By Andrew Myers
At the MobiSocial Lab, an engineering research team asks fundamental questions about the marriage of mobile communications and social networking, and begins to design the future of open-source social networking.
Computer science grad students Aemon Cannon, left, and Ben Dodson use near field communication to play a hand of poker between their cell phones and the TV.
(Photo by Steve Fyffe/Stanford News Service)
In a YouTube video, two Stanford graduate students stand together in front of a television. One draws with his finger on his smartphone, then holds it next to the second student's phone. The drawing zips from one phone to the next. The first student then touches his phone to a television remote control and the image soon appears on a nearby TV. Then the second student begins to draw. His flourishes are duplicated pixel-for-pixel in real time on both the TV and the first phone. This is the world of MobiSocial – a glimpse into the future of mobile-social computing. A team of computer scientists, graduate students, technology experts and industry representatives from AVG, Google, Nokia and Sony Ericsson gathered recently to officially kick off the Stanford Mobile and Social Computing Laboratory. Or, for those tweeting at home: MobiSocial. They have formed MobiSocial to ask the most fundamental questions about this rapidly burgeoning field, questions that seem obvious now that mobile and social media are firmly entrenched, but which weren't so obvious as the technologies were entrenching themselves: Can social be done better? Can it be even more social and more fun? Can it be more open? Can it be more secure? And, if so, how? In short, MobiSocial is about imagining and creating an open-source mobile-social media future.
Ecstasy and agony
"Facebook, Flickr, Twitter are all fantastic ideas and transformative uses of technology," says Monica Lam, professor of computer science at Stanford's School of Engineering and faculty director of MobiSocial. "But people have rushed into proprietary playgrounds seemingly unconcerned about the consequences, ranging from limited innovation to privacy." Like the web before and, later, mobile phones, the shift to social media happened rapidly, before anyone could fully understand what such mass adoption might portend. Meanwhile, popular culture is swept up in a technology wave in which just a handful of social networking portals have come to dominate. MobiSocial is working to create a new class of mobile and social computing technology that works in consumers' interests while enabling all the positive aspects of social media – from e-commerce to closely knit social circles.
Michael Fischer, a doctoral student in computer science and MobiSocial member working on a social sharing app known as Mr. Privacy, sees things in terms of consumer options. "The real promise of MobiSocial is innovation. Closed networks limit creativity and, ultimately, the user's choices. We're trying to take things to a new, broader level none of us can imagine today," he said. MobiSocial's Junction platform makes it easy to create apps to swap links and photos, to collaboratively create notes and drawings, and to play games with anyone we meet, all without wires and at the click of a button. The technology is built on near-field communication (NFC), but the folks at MobiSocial have dubbed it something much more fun: partyware. Imagine attending a party where anyone can share music to a mutual jukebox and then vote on the playlist – call it the first crowd-sourced DJ. Other apps might allow the sharing of videos on a big-screen TV. All these social activities transpire between the devices and their owners with no proprietary middleman, without big brother watching over.
A new landscape
So, what might the mobile-social landscape look like down the road? The members of MobiSocial already have produced a suite of applications that provide a hint of a new direction. It includes the features we've come to expect – such as anywhere-anytime communications with networks of friends, efficient e-commerce, easy access to information – while promoting innovation and competition, personal data security and, of course, privacy. There is the aforementioned Mr. Privacy, an open-source rethinking of social networking. If social networking has proved anything, it is that people love to share articles, music, video and photos with their friends. But that freedom comes with a certain price: The service provider often owns the content posted to its servers. It may be searched, analyzed and used by advertisers. Mr. Privacy accomplishes some of the same objectives – providing a platform for social applications such as allowing the sharing of links and comments among friends – but it does so using a more private technology based on email. "Mr. Privacy's use of email is key," said Lam. "It is the most widely adopted social communication technology and it's an open standard – meaning you can share information, links and conversations with friends outside of proprietary networks." For T.J. Purtell, another computer science PhD candidate in the MobiSocial group, the big win with using email as a social sharing service is data ownership: "Email providers guarantee that a human will not look at your email and that the contents of your mail will not be shared with third parties. With deeper integration of social media in our lives, control of this data will become increasingly important."
MobiSocial also has produced a Facebook app called SocialFlow that allows users to organize and manage their many social subgroups, to help overcome the hurdle of group creation and encourage private sharing. "No one has just one monolithic social network," said Diana MacLean, a doctoral student working on an app called SocialFlow. "We have work colleagues, family, college friends, high school friends and so forth. Sometimes you want everyone to see something, sometimes you don't. SocialFlow helps narrow and define our social subgroups," MacLean said. SocialFlow works by looking at the images in which a person was tagged recently and from analyzing their Gmail email traffic. The app then suggests subgroups, which the user can further refine to better manage social interactions.
The personal cloud
Other apps gather, manage and protect the ether of personal data that surrounds us. This ether – known as the "personal cloud" – will follow us wherever we go and will be sharable with whomever we choose. "We'll be able to use this data to make purchases, to swap contact information, to share photos and video. It will be very powerful," said Lam. "The team at MobiSocial is working today to ensure that tomorrow the personal cloud is white and puffy with a shiny silver lining." The work of the Mobile and Social Computing Laboratory is part of the National Science Foundation's Programmable Open Mobile Internet 2020 Expedition, which works to remove barriers to innovation through creation of open standards and systems.
Andrew Myers is the associate director of communications at the School of Engineering.