Turning Strangers Into Friends
By Mark Frauenfelder, Mon Jan 19 11:00:00 GMT 2004

Wireless communication was designed for connecting you to people beyond shouting range, or to information beyond your immediate reach. Useful to be sure, but the bad thing about this kind of technology is that when you use it to connect with far-away people and data, you might end up ignoring the people and things around you.

That's why my wife sticks her finger in her free ear when she's on the phone, and why I answer my kid's questions with a non-committal, monosyllabic grunt when I'm online. When you're using the phone or the Net, it's as if your mind has left your body. It might as well be drifting through the astral plane. (Howard Rheingold explores this concept more fully in his recent essay, Does Mobile Telephony Disconnect People from City Life?)

But just because wireless technology has been limited like this in the past doesn't mean it's the only way it can be used. The folks at Media Lab Europe have developed a new system that uses WiFi to connect people who are in the same physical space. The system is called tunA, and it allows people to share the music they're listening to on their handhelds. They become mobile radio stations for listeners in their immediate proximity.

ďtunAĒis a playful combination of "tunes" and "ad-hoc," which describes the kind of network tunA uses. When two or more people using the tunA software application are within WiFi range of one another, they will see cartoon icons that represent other tunA users. By clicking on a user icon, you can see that person's MP3 playlist, and if you like it, you can click another button on the screen and tune into that person's audio stream.

"Big deal," you might be saying. "Now there's a bunch of zoned out people plugged into their walkmans, ignoring the world around them." But that's not really the case. The walkman has long been criticized as a socially isolating device, and that's true. Anyone who has listened to music on a walkman while in a crowded urban situation is familiar with that sense of disengagement from the goings on around them. Listening to music on a walkman is like adding a musical score that turns reality into a less-than-real movie. I'm not arguing that this is always necessarily a bad thing; in fact, I often listen to an iPod when I'm out jogging or walking around town. But as more and more people discover the blinder-like effects of personal entertainment devices, the more they will become disconnected with their environment. Beyond a certain point, this isn't good for a community.

The neat thing about tunA is that it counteracts the isolating effect of ordinary Walkman use. Little wonder that tunA was developed by a research group at Media Lab Europe called "Human Connectedness.Ē This group examines and develops technologies that have a positive effect on social relationships. It's an admirable goal, because the demands and circumstances of the real world -- the need to frequently move from place-to-place, the news media's obsession with portraying the world as a dangerous and scary place, etc. -- have made social contact, especially with strangers, more difficult.

Applications like tunA could play a role in breaking the ice with people you see every day, but havenít spoken to. The late psychologist Stanley Milgram wrote an essay in the early 70s to describe the phenomenon of the "The Familiar Stranger" -- people who we see over and over again on a regular basis but do not talk to or otherwise interact with. An example of a familiar stranger might be the person you stand next to at the bus stop every day, but donít talk to.

Milgram believed that familiar strangers indeed maintain an important relationship, albeit one with an unspoken agreement not to approach each other. Why is it that we don't want to interact with familiar strangers? There are several reasons. It could be that we are afraid they might turn out to be creepy or boring, and then we'd have to change our routine so as not to see them anymore. Maybe itís because weíre embarrassed to approach someone without a formal introduction.

Whatever the reason, something along the lines of tunA might be the ice-breaking device that warms you up to familiar strangers. What if it turned out that the person you've seen at the coffee shop every day for the last year has exactly the same taste in music as you? Wouldn't you be curious to find out if they were interested in other things you like? He might be a comic book aficionado, or a ukulele fanatic just like you!

The Internet has long been hailed as a wonderful way of connecting far-flung people who share similar interests. But it hasn't done a very good job of connecting people who are right next to each other. With the advent of tunA-like applications and other location-sensing technology (like dodgeball.com, which I wrote about last time), thatís all about to change.