Social Surveillance for Mobile Media
By Justin Hall, Wed Mar 17 21:30:00 GMT 2004

The future of social networks and media sharing on mobile devices depends on phones that watch our every move. Does that sound scary? It sure beats filling out forms about our friends.

South by Southwest Interactive (SXSW) is one of the few conferences that examines the culture of technology. The balmy breezes of Austin in the spring coach geeks to let down their hair and drink a bit of tequila in the company of film and music wonks. The results often illuminate the future of digital media.

And according to the conference, the wireless internet is the inescapable destination of all publishing and communication that now takes place on the desktop internet. Across nearly all the panels of South by Southwest, wireless was in the air. It was the Austin Wireless-provided WIFI that bound the participants together, and it was the sense that mobile phones are the platform for the future. "Everything that we're doing now on computers will some day be done by everyone else on their mobile phones" summed up the eventual wisdom of more than one panel.

If wireless was the implicit stage at SXSW, then "Social Networks" were the main act. Social Network sites are for finding and connecting to small groups and individuals on the Internet. Online communities and relationships are as old as connected computers, but much as the World Wide Web was a quantum leap past Gopher and FTP, current social network sites like Friendster, with pictures and links, are a quantum leap over simple address book software.

Social Networks are quite in vogue; they came up just about everywhere. Five days in a row of casual "social network" meditations can be slightly maddening, in part because the idea is obvious: people love people. People love people they know even more. Ultimately, we ask, what's the point of social networks? Sharing stories. Sharing media. You post something, and the people who care about you find out. I broke my leg. I broke up with my girlfriend. Your friends and family will want to know those things.

blogging best buddies

Ben and Mena Trott are the cherubic couple behind the Movable Type and TypePad weblogging services. I asked them about the future of their business back in February, over burritos at Pancho Villa in San Mateo. They mentioned that an increasing number of their hosted weblogs are private. Not necessarily password-protected for security, but just not publicized anywhere else online. You want to share your family vacation photos without requiring someone to know a password. But you don't want all the world to see you in that goofy hat.

This year at South by Southwest, I was on a panel called "Blogging Next: the future of personal publishing on the internet." With 'blog businessman Anil Dash, social network researcher danah boyd, and much audience participation we talked about the kinds of systems that could be used to control access. "Family" and "business" are typical broad categories for contacts and relationships. But sometimes a story is better suited to a few people from each category. I have some family members who love raunchy humor, and conservative friends who eschew it, and visa-versa. "Family" and "business" don't describe who would want access to certain stories or photos. Still, I don't want to have to sort and resort through everyone I know, recategorizing and describing them, each time I want to publish something.

If the future is in managed personal publishing online, marking that content for social sharing could be a tremendous pain. At least that's the feeling I get when people start talking about fields and forms and lists and keywords and RELATIONSHIP descriptions.

you can tell a lot about a person by logging their keystrokes

Your phone knows who you know. Your mobile phone knows how well you know them, how often, and how long you talk to them. Your mobile device knows who you text message, and what you say to them.

Each new social network site I join requires me to enter a list of email addresses and friendship relationships. Those sites could learn a lot from my email correspondence. But that's more business than personal. Those sites could learn the most from my mobile device. Companies in the text prediction business are developing these kinds of systems; some propose to watch our communications to predict and aid future correspondence: "Oh wow - it's noon and my phone just asked me if I want to invite that friend to lunch."

Our mobile devices are an obvious home for social network notes and information. And these social networks are the glue for future personal publishing.

Weblogs: ancient literary progenitor to the moblog.

Years after writing about the emergence of the moblog, weblogs increasingly appear to me to be the crusty literary progenitor of the moblog. Artfully placing links behind text to hint at some idea is suited to the studied composition of posts on a desktop. Some day we may look back and laugh when we remember that human beings used to make links by hand. That is long-attention span stuff compared to posting photos from your handset, between a taxi and a dance club. Links in that context are best made by computers.

Moblogs don't have links. Who wants to type http blah blah blah in on a tiny keypad? And few phones can handle the kind of alt-tabbing required for surfing and cutting and pasting URLs.

John Poisson's talk from the Emerging Technology conference "How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Camera Phone" gave some clue to future media sharing on mobile devices. I paraphrased his talk during the Blogging Next panel: "In the future, what will happen is that four people will go out for dinner, and they take a picture of some crazy crab dish, and the software knows that they were together in the same place eating the same crab." The links between entries will be made by our incidental information. Date and time. Place. Correspondence. Phone calls. Photo captions.

The best medium for mobile phones, the way most folks will share pictures and short stories in the digital future was evident at South by Southwest 2004: evident between the buzzwords "weblog" and "social networks." Current generation social network sites require us to do our own surveillance. How do I communicate, and with whom? That kind of surveillance is best left to our devices. Once our mobile devices are empowered to publish based on our social networks, the traffic in personal media will explode.

[Thanks much to Heath Row for his conference notes from SXSW '04]

Justin Hall writes and speaks on intimacy and stimulation in 21st century technologies. Next month, he will be experimenting with the conference-free lifestyle. Well, there's this one conference. But it's local.