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					                                                       FALL 2004   VOL.46 NO.1

           Nathan Eagle

                          Can Serendipity Be

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                                                        REPRINT NUMBER 46102
NEW TECHNOLOGY                                                                                  NEW TECHNOLOGY

                           Can Serendipity Be Planned?
A mobile-phone                                             I had probably         programs that enable a group of people to accom-
                                                           greeted Tom in         plish common goals. In some respects, a word
application                                                passing more than      processor that allows a team of individuals to
could facilitate                                           50 times before we     write and edit a document is a form of social soft-
                                                           actually met. A        ware, but more recent applications are able to take
greater workplace                                          new student at the     greater advantage of collaboration. One such
                                                           MIT Media Lab,         example is the social networking of Web sites like
collaboration by           he worked just a few doors down the hall from my and, which
enabling chance            office, but I was a busy doctoral student and did-     enable people to quickly find others who have
                           n’t have much time to cultivate relationships. I was   common interests or other reasons to connect.
encounters                 consumed with my research, trying to get artificial        Such technology also has potentially valuable
                           intelligence on mobile phones, and I was strug-        business benefits. Consider a salesperson who
among people
                           gling. Programming the phones was tougher than         needs an introduction to an executive working for
who don’t —                I had anticipated because I wasn’t familiar with       a prospective customer. Companies like Visible
                           Symbian, the operating system they use. One            Path Corp. have been developing software that
but should —               morning, though, as Tom and I met near the lab’s       automatically finds such connections, using the
                           coffee machine, we started up a conversation. As       “six degrees of separation” principle. The technol-
know each other.
                           it turned out, Tom was also developing an appli-       ogy might analyze the e-mail, electronic address
                           cation for mobile phones, and I soon discovered        books and Web browsing patterns of employees to
NATHAN EAGLE               that he was an expert on Symbian. I was elated         uncover not only the shortest but also strongest
                           because I had found someone who could help me          path between two people. Obviously, the technol-
                           with some difficult programming problems, but          ogy raises a number of privacy concerns, but vari-
                           I couldn’t help feeling some regret. Had I only        ous safeguards can help to minimize them. For
                           taken any number of chances to introduce myself        example, an “opt in” methodology could ensure
                           earlier, his expertise would have saved me weeks       that users release only the information they want
                           of frustration.                                        to, and intermediaries (that is, people who could
                                                                                  potentially link one person to another) could
                           Serendipitous Encounters                               remain completely anonymous unless — and until
                           Lack of communication among colleagues in the          — they explicitly grant their approval for initiat-
                           workplace is a widespread syndrome at many             ing an introduction.
                           companies, but two parallel paradigm shifts are            Together, the two trends — from desktop to
                           helping to change that. The first is a movement        mobile computing and from individual to social
                           from desktop to mobile computing. Wireless com-        software — have the potential to dramatically
                           munication devices have become standard cor-           transform the ways in which companies conduct
                           porate gear around the world. In millions of           business. Despite the growing ubiquity of mobile
                           briefcases, pockets and purses are wireless trans-     telephony, however, few researchers have explored
                           ceivers, microphones and the computational             ways in which the handsets might be used as a
                           horsepower of a desktop computer of just a few         means to foster informal face-to-face communica-
                           years ago. Unfortunately, though, the majority of      tions of co-located colleagues who have little, if
                           that processing power goes unused.                     any, acquaintance with one another. But it is
                              The second paradigm shift is the move from          exactly these sorts of “weak ties” within an organ-
                           individual to “social” software, here defined as       ization that can be particularly powerful in facili-

10   MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW   FALL 2004                                                                          I

