I got an email today that might result in my giving a talk at a tech conference in London later this fall, and it forced me to start thinking about what I'd like to talk about. My conference song-and-dance tends to go in cycles, and the PTI cycle is about played out (for me, at least).
When I talk to students about how to come up with ideas for research, I encourage them to read current research in the areas they're interested in, and to look not just at the obvious "further research is needed" section at the end of most articles, but also at the things that seem to them to be missing from the approach current researchers are taking. So I took that advice myself, and did some poking around at what some of the smartest and most interesting people I know are saying in their talks these days.
One of the talks I looked at was Matt Jones' on "Immaterials." Matt's a brilliant guy, and an amazing presenter, and I find that his talks almost always send my brain spinning off on interesting tangents...and this talk was no exception. That link is to images of his slides and a text version of his talk, but here's the video:
Most of what set my mind in motion is in the first five or six minutes of the talk, specifically around the areas of sociality and what's "somewhat neglected." I think he's correct in targeting the weakness of a lot of current social software (though I think Facebook is changing that on many levels). But I also think that the bulk of social software innovation "somewhat neglects" a very significant group of potential users--and that's those of us who happen to not live in major metropolitan areas.
As an example, as a social software researcher whose academic home is in an "interactive games and media" department, I'm particularly interested in how games are beginning to extend outside the box (where the box is a screen) into our day-to-day lives. "Big Games" developers like Kevin Slavin and Jane McGonigal and Elan Lee are doing amazing things in big metropolitan areas like NYC and SF and Seattle, where there's a critical mass of technologically "hip" consumers. Software like Foursquare was originally designed for urban hipsters...people who wanted to know where the party was going on at any given point in time, so they could join it.
But what about those of us who live in the smaller spaces? The small cities, towns, villages, and even (horror of horrors) the suburbs? Those of us whose lives currently revolve more around home and family than parties and friends? In my experience, these populations have not been well served by social software and game design innovations.
While it's true that 79% of the US population is defined as living in "urban" areas, many of those urban areas are relatively small. As a resident of the Rochester, NY metropolitan area, for example, I'm counted in those statistics as an urbanite...but my experience and social environment is very different from that of a Manhattan resident.
I see populations all the time that are desperately underserved when it comes to group-forming and community-maintaining tools. K-12 schools are a great example. Most school websites that I've seen are awful...and even when they're not awful, their primary purpose is generally distributing information from the schools to the parents. There are seldom mechanisms for parents to talk to back to the school (other than through an email link to a specific teacher or administrator), let alone for parents to talk to each other.
(I got excited when I heard Matt reference a project related to K-12 schools in his talk, but from what I can tell by poking around online, it's really about data visualization rather than community building.)
Other interesting innovations that focus on local community and experiences, like GroupOn and Living Social, are also primarily focused on residents of major metro areas. (Rochester has Groupon, for example, but not Living Social--at least not yet).
There's a lot of potential for these kinds of social tools--community support tools, location augmentation tools, "life as a game board" tools--to be useful in smaller scale environments, but we need to think about how to scale them (where by scaling I mean to more different locations rather than to more people in the same locations).
So, I'm going to start fleshing all of this out, to see what kind of talk begins to emerge. It's fun to have a new talk topic to wrap my head around. :)