Place-Based Networks: A New Kind of Social Network

Imagine if the Internet worked the way the real world does – and that physical places still helped build connection and community.

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.

Geo-Fenced Classroom 

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.

The risks:

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.

The Real Focus of ColorOn 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.

 

People on sidewalk shot modified from original by Ed Yourdon. Classroom shot by techatnyu. Basketball shot by dawhitfield. Conference shot by LexnGer.

 

About Gideon Rosenblatt

Gideon Rosenblatt writes about the impact of technology on people, organizations and society at Alchemy of Change. He is a technologist with a background in business and social change. For nine years, Gideon ran Groundwire, a mission-driven technology consulting group, dedicated to building a more sustainable world. Prior to that, he spent ten years at Microsoft in various marketing, product development and management positions, where he developed CarPoint, one of the world's first large-scale e-commerce websites. Gideon was raised in Utah, lived and worked in Japan and China for several years, and now lives in Seattle with his wife and two boys. More details on Gideon here.
Loading Facebook Comments ...

19 comments

  1. [THIS IS AN EXCERPTED AND EXTENDED COMMENT ORIGINALLY POSTED TO GOOGLE+]

    I certainly agree with you on the risks, since this technology again raises the bar for what used to be quaintly referred to as “media literacy.” When the “media” itself is increasingly embedded and pervasive (another quaint term, pervasive computing), the issue turns inside out, from “how do I handle the massive and growing flood of information,” to “how, when, and where am I publicly present in the massive and growing flood of information.”

    How do we responsibly (ethically) develop and exercise self-representation? How do we honor and respect the “self representation” of others amidst multiple alternative perspectives, some of which we may not be aware of or over which we have little or no control. How do we protect the right to anonymity and it’s newly emerging cousin, non-presence or invisibility (or, in fact, even recognize that such rights exist and are vital for human well-being as well as social justice).

    Makes you realize that “1984″ may not at all have been imposed from the top-down, but inadvertently chosen by the masses under the banners of convenience, productivity, efficiency. Hmmm, maybe I should be thinking more about when and where I turn off my iPhone location services, beyond the value of saving battery power.

    And the other issue is the value of serendipity. While this technology appears to facilitate serendipitous discovery of like-minded people, right in your neighborhood, it depends upon what qualities, properties, interests, values, etc. are publicly shared, conditioned, of course, by one’s level of self-consciousness and sense of priorities. One genuine delight of a new encounter is being discovered for something I didn’t know about myself, and conversely, recognizing in someone else an ability, skill, or quality they did not know they possessed or had value. So, just as “the one calendar we should all be using for maximum efficiency,” this technology may, at face value, promise far more than what it could actually deliver. Much of the real work of interpersonal discovery and network building still remains to be done.

    • Cross-posting here and Google+:

      Wow, Ken, you bring up a lot of interesting issues and questions here. Let me jump on the question of anonymity and invisibility – at least first. 

      Once these Place-Based Networks become more common, we really will have to think differently about our personas. It’s one thing to do it online; there’s already a certain level of abstraction there. But as virtual and real world collide, our social signals will really need to be rethought, won’t they? 

      And you bring up a good distinction between anonymity and invisibility. Without name and without visibility. The without name part is easy enough to understand, but I wonder what invisibility would look like? Is it like the default profile pics we see here on Google+? I think this is probably important, since even if you don’t know my name in this scenario, you could still match my face online with the face you see in front of me, and that could lead to some problems.

  2. I’ve been thinking place-based networks/collaborative platforms are going to be considered critical 21st century civic infrastructure at the intersection of living/virtual networks. The Atlas of Economic Complexity demonstrates knowledge flows are source of economic growth. These networks will decrease the transaction costs of knowledge spillovers/dissemination. 

    Rockefeller Foundation examines this: 

    http://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/news/publications/future-cities-information-inclusion

  3. Great topic. I do think the focus on mobile place is fundamentally misplaced. The revolution in place-connecting is tied to usual place. 

    While dynamic connecting with mobiles has potential, it in my view is secondary to place-based connecting where the place is determined by the user and not the device.Example – I’ve connect 20% of my neighbors (900+ of them) in an online neighbors forum – http://e-democracy.org/se -Also, we are exploring ideas for dynamically connecting neighbors (think electronic block clubs, but with each person in the center of their 100 neighbors circle rather than declared bounded spaces like pretty much ALL current neighbor connecting online. Join: http://forums.e-democracy.org/groups/neighborly

    And, over 300 folks have joined the “Locals Online” online community of practice which should be of interest: http://e-democracy.org/locals

    • Thanks for sharing your work, Steven. I just check it out and it’s quite cool. 

      I think that one of the most difficult things with place-based networks is breaking the chicken and egg problem of building momentum. People will only use a service if there are other people on it and there is “flow” through the network. That bootstrap problem is really, really tough. It require serious, serious organizing like what you’re doing or some deep tech. 

      Google and Facebook, and possibly the mobile providers and maybe even the payment providers (like Square), are trying to have at this from more of a commercial take. Of all of them, I believe that Google stands the best shot. Having just switched from an iPhone to an Android-based Samsung Galaxy Nexus, it’s clear to me that Google really gets local, mobile information way, way better than Apple. It’s not even close. 

      The other option is to do a a lot of community organizing and make the solution more fundamentally about connections between people than about the technology. That’s a lot of work and it’s very distributed and requires lots of investment across each community in which it appears. 

      Both the organizing approach and the tech platform approach require heavy investments. I just tend to believe that the tech approach is more scalable over time. 