                           tating workplace collaborations, among a number        expertise in a specific area that I was currently
                           of other potential benefits.                           struggling with. If both our phones had been set to
                               To that end, Alex Pentland, head of the Media      “available” mode, two picture messages would
                           Lab’s Human Dynamics Group, and I have devel-          have been sent to alert us of our common inter-
                           oped “Serendipity,” a mobile-phone application         ests, and we might have stopped to talk instead of
                           that facilitates interactions among nearby, previ-     walking by each other.
                           ously unacquainted colleagues. The technology,
                           which is intended to extend (rather than sup-          Toward Greater Workplace Collaboration
                           plant) existing enterprise communication andToday, knowledge management is a thriving
                           knowledge-management systems, relies on Blue-
                                                                       multibillion-dollar industry, but, despite the ben-
                           tooth, a low-power radio-frequency protocol that
                                                                       efits of such systems, most people interact with the
                           essentially turns mobile devices into short-range
                                                                       social software in the isolation of their offices.
                           beacons, each with its own unique ID. When two
                                                                       This, however, might soon change with the grow-
                           or more people with Serendipity come into the
                                                                       ing popularity of mobile applications that support
                           same “bubble” where their Bluetooth signals can
                                                                       the desire of individuals to affiliate with others.
                           be detected, the application connects to a server,
                                                                       Such technology could enable companies to
                           sending the IDs of the devices. (Note: The cur-
                                                                       untether knowledge-management systems from
                           rent range of Bluetooth is 10 meters.) The server
                                                                       the desktop so that they can be used in social situ-
                           then correlates the IDs with existing profiles
                                                                       ations where they might be most beneficial: such
                           and performs a matchmaking algorithm. When  as near the water cooler, in the hallway or around
                           there’s a match, both people’s phones receive a
                                                                       the coffee machine.
                           multimedia message that includes the name and   Consider the recent problems of Netractics —
                           a thumbnail photo of the other person, as well
                                                                       a pseudonym for a large networking company
                           as a short list of talking points to get the conver-
                                                                       that has recently acquired a number of smaller
                           sation going.                               firms. To take advantage of any synergy among
                               Serendipity is designed to run passively in the
                                                                       those acquisitions, Netractics has relocated them
                           background on many Bluetooth phones that areonto a campus that consists of two buildings
                           now on the market. Currently, more than one mil-
                                                                       and shared facilities, including a cafeteria and gym.
                           lion Bluetooth devices are being sold each week.
                                                                       But despite that move, the groups have had very
                           The protocol was designed primarily to enable
                                                                       little interaction. Although all the employees
                                                                                     eat lunch in the same cafeteria, for
                                                                                     example, people reportedly have rarely
With Serendipity, my phone would sense the presence
                                                                                     mingled. So Netractics has tried a
of Tom’s phone, connect to our server and recognize                                  number of ideas, including after-work
                                                                                     volleyball leagues, corporate entries in
that he has expertise in the area I am struggling with.                              local races and other extracurricular
                                                                                     activities. But the benefits of co-loca-
                  wireless headsets or laptops to connect to mobile    tion have remained elusive, despite the fact that the
                  phones, but a byproduct of this functionality is     groups work on similar, synergistic tasks.
                  that Bluetooth devices are aware of one another.         Last summer, Netractics began exploring the
                  This accidental feature provides mobile commu-       possibility of running a pilot test of Serendipity at
                  nication devices with the capabilities of expert     its campus. One obvious solution was the same
                  finder systems, except that the introduction is sit- type of system that would have enabled me to
                  uated in an immediate social context rather than     meet Tom, the Symbian expert. But Serendipity
                  asynchronously in front of a desktop computer.       currently runs only on phones from a limited
                     With Serendipity, here’s how I could have met     number of manufacturers — an obstacle because
                  Tom earlier. When we were passing each other in      Netractics has no standard corporate phone.
                  the hallway, my phone would sense the presence of    Another possibility is to use Netractics’ existing
                  his phone. It would then connect to our server,      technology. At the company, employees have to
                  which would recognize that Tom had extensive         carry electronic proximity cards for unlocking the

building entrances. Each card has a unique ID that        social acquaintances, colleagues and so on) on the
can be read from a range of several feet (given           basis of information such as physical proximity (at
proper antenna configurations). Those cards               work, at home and elsewhere), call logs and e-mail.
might be used with a kiosk system that could              Time regularly spent with an individual typically
unobtrusively provide information for introduc-           implies some type of relationship, and the time of
tions. When two or more people are nearby, the            day and location are also important factors. For
kiosk display would begin to show articles and            instance, Friday night encounters at a restaurant
images about topics they have in common. The              imply a different relationship than Tuesday after-
kiosks could be installed in spaces with high traf-       noon meetings at the office.
fic, such as in elevators, near coffee machines and          The project could extend the ways in which
in the company cafeteria.                                 people have studied social networks. In the past,
    Netractics is also interested in the possibility of   companies relied on data from employee surveys,
using the technology to study the divisions across        which can consume an extensive amount of an
the acquired companies. In such a project, the            organization’s time. Additionally, the surveys typi-
first step would be to collect data to quantify and       cally rely on participants to self-report their
visualize the problem. The proximity cards could          behavior, sometimes leading to biases in the data.
be tracked, for instance, to determine the traffic        Furthermore, the surveys present just a static view
patterns at the campus. Netractics could then use         of an organization’s social network.
that information to redesign the layout of the               Although by no means a replacement for sur-
offices in such a way as to encourage greater mix-        veys, Serendipity has significant advantages as a
ing among the different groups.                           complementary method. First, it doