Mobile Social Presence: Who Knows Who's Where Now?
By Howard Rheingold, Mon Mar 08 00:15:00 GMT 2004

When social networking, mobile telephony and locative media collide on the small screen, something altogether surprising will emerge, the way virtual communities, online markets and self-organized dating services emerged from wired cyberspace.

Instant messaging brought the buddy list to the desktop, a visual signal on the periphery of your attention that lets you know when your friends, colleagues, teammates are online. The ability to know when a friend anywhere in the world is online, joined with the ability to exchange short text messages in real time, helped transform an information-rich but people-empty Internet into a complex social cyberspace: a database became a hangout.

I vividly remember my first days online via the Well, which was based on the Unix system. Most of the people went online via dial-up modem in order to post and read on the message board. One command that was common to Unix systems shared by communities of users enabled us to see who else was online at any moment. Another command enabled us to exchange text one-liners in real time. Part of our communication was public, for the entire community to see, and other parts were private. Juggling synchronous and asynchronous, front stage and back channel, many-to-many and one-to-one communications started as an experiment, spiraled into group obsession, and eventually became a way of life for the cyber-inclined.

Nowadays, who doesn't open an IM back channel to colleagues on a conference call with a client? Which global teams don't use buddy lists to know whether colleagues in another hemisphere are awake? In the desktop world, "pushed presence" has become part of the toolset, just as word processing and email did in previous eras. Untethered presence that gets up and accompanies you everywhere you take your phone, however, is probably going to evolve into a different kind of creature than the deskbound kind.

Have Presence

In the sense that it applies to mobile devices, "presence" means knowing where your buddies are by looking at your phone an act that is complicated behind the scenes by the necessity of integrating user-controlled social network information (who you want to be available or invisible to), location information via GPS and/or other locative media, wireless data transport infrastructure and a user interface that makes subtle social decision making easy or at least possible on a small screen. When a few million 15-year-olds get their hands on such devices, expect the unexpected.

Considering the popularity of today's deskbound social-networking software, will tomorrow's mobile-presence enthusiasts want to know where their buddies' buddies' are? More likely,when social networking, mobile telephony and locative media collide on the small screen, something altogether surprising will emerge, the way virtual communities, online markets and self-organized dating services emerged from wired cyberspace. Right now, it's an easy bet that the ability to know where your buddies are will become a necessity for the unwired population less certain is whether you will really want to know that the person standing in front of us in the elevator is a good friend of your good friend. Personal issues of privacy, social boundaries and vulnerability enter the picture when you use technologies to distinguish between the people you want to be available to and those you want to exclude.

At the technical level, I reported a few months ago on the work at HP Labs (MPEG) which allows people within Bluetooth range to discover if they have the same preferences without revealing them to each other. "Just what you need for the phenomenon of discovering in real space if you have a community," is how researcher Bernardo Huberman described it to me.

In user-innovation-land, BuddySpace is a Java-based, open-source instant messenger that adds map overlays to the buddy list, and moves the availability function to higher levels of granularity than "online," "offline" and "away." The UK research lab that created BuddySpace and makes it freely available via Sourceforge states: "By studying the semantics of presence, we can also augment the existing impoverished presence states in a principles manner, providing capabilities that are more representative of the way real users work. Forthcoming capabilities will include automatic location updates via mobile devices, and the use of semantic matchmaking via intelligent profile handling, in order to help users quickly find and filter colleagues of particular interest.

Set The Standards

Then there is the standards battle, one of those esoteric conflicts among geek-wonks that end up affecting the way millions of others communicate. In the Internet Engineering Task Force, an institution that is as close to a central decision-making body in the elusively anarchic Internet culture, the discussions some have called "the presence wars" used to involve separate considerations of deskbound presence and geolocation information. The standards debaters moved closer to a workable agreement by merging the efforts in the Geographic Location/Privacy Working Group (GEOPRIV) that "has taken up the task of walking the line between establishing a means of disseminating geographic data that is subject to the same sorts of privacy controls as presence is today."

IETF's Jon Peterson noted: "More and more, we realized that the GEOPRIV problem was really the presence problem -- the mechanisms of subscriptions, tracking, receiving periodic updates over time, and authentication, who you lie to and who you tell the truth to ... All these arguments look the same." Peterson's forthcoming RFC ("Request for Comment" document) is expected to move the IETF closer to agreement on standards for geolocation presence and privacy services.

Then there are the operators that are understandably nervous about some of the implications of geolocation services. Stalking and prostitution, for example, might move to a whole new level.

I've framed some technical issues here and mentioned just a few experiments and debates. One thing I've learned from writing for TheFeature is that many of my readers know far better than I do what is going on out there. So consider this article a frame and introduction to the article I invite my well-informed readers to flesh out: What issues do you think are important? What obstacles and enablers do you see that I didn't mention? What companies, products, services, and experiments do you know about?