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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What is a 'mobile community'?

Sociologist Barry Wellman has defined communities as:
"Networks of interpersonal ties that provide sociability, support, information, a sense of belonging, and social identity."

So a decent definition of a Mobile Community is:
A network of interpersonal ties that provides sociability, support, information, a sense of belonging, social identity, and which always connects its members regardless of where they go.

It's important to note that location, time and resources are not necessary constraints on membership or participation in a mobile community. However, the community may choose to form based on intended restriction of those variables. For example, a member of a mobile community of green architects can connect with others at any time of the day, even if she's on top of a mountain in Peru, and share information and some material resources if desired. On the other hand a mobile community might form around graphic designers being available for a drink after 5pm in New York. The limitations are less due to restrictions of the physical world and more due to the desires of the members.

What is the purpose of this blog?

It is a frequently updated source of research and design information concerning mobile communities. There is an associated discussion area which allows a forum for discussion of articles and the techniques advocated by them. It is hoped that having an easily accessible location to read new information and talk about it will draw in high school students, programmers, user-interface designers, ethnographers, usability specialists, researchers and other interested members of the community to discuss the issues necessary to build better mobile communities for the future.

What does it publish?

Academic research papers, mobile design methods, conference announcements, announcements of technology that enables mobile communities, book references, and reviews of mobile products.

What doesn't it publish?

While not a hard and fast rule this blog probably won't be following: - the specifics of new products coming out - current media news relating to mobile usage and culture - technical aspects of computer architecture, code, or networks that enable construction of mobile communication devices There's already other blogs that do these things very well.

What topics does it focus on?

Design of mobile communication devices that facilitate mobile communities, Computer Support Cooperative Work (CSCW), sociotechnical systems, usability, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), ethnography, User Centered Design for mobiles, groupware, social networks, mobile reputation systems.

Why do you publish what's already in journals?

Primarily because there isn't a Mobile Community Design journal although there are a few that are close. Relevant material gets spread between different conferences and journals and there's no good place to see the interesting bits all in one place. There's also the issue that while journals and conferences do an excellent job of encouraging research, organizing people in person, sorting out quality papers and discovering new research areas, they do have some drawbacks.

Some of the problems are:

  • Journals and conference proceedings restrict access to who can read research. They do this by requiring payment, membership or simply reducing the scope of advertising of new research. This is contrary to the concept of democratization of information and free access to information. This results in an ivory tower of academics and a limited number of professionals who are aware of current research and new ideas. This unnecessarily hampers the adoption of new ideas and the awareness of the general public about science. The alternative model is to promote open access to these resources by intellectually minded people interested in the subject matter.
  • Journals and conferences are slow to publish. Sometimes they delay publication of new information by a year or more. In our current world of technology which can freely publish information within seconds, this is unnecessarily slowing down progress in design.
  • Journals don't facilitate interaction and feedback about research in a democratic and timely fashion. Select members of a review board may provide feedback to the authors, but this is hardly a representative opinion, and other authors can't benefit from seeing this feedback. We need more discussion of research, not just the occasional response articles between leaders in a field published in a journal.
  • Many good articles don't get published. This happens for a variety of reasons: timing, politics, fads, size limits, and of course quality. Just because an article doesn't make it into a journal doesn't mean it isn't worthwhile for the community. There are reputation and quality management systems (such as those used by Slashdot) which could enable an entire community to vote on which papers are good. While we don't offer that here, it is the future of publishing and independent publishers are a good first step in creating wider access.
  • Journals still print on paper. The old metaphor of paper carries over into editions, page numbers, publication dates of collections, and delay of electronic publications to match paper versions.
Related articles:

How often do you publish?

I try to post once a month at this point, I was posting more regularly when I was in grad school.

What is the future of mobile communities?

Users of mobile devices often end up developing intimate connections to them. This is probably because the devices are with them all the time, increase safety, perform both social and private functions. Consequently they often become imbedded as part of the user's identity. What happens when you apply this to existing online communities?

People become intimately attached to groups of people. They share more private information, meet people more often and grow to trust social networks. Consequently new opportunities for collective action develop. Communities of people could in some cases establish powerful group identities, find new ways to coordinate and orchestrate policies and eventually gain power to influence governments and politics. On the flip side, these communities are more personal than ever. They know a lot about you and have an almost super-human ability to connect you with other people and find resources you need. All of this theorizing is dependent on having tools which enable and possibly encourage people in this direction. It won't happen unless we build it.

At this point, let me present a conceptualization of community types.

Very few communities are purely one or the other. Most facilitate interpersonal ties using a variety of different methods that fall anywhere along this spectrum.

This is only one possible metaphor for how these traits interrelate. I actually think the differences between communities can be better described based on the functions they serve for their members, but that's yet to be written up. For the moment, the scale above provides a more accurate explanatory model than the popular terms of 'virtual', 'digital' and 'real' can offer.

Technologically-mediated mobile communities exist, but they are in very early stages of exploration. There are some exceptions and Howard Rheingold's site Smart Mobs (and the accompanying book) are tracking the emergence of these very well. A few examples:

  • Instant messaging on Danger's Hiptop enables mobile users to chat with groups while on the move
  • Networks of friends send SMSs to members of their friend groups to coordinate activities
  • Families use mobile phones to keep in touch with loved ones as they travel or commute
  • Moblogging is letting people post pics (or other media) to a community website from anywhere, and a few sites now allow for readers to respond using similar media via their mobile devices
In order for us to build communication devices that enable mobile communities, we need to start applying our knowledge of reputation systems, identity management, social networks, interface design, psychology and other fields, to our design of devices. The resulting products could support democratic politics, democratization of information, egalitarian societies, uncensored communication, collective action campaigns, or nearly any other trait we can dream up. Technology greatly influences how people act - simply by making it possible. We as the designers and researchers of these technologies hold the power (and the corresponding responsibility) to decide what people are able to do. It's time we started acting like a mobile design community and discussing what it is we're building.

How can I submit a paper?

If you have a research paper or design information which is related to mobile community design and which is publicly available and not under a copyright which you do not own, please send me a link to it, or we can arrange a method of transferring the file itself. I do not publish everything I am sent and it may take me a little while to read the paper. However, your submissions are greatly appreciated!

Bio and Consulting

Jeff is a user experience researcher and designer currently based in San Diego, CA, USA. He has a B.S in Computer Science and a Ph.D. in Interaction Design, which primarily focused on mobile device concepts and research methods for studying mobile communities of backpackers . Jeff is currently Manager of the User Experience team at Websense, Inc, where he helps develop a range of enterprise security products. He keeps active in his spare time as the Principal Consultant of User Design Consulting and also runs this blog.

If you have a proposal for a consulting project, or other questions, please contact me.