by Tom Coates
What happens when you tie the social software of the Web to precise physical locations? What happens when you go online, and meet, perhaps for the first time, your next-door neighbors?
A new project, Upmystreet Conversations (UMSC) is an experiment in social software that creates a virtual space to facilitate unbounded, extremely localized (10s of meters in urban areas), threaded discussion. The default view is "10 nearest conversations started near me, since time X", where X is a user-controlled variable, allowing the user to scale between "Nearest to me, ever" and "Most recent, anywhere".
UMSC is almost anti-web: while early online communities supported groups of common interest, (often minority interest groups that needed millions of people online to gather enough members to function), UMSC recognizes that you have more in common with your neighbors than your co-hobbyists nationally.
UMSC has some interesting properties, including:
Any conversation exists as a directed graph on a physical map. User history, time, date, length, and owner of post, can be clearly illustrated as different variables, to creative an intuitive visualization of what people are talking about.
Conversations are unbounded, unlike communities based around administrative units or place names, and conversation density follows population density exactly.
While postcodes alone do not identify an individual, postcodes combined with almost any other piece of personal information *can* jeopardize privacy.
Coates talks about the outcome (to date) and emergent properties of UMSC. He also explores the implications for democracy, privacy, and citizenship, and future applications that could be built on this substrate.
In the early days, the internet facilitated (and had to) the creation of groups based around extreme minority interest, because not many were online. It was phenomenally successful in this respect: see USENET. But it has changed. We observed that you actually have more in common with your neighbours than anyone else, you're all online, and built an online tool that is totally grounded in the real one--a virtual community that helps you rediscover your real one.
"After my presention, I hope attendees will be able look for ways in which the changing dynamic of the online community (as it moves towards universality), can create applications that are enmeshed with the physical world, not parallel to it. Enmeshed applications will be the next wave of the internet, and bigger again than the previous. As usual, we're only at the beginning."
22nd–25th April 2003