Co-location and the Familiar Stranger

Nicolas pointed me to some work that Jamie Lawrence and his colleagues have been doing on the topic of what they refer to as “co-location”. It’s a neologism tied to [w:Stanley Milgram]’s [w:Familiar Stranger], someone who is observed repeatedly over the course of time, but with whom there is no interaction.

Familiar Strangers is a recurring theme in the mobile designed experience world, particularly since Goodman and PaulosFamiliar Strangers project. It’s also topical for a more tragic reason. In 1964 [w:Kitty Genovese] was murdered in the middle of a busy apartment courtyard in Queens, New York City. Many people were “witness” to the event — overhearing it — yet did absolutely nothing. Another side to the promise latent within the idea that, even though we may all be strangers, we may not want to become involved in each others’ lives. (One of my favorite radio programs, Dean Olsher’s The Next Big Thing broadcast a drama called “Ten After Eleven” based on that event. I highly recommend it! Great radio play.)

This is the other side to the promise latent within the Familiar Strangers concept: even though we may be amongst lots of familiar strangers, we may not want to become involved in each others’ lives. We may have familiarity with the strangers we see, but what are the design implications for that phenomenon in the age of social software? How much do we really want to involve ourselves in the lives of familiar strangers? What are the social practices in which a networked public can comfortably engage through the use of mobile, networked terminals? Dating? Sharing? F2F exchanges? Finding someone who speaks your language when in a foreign country?

Lawrence et. al. use the term co-location because “..the meaning of ‘familiar stranger’ is subjective, and highly dependent on the observations of the individual..” There are three essays that I read this afternoon, Exploiting Familiar Strangers: creating community content distribution network by co-located individuals, Making use of Insignificant Interactions, and Communities of Collocation. They describe how the occupancy of physical/geographic space at the same time may be a fruitful site for interactions to occur, or to be considered.

Making use of Insignificant Interactions describes how it may be plausible to use:

“Conventional social relationships fail to capture the incidental interactions that exist between weakly cohesive social groups. Peer-based wireless networks facilitate the exploration of these localised social ties without any explicit intentional behaviour on behalf of the participants. This proposal presents a plausible method to utilise these almost non-existent and seemingly insignificant, social interactions to disseminate localised information and allow us to explore the patterns in daily life.”

Here “weakly cohesive social groups” are the ones that are co-located — occupying the same space — but are probably anonymous in the sense that one individual likely does not know anything about the other individual(s), other than that they are a familiar stranger. Tracking these kinds of social relationships might be interesting — providing some sort of visualization, such as Goodman and Paulos did with their Familiar Strangers project.

Tag/Pin projects do similar, such as Payley, Hahn and Kennard’s Trace Encounters (which, parenthetically, I might be working on for its ISEA06 iteration) and Borovoy et. al. and their Meme Tags, and Paulos’ recent RFID-based Urban Atmosphere’s experiment at SFMOMA.


Conveying that information to users in such a way as to provide them with something that enhances their social well-being is still TBD, I think. In other words, the “making use of..” part of the paper is a candidate research vector that’ll require lots more than good technology. What do people want to do with a familiar stranger? Is a stranger going to take the weak social link and do more than nod recognition? What is the digital, mobile equivalent of that nod of the head that makes sense, but doesn’t necessarily go so far as to get someone a job or take them out on a date, both of which seem a bit hinky.

Communities of Collocation is a short piece that fleshes out what the researchers mean by “co-location.” The challenge for them is to move from the highly subjective character of the “Familiar Stranger” to something that can “ defined or captured by digital technologies.” So, how do you capture “a man in a wheelchair” using digital technologies and anchor them into your Familiar Strangers system? How do you create a visualization of that so that something useful can be done with that encounter? Hence, “co-location.” With it you can measure when and perhaps where intersections between individuals occurs and represent that digitally. Using such things as Bluetooth fingerprints, or the MAC address of wireless network interface cards — some unique attribute of devices individuals carry with them when they occupy space — should allow one to capture “collocation events.”

An analysis of these collocation events, over a suitable period of time, can reveal the patterns of collocation and the existence of collocation relationships. Since an individual may belong to many different communities (their local neighbourhood, work, sport clubs), these relationships can be seen as a representative cross-section of people from the individual’s various communities. Even transitory, but regular, encounters during the morning commute imply that the individuals are both members of a common community: users of public transport or a particular public space.

The research goal of this theme of representing social co-location relationships is to build a software app to share information within “Communities of [in?] Collocation” and deploy that application experience in a limited field trial, but the researchers note that in making an informed decision about the “dissemination protocols” (how things are shared, what do people do with the shared “stuff”, how to represent the collocation events? etc..i assume) “ is necessary to understand the characteristics of collocation relationships in the real world.” I wonder about that — how much can be derived from instinct, and how much has to be derived from rigorous understanding “collocation relationships in the real world”? I mean, I really wonder about this balance. Many of the projects that come to mind are often derived from instinct, and they may even get executed, but they’re not well anchored in the experiences of the real world. And for that they may become illegible to a large audience, despite being, perhaps, fun to think about and fun to create. (Hmm..maybe I operate in the hinterlands of the mobile experience design Long Tail?)

Small Town
This paper also made me think about the way mobile designs of this sort often explicitly are designed for urban experiences, which is fine. But I wondered what happens outside of urban space? This led me to think about the following scenario in which the representation of Familiar Strangers were rendered as a small town — maybe the idyllic small town — in which everyone knows everyone else. Create avatars for those familiar strangers, even though you don’t explicitly know who they are or what they are doing “co-located” or “co-pathed” with you. Your screen would show them as one of the cast of characters from the idyllic small town.

Why do I blog this? The Familiar Strangers theme is a powerful one, with lots of potential for mobile designed experiences. I’m also trying to think of a way to flesh out my taxonomy of mobile designed experiences in the “proximity-based interaction” category. Reading these papers helps generate some ideas for that exercise.

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