Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Social Mobility

A while ago I gave a talk at Nokia Research, and Howard Rheingold's talk reminded me that I haven't blogged it.

I don't know if I'm the first, but I've come up with the term "social mobility" to refer to an interesting combination of two well-known technology trends, both of which are always hot topics at these O'Reilly conferences: social software and mobile devices.

Social software, of course, is the kind of software that is used by groups of people to communicate, coordinate, or cooperate. Mobile devices are mobile phones, PDAs, hiptops, etc. Social software has an interesting set of problems and design constraints, about which a lot has been written. And of course the design constraints for mobile devices are very tight and very well-recognized by companies like Nokia.

But what happens when you combine them? What does a mobile-phone Wiki look like? This is a regime I call "social mobility:" social software used by people who are moving. The restrictions aren't just additive; they're multiplicative. Making good social mobility software will require meeting a very high standard.

So what are some of these design constraints? The software has to have an incredibly minimal interface, because the attention of the user will be elsewhere. The software must be able to learn preferences, because people will not bother entering preferences. The software must be able to recognize context (physical, temporal, situational), because both social applications and mobile applications vary enormously depending on what the user is doing right then.

What is an instance of a social mobility app? Imagine a group of ten people, distributed across a city, trying to decide where to meet for dinner. They're in motion, so email is out (and vanilla email would be terrible, anyway). They could use one-to-one phone calls or texting, but there are 500 two-way conversations (the dark side of Metcalfe's law). What they want, ideally, is an application that lets them multicast to the group, and at the same time listens in to the conversation, figures out where everyone is, where their favorite restaurants are, does some distance calculation, and determines (through some magic black box, obviously) what the consensus of the group is, announces that consensus, and maybe even makes reservations. Now if only it could figure out what people wanted on their pizza...