That’s the idea behind Place-Based Networks; it’s mobile, social technology to help you connect with people based on your shared interest in a place.
“Geo-Tags” and “Geo-Fencing”
Place-Based Networks rely heavily on geo-tags and geo-fencing, concepts you can learn more about in my recent post, “Place is a Tag: How Our Phones Should Work.” Here’s the basic idea though: our phones will soon help us “tag” and receive information about places, in ways that are much easier and richer than is possible today. “Geo-tags” will enable us to create cyber perimeters, or “geo-fences,” to delineate spaces in the real world and connect those places to information on the web.
Geo-fences can be mapped to electoral districts, cities, neighborhoods, and even a basketball court in a park, a nearby comic shop, or a specific bookshelf in your local library. The map to the left shows a geo-fenced section of a park near my home in Seattle.
While the “Place is a Tag“ article focused on the places and things inside these geo-fences, this post is about the people inside them.
More Grounded Networks
Here’s the basic idea: most places in our world have people who are connected with them. Place-Based Networks expose those people, so you can more easily connect with them.
Now, you might be thinking: What?!? I actually have zero interest in connecting with that screaming guy hanging out on the corner down the street. And so yes, this idea has many tricky issues associated with it, some of which we’ll get to in a moment. But first let’s look at what’s exciting about it. Because, like it or not, something like what I’m describing in this article is on it’s way. As a society, we need to get out front on this technology to ensure it evolves in ways that are good for us and for our communities.
How It Might Work…
I’ve learned over the years to never become wedded to one particular vision for how something might work. Software developers are hugely creative people who will consistently surprise you with their unique take on addressing a problem. So this is just a way of saying that I don’t have some exact vision for exactly how this technology will present itself to us.
This is just one way of thinking about how you’ll interact with Place-Based Networks via your phone, laptop and other mobile devices.
You know that little utility you have for choosing a Wi-Fi network on your computer and mobile devices? Well, imagine that, but instead of using it to choose a connection to the Internet, you use something like it for choosing your Place-Based Networks. The best way to describe this is through some examples.
As our first scenario, imagine a college classroom with a geo-fence around it. When you open your laptop, iPad, or phone inside that classroom, you instantly see the above short list of social networks affiliated with the room. These are small networks, like all the students currently taking Biology 101 across the various time blocks in which it’s taught. Or it might be all of the professors who share that classroom, along with the AV department and people responsible for ensuring its upkeep. Or it might be an informal club, the “Bio-Geeks,” who tagged this room as a very focused way of recruiting new students into their group.
The geo-fence for the classroom might be tied to a blog for the “Bio-Geeks” group or a Facebook group, so that when a new student clicks on the “Bio-Geeks” network for the first time, he or she is taken directly to the blog or the Facebook group to see who else is in the group and whether it looks interesting enough to join.
Geo-Fenced Basketball Court
For the second scenario, imagine a basketball court in a public park with its own geo-fence. How’d that geo-fence get there? Simple. Someone who plays there a lot either drew a fence around the court from their home computer using Google Maps, or simply plopped down four points defining a rectangle around the court using their mobile phone (see Place is a Tag for how).
With that geo-fence in place, any of the people who play at that court can now get ahold of one another without the fuss and awkwardness of sharing contacts with one another. To connect with others around that court, the next time they’re at the court they simply choose the network named after that court from a list on their mobile device. If it’s a popular court, there may be multiple networks from which to choose. This particular Place-Based Network might be tied to a Google Group for easy email-based coordination. Or even better, it might be tied to an SMS group to enable its members to easily text one another and quickly coordinate a last-minute game of pickup basketball on a Saturday afternoon. And they won’t need a special app for that; it’ll just be baked into how their phones work.
Geo-Fenced Conference Center
For the last scenario, imagine you’re going to a conference in your chosen field of interest. You walk into the conference center, open your phone and immediately see a handful of available social networks associated with the event.
One of those social networks is likely to be the official one run by the conference organizers and they may only give you access to it with your paid registration. The other social networks you see may be created by other attendees. Some of the speakers and roundtable participants may also set up smaller geo-fences just around the room for their breakout sessions, so participants can easily hone in on the communities of practice that interest them the most.
Closer Than We Think
Place-Based Networks aren’t far away. Once geo-tagging tools become widely used, it’s only a matter of time before people start connecting places to information on the web, and from there connecting that to collections of people is easy. Much of this will likely happen through existing social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Google+, but I also believe Place-Based Networks will help catalyze social networks that will be independent of these services.
One day very soon, we will have whole ecosystems of personal data storage services and one type of data we will manage through them will be our social graph, that map of all our connections with other people. In that world, we won’t necessarily need to keep track of these connections on Facebook and Google+ and Twitter. We’ll just do it once in our personal data store, and these services will then subscribe to our social graph. Place-Based Networks will connect us with a large number of place-based relationships that won’t be the result of us gathering together on the public square of Facebook. Instead, we’ll increasingly find these new connections based on where we happen to be standing, and that’s why Place-Based Networks are likely to play an important role in opening up the way we manage our social connections with one another.
This technology has great potential for good - and it holds a large number of risks, ranging from the socially awkward to the down-right dangerous.
On the awkward side, I think back to my initial experiences playing around with Color, an early (and largely failed) foray into using place to connect us. Using the service made me uncomfortable. I just wasn’t used to seeing online representations of the people standing around me. Part of this discomfort centered on the design of that particular service, but there are some more generic problems worth considering.
Think, for example, about the low levels of discomfort we experience when someone fails to friend, follow or circle us back on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. These social setbacks are fairly subtle and relatively easy to ignore. But when someone attempts to connect with us in a Place-Based Network, in most cases they will be very near us. Turning them down will inevitably be more awkward than on other types of online social networks. Think about a poor young woman just trying to do her grocery shopping at the supermarket, having to constantly turn down requests to connect from eager suitors.
You don’t have to think all that hard to find situations that move from awkward to dangerous. Someone in a bar might use the physical intimidation of their standing right next to you to persuade you to connect when you might otherwise think it a bad idea. It gets worse. Way worse. Think about identity thieves setting geo-fences around your home, or child molesters setting up geo-fences around the local playground.
Clearly, any movement forward in this technology would need to be accompanied by some serious factoring-in of social and security considerations. We would need, for example, the ability to cloak ourselves when so desired. We would also need different personas corresponding to varying levels of disclosure about ourselves, starting with anonymous and moving up from there.
Why This Matters
Place-Based Networks are part of a broader category of technology that I call Place-Based Software. This technology has the potential to reinvigorate our attachment to place and build stronger connections with our communities. These local connections are connections that really matter to our happiness as individuals. These are the places where we work and live, and technology that helps us build stronger connections in these places is technology that really can make the world a better place.
We just need to make sure that’s the way it gets built.