      Google is making a deep infrastructure play here in exposing local information. They are the ones most likely to implement the stuff I’m talking about with Place-Based Networks. If I were trying to build something a place-based network myself right now, I would be building it as a layer on top of all the heavy lifting that Google is now doing. Best of luck with your work, Steven. Thanks again for sharing it.

  4. I look at “place” as a type of filter, like Google’s PageRank or more recent — social.  Place provides a way to filter content.  I also believe that people that live or work near each other share common attributes and in most cases common interests.  Therefore it appears to make sense when looking for information to look to those nearby first, in the same way, that we look to friends when searching for news, topics of interests or recommendations.  I have been working on a rudimentary implementation of a place based network targeted to sub Saharan Africa where simple feature phones with SMS are popular.  Next2.us via SMS allows anyone to create an identity for their mobile and mark their location and a geo-fence around their location to share content both publicly or privately.  Subscribers “signal” what they have, want or would like to talk about by sending a text message and the software automatically matches and exchanges messages between users based on overlap of sharing circle and common topics of interest without revealing the subscriber’s mobile number.  Subscriber’s can then text each other using their Next2 identity.   Subscribers can update their location, increase or decrease the size of their sharing circle and post message by sending a simple text message.  Next2.us is an example of a place based network whose goal is to allow even users of simple non-internet enabled phones to discover and mobilize local solutions to local problems.

    • Wow, that’s really cool, Brian. Very interesting and so great to see you implementing this in Africa and not just on smart phones, and with such a strong mission-driven approach. I love it. Thanks for jumping in and sharing your work!

      • Thanks Gideon; coming from you I really appreciate the compliment.  I’ve been enjoying reviewing your posts and appreciate all the thought you have put into place based networks.  Any chance you’d like to join our advisory board?  (I could really use your insights in puzzling through some of the issues you raise in your blog.)

        Couple other thoughts.  I am working on web web site that can be previewed at http://wp.next2.us.

        Next2 operates in the USA via shared shortcode 95495.  Unfortunately, you have to start each text message with our keyword “Next2″  which isn’t necessary in Africa. (Example to register txt: “Next2 reg name location” (enter name your want to use an a location) and send it to 95495.  I am hoping over coming weeks to move to a Twilio longcode which will do away with the need to start each text with “Next2″

        One of the cool things about Next2 is it allows true cross border text messaging at standard text message rates.  Subscribers in the USA can text mesage with subscriber in Kenya even if they are using a simple non-internet mobile phone.  (Adding Nigeria soon and Ghana after that).

        Although our focus is Africa, I believe systems like Next2 could be very useful for hyperlocal message exchange and using our SMS get command, low cost group messaging for local schools, sports teams, small civic organizations.

        We’ll I am sure I have bored your readers enough and let me know if you would have time and interest in helping me grow the business (which entails receiving periodic email updates on our progress and chiming in where you feel appropriate).

        • Thanks again for the note, Brian. I’m afraid that I wouldn’t make a very good advisory board member at this point as I’m trying to be pretty protective of my time these days. 

          I’m thinking of trying to pull together a circle of folks on Google+ with an interest in this area. Are you on Google+? 

  5. I think place-based services are very interesting. I’m particularly interested in making this work for spontaneous civic engagement. I think that the key missing ingredient with using place for communication is context – in a couple of ways.
    1) Just because I happen to be in a certain place doesn’t mean I’m there for a particular reason.Take the example from the article about the basketball court. I may be a member of that “network” because I go there to play once a week with some buddies. I may have absolutely no interest in the aforementioned pickup game. Without the system having a very advanced knowledge of my behavior (which I’m unlikely to provide at the start but could possibly be collected over time), or without it otherwise knowing what I “want”, I’m going to get an awful lot of communication that is meaningless to me. Think of an old-school list-serv. Eventually it just becomes noise.

    2) Just because I happen to be near people, doesn’t mean I like them or even care to know anything about them. Over the last couple of million years, our brains developed some pretty advanced software for being able to tell, very quickly, if someone is “good for us”. Or to be able to able to make appropriate social choices based on what is happening in the moment.

    3) Just because I am in a place or visit it, doesn’t mean I’m thinking about it at that time, or want to. When I ride the subway, I’m not thinking about the subway. I’m thinking about work, or music, or an article I read. I don’t even take out my phone. If I were a member of a subway place group, I wouldn’t see any of that stuff until after I already get off the subway.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think place-based stuff is needed and wanted, but I think these issues (and others) would have to be addressed to get it to work well.

    • Great thoughts here, Mike. Thanks for making the time to write them up. 

      I think you are right on all 3 counts. One way of thinking of this is as different dimensions of context, and they are all interconnected. This is part of something that I call “contextual computing” and it is absolutely essential when our computing platforms become mobile, which is to say we bring them with us into different contexts – which is very, very different from the old desktop computing metaphor. There, context could be largely assumed and it was definitely fixed. Even laptop computing had a very small range of contexts that it had to adapt to. Not so with mobile. 

      The 4 dimensions of context that I see are: social context, spatial context, time context, and semantic context. What you’ll be seeing me explore over this next year is the interconnections between these dimensions in contextual computing. Your point 1) above is the overlap between semantic and place contexts.  2) is social and place context overlap and 3) is time and place to some degree. 

      Actually, 3 also touches on an important issue which is the ability to track a trail of where you’ve been so that you can go back afterwards and pull that spatial context for networks and other information retrieval. It’s an important point. 

      A big part of what you’re noting is just how noisy this could get, and you are absolutely right. That’s where these other dimensions of context come in. Imagine them each as filters that can be overlaid with one another. More on this in the months ahead. 

      Thanks again for stopping by with such good insights. 

Loading Disqus Comments ...