In the early thinking and drafts of Net, Blogs and Rock'n'Roll the idea was to feature some specific scenarios (or fictional use cases — call them what you will) that showed how new types of discovery might take place in new social and technological settings. These speculative scenarios provided "possible futures" — that is, not firm predictions. The stories didn't work so well in the context of the book, but, retrieving them from the "cutting room floor" so to speak, I hope they might work on this blog.
The social element is central to most of my stories: how tastes and preferences influence who we hang out with, and how who we hang out with influences our discoveries of new material. This is the other side of the coin from highly personalised automated recommendations, and the idea that everyone will have their own individual media cocoon with little shared experience.
As services like Twitter and Facebook integrate mobile social networking with other online data, we should see more spontaneous smart mobs forming. My hope is that these will make concerts, film screenings, gallery viewings and even lectures more exciting and attractive by adding the scope to make new friends. Through Last.fm's events, I can already see which people are attending many of the same gigs as me. Current research is exploring ways to use Bluetooth so that we can find each other, if we want to be found, inside the venue.
So here is a scenario I wrote for the first draft of the book that envisages the possible uses to which such services might be put, and the concerns people might have about them. It's based on a tourist visiting a film festival — there is an annual Tallinn film festival, but I've never been there, and this story is entirely fictional.
I have several more future discovery scenarios that I'm happy to publish here. Please let me know if you find this useful, and suggest how I could improve the presentation of such stories.
From his hotel, Paul makes his way down to the Town Hall square in the Old Town area of Tallinn, Estonia. There he finds the registration office for the annual film festival, which he's attending. Along with his pass for the week, Paul is given the option of paying a returnable deposit of €50 for a handheld Personal Digital Assistant with all the festival information pre-loaded on it. But as he already has a compatible PDA of his own, he opts to have the information loaded directly on to that instead. While his PDA is docked to load the data, the assistant runs through the services available. As well as the festival schedule, there are trailers for most of the films and audio interviews with producers and directors. The Tallinn tourism agency has included details of other attractions and places to eat: because the PDA always knows where it is in the town, it can tell you, at any given moment, the nearest restaurants and direct you to them.
But the features that Paul is most interested in are those for personalisation, social networking and communication. Once he has his loaded PDA back, he enters the login details for his favourite online entertainment community. Straight away the PDA knows his profile of favourite films, books and music. It makes some recommendations for the films he might be interested in. "So far, so predictable," Paul thinks to himself – he wouldn't have come all this way to attend the festival if he hadn't identified most of those films himself before he booked. But the PDA also flags some fringe events he hadn't spotted before, including a live performance of one of his favourite film soundtracks in one of Tallinn's beautiful churches.
The PDA also lists which members of Paul's network of contacts are attending the festival. For those that he has identified as ‘friends', the PDA provides Instant Messenger communications. His next stop is a café where he's arranged to hook up with Mileva, the only one of these friends whom he's actually met face-to-face. He still finds it slightly uncanny that the PDA has Mileva's name glowing red just moments before he spots her at the counter. They greet, and Paul shows her his screen.
Mileva digs in her bag, fishes out her own PDA and looks at the screen. "Snap!" she says, showing him his own name glowing.
"A lot of people get pretty freaked out the first time they use this service," Paul observes. "I've seen them go running back to the registration desks demanding to know how to turn it off."
"I know. And don't get me wrong: I wouldn't want anything like that tipping people off every time I walk into a room. Of course, you can turn it off if you want to, but I find it can be quite useful at festivals and conferences, especially if you don't know many people there."
"Or even if you do, sometimes. What I like is the way it encourages a degree of spontaneity by making the whole festival more socially-driven. I mean, I get these recommendations through the filtering systems, and sometimes they throw up something unexpected and interesting, but you're never quite sure how much trust to put in the recommendations. Even if the system explains the reasoning behind the recommendation, it still feels kind of cold. Whereas, through these PDA services, I've met other fans with whom I've previously interacted online, and you get a sense of how well aligned your tastes are. The personal recommendations I get from them are just more animated. I was at a festival in San Francisco last year, and a bunch of us from the Crime Thrillers forum got together for a beer. There was one guy, Sam, who managed to persuade us all to go and see a movie I hadn't really considered before. He made a really inspiring case for why it was a great film, and a few of us changed our plans and went to see it. Just spontaneity and chance, really, but we all really enjoyed it and had a great discussion afterwards – plus a few more beers!"
"Speaking of discussions afterwards," Mileva replies, "Have you heard about the new feature they're trialling with these PDAs to make it easier for bloggers and journalists to include film-clips in their reviews?"
"I don't think the guy at registration mentioned that."
"For some of the screenings you can use your PDA to tag sections of the film for possible inclusion in your blog. It's like having a little ‘record' button on your PDA: you press it once at the start of a section you want to tag, and again at the end. I think you can tag up to five minutes of the film in total. You don't get the clips on your PDA, but when you next log on to your blog account, the clips are there for you. You can clean up the editing at the start and end of the clips and then include them in your review. I think now that the cinemas have the new generation of digital projectors, they have a way of detecting signals from multiple devices and then linking those signals back to you."
"Won't everyone just use that to tag the sex scenes?"
"You cynic! Well, I guess that's why they're just trialling it to start with. But you have to have a PDA running Linux, I think."
"Ah, that'll be why the guy at registration didn't mention it. Maybe I should have got one of their machines on deposit instead." Paul looks ruefully at his PDA. "Hey", he says, "looks like George is in here too. Do you know what he looks like? That photo on his profile has his face in shade, and you can't make out his features."
"No, that photo is all I've ever seen. How about we send him a message or give him a call?"