Monday, October 27, 2008

The Familiar Stranger: Anxiety, Comfort, and Play in Public Places

The authors present the results of a study conducted to examine the results of two studies conducted to determine the extent to which the Familiar Stranger concept still exists in modern urban scenarios, and whether or not a ubiquitous social networking solution could leverage this effect in a useful way. The first study accurately recreates Stanley Milgram's 1972 Familiar Stranger study, in which photos of a light-rail station at morning rush hour are distributed to individuals at the station, and familiar strangers are determined by labeling the people in the photo. The second study consisted of an urban walking tour, in which participants indicated their level of familiarity and comfort in certain locations based on four dimensions: number of familiar people in the area, degree of familiarity with those people, have familiar people visited this place before, and do the people currently here visit the same places I do? Using these results, the authors propose Jabberwocky, a device used to tag familiar items, locations, and individuals. In this system, Bluetooth connected devices (base stations, cell phones, and iMotes) communicate to provide a measure of familiarity to the user about their current location.

I found this paper to be particularly informative from a purely sociological standpoint. Although the concepts presented cannot be wholly attributed to the authors (Milgram's study was novel in 1972, but not in 2008), they are none the less insightful. One noteworthy design constraint imposed by the authors is that any ubiquitous device which functions based on familiar strangers must not encourage explicit interaction with said strangers. The authors argue that the existence of familiar strangers is an indicator of a healthy urban community, and not a negative or anti-social aspect. Further observations on people's behavior, such as frequently checking one's cell phone in unfamiliar settings, adds a depth of insight to the paper.

The majority of the limitations found with this study are attributed to the technical merits of the device proposed. The Jabberwoky platform seems to be applicable to most of the situations applied in the paper, but using the Motes to tag static objects or locations seems a bit infeasible. For example, leaving these devices attached to public structures brings into question the cost of the device and the possibility of theft. Perhaps a less physically obtrusive solution for tagging familiar locations would be to submit the GPS coordinates of the location to a central server, which can be queried at the same time and with the same frequency of the Bluetooth polling.

1 comment:

Kathy said...