enterprises - pubs, nightclubs, restaurants, cafés - might find it profitable to give their customers the means to create "buddy lists" to find out who's hanging out in person or online at any moment.

Aula collaborates with the Helsinki Library on the "Future Library Forum," a series of articles, face-to-face meetings, and online forums focused on fostering the vitality of the public library as a centrally important public space with strong face-to-face and cyberspace components.

Tuomas Toivonen, one of the Aula founders, noted that the public spaces that have traditionally lent conviviality to urban centers are eroding. Many previously public places are increasingly privatized, tilting their activities from civic to commercial, and at the same time the mobile telephone has brought people's private lives and social networks into previously public arenas.

The public library's informational function increasingly involves the institution in cyberspace-based infrastructure, but at the same time, the social significance of a central public space devoted to knowledge and discourse has been highlighted. Aula's concentration on technologies that convivially bridge face-to-face places and social cyberspaces is well matched for the problem of envisioning the public library of the future.

Mobile Blogging

My recent visit also coincided with another cybercommunity activity: Aula launched a community-edited weblog, POV. Aula editors can publish articles for the private Aula community, or for the web population at large. The next addition to the Aula mediasphere: an SMS interface being designed, so Aula members can blog from their mobile phones.

POV editors are beta-testing the SMS gateway, provided by Aula's friends at Cidercone Wireless, which will be available to the Aula membership at large as soon as phone number verification and administration tools are completed. "The next step," Engeström told me, "is to add support for MMS messages, so POV blog entries with photo attachments may be sent on the fly from MMS phones.

The Aula group is small, located in one of the world headquarters for mobile communication, and bring together people who share a strong sense of social responsibility as well as a passion for and expertise in using new media. Small groups who live in the future are well worth watching, with an eye toward where the rest of the world will be going in the next five years: The PC and the Internet both gestated in communities of enthusiasts where the designers and users were the same people, who used their own creations a social media as well as professional tools. Not all of the dreams and experiments of the PC and Net pioneers ended up growing into mass media, but some of them - email, virtual communities, the Web - grew explosively because they satisfied human hunger for new ways to socialize.

I was impressed not only by the technical acumen of the Aula members I met, but of their critical and ongoing involvement with the social consequences of the technologies they use and design. The combination of social networks, computer networks, and mobile communications is a potent one, and if past media revolutions are any guide to what might happen in the future, the most important applications will emerge from the ways people like the Aula cooperative appropriate and adapt.

With a background in technology writing, Howard Rheingold is the world's foremost authority on virtual communities. His 1988 article in Whole Earth Review, titled "Virtual Communities," contained the first-ever published reference to the concept. His 1993 book, The Virtual Community, was the first work on the phenomenon of social communication in cyberspace.

Howard served as an online host for the Well since 1985, and sat on the Well Board of Directors. In 1994, he was the founding Executive Editor of HotWired, the first commercial webzine with a virtual community known as Threads. He now runs a private community, Brainstorms.