Text Messaging and Public Graffiti

There was a great article in the Boston Globe yesterday about two Boston area companies, Aerva Inc. and LocaModa Inc., that are pioneering so-called “public graffiti spaces.” In essence, they are connected displays that show content submitted via text messages. It is also broadcast online so that others can tune in to a given location and even submit content themselves. As “out-of-home” displays become more popular, I’d like to discuss the current and future applications of this idea, as well as the implications it holds for digital identity and privacy.

LocaModa Inc., which provides a service called Wiffiti (short for wireless graffiti) views interactive out-of-home displays as the answer to consumers’ “insatiable desire for connectedness” and the shift from a “’lean back’ TV experience to a more active ‘lean forward’” one. Traditional narrowcast displays, like those found in Wal-Mart or other retail stores, have been vehicles for open loop advertisements that do not respond to users or incorporate user-generated content. Wiffiti works by having a display in a public place, like a café or club, to which users can send text messages that will be immediately displayed on screen. A particular establishment can extend the effectiveness of the device by prompting the audience to, say, submit music requests, vote on their favorite bartender, or answer trivia questions. The model for this is shown below:

Public Texting

Marketers love this idea and view it as the new way to connect with potential customers. The Economist reports that Proctor & Gamble ran a promotion inviting women to text “secrets” to giant screen in Times Square that would also be broadcast on the secret.com website. (A representative message confessed, “I cut my sister’s hair when she was younger and told my parents that she did it herself.”) Executives at the company praised the promotion for dramatically increasing brand awareness.

Public text messaging appeals not only to the need for connectedness that some of us have, but also to marketers and the owners of a venue because of the inherent data collection ability. A user’s cell phone number acts as a unique identifier (like a cookie on a website) that can track the screens to which someone submits, what they actually said, and could possibly be combined with other databases of personal information. Of course, the availability of those other databases depends on the data sharing policies of companies with which one engages in business. Unfortunately, most people never read the fine print when they sign up for rewards cards at retail stores or other promotions. If the store has a lax data sharing policy and collected your cell phone number when you signed up, then the club or café across town might be able to associate you with previous purchases and be able to target advertisements, offers, or anything else in your direction.

But advertising companies are treading carefully; the trust of a consumer is of extremely high value and firms are anxious to preserve that. The founder of LocaModa notes that “the future of out-of-home screen media is unlikely to follow [an] Orwellian model.”

An important question about this technology is whether or not it helps the social nature of the location. Some would say that the last thing we need is another excuse to pull out a cell phone in a café or club. In my own experience, it is common for digital natives to be in a social, public space and message friends that aren’t present. During the time it takes to communicate, the DN displaces him or herself from the environment they are in. They are temporarily closer to the recipient of the message, miles away, than other people just a few feet apart from them. (For more on this, see Sherry Turkle’s excellent piece, Always-on/Always-on-you: The Tethered Self.) Proponents of social graffiti spaces say this is just the opposite; it is immersive in the way it connects an individual to the people in the same space.

What do you think about social texting? Would you engage in it at a café or club? Do you think it helps or hurts the real life social relations between people?

– Tony P.


“School play”

As I mentioned in my last blog post, one of the most interesting things about the Totally Wired forum was hearing Katie Salen talk about games in education.

In her introduction (PDF) to a new volume entitled “Ecology of Games,” Salen quotes Nobel laureate Herbert Simon: “the meaning of ‘knowing’ has shifted from being able to remember and repeat information to being able to find and use it.” Salen believes that games are a perfect way to teach these “new media literacy skills.”

The use of games in school is controversial, and it’s easy to see why.

On one hand, learning through play is so fundamentally natural that it transcends species.

Moreover, games are especially relevant to digital natives. A recent study found that games are the most popular use of the internet among kids in the US aged 6 to 11 — far more than homework, email, music, video, or just surfing.

On the other hand, playing games in school clashes with a long held cultural belief in the separation of work and play.

“Education and entertainment are two different processes,” Iowa State journalism professor Michael Bugeja recently told the Chronicle of Higher Education. “They require two different interfaces. Our whole society is being eroded by entertainment.”

Personally, I have no doubt that kids can and do learn a lot from games. Salen has amply proven this with a plethora of ideas and insights she’s gained by looking at education through the eyes of a game designer. I came away from Totally Wired wondering what other sundry subjects could be illuminated by game design, Freakonomics-style.

Still, I wonder how much of this game-based learning needs to happen in schools. Obviously kids need no encouragement to play. Why not focus on making educational games kids will want to play on their own time, and invest school time in activities most kids won’t do on their own, like read Shakespeare, or build robots?

To be fair, kids will undoubtedly learn more from games when guided by teachers and well designed curricula. As for traditional literacies, Salen acknowledges their importance, and believes they should be taught in tandem. In fact, she told the audience last week, “for kids and even for us, it’s not a huge distinction anymore.”

At any rate, soon Salen’s theories will be put to a dramatic test. She’s currently spearheading development of The Game School, an experimental public school in New York City that, according to its website, “will use game design and game-inspired methods to teach critical 21st century skills and literacies.” Talk about an exciting experiment! From a July article in Wired News:

Right now, the ideas are vague but intriguing: Alternate reality games could be used to study science, as those players typically seek out and analyze data, and then propose and test their hypotheses. Salen also envisions harnessing the creative urges that kids already express through fan fiction, blogging and the creation of avatars and online identities.

How well this works remains to be seen. One thing’s for sure though: a lot of fun will be had finding out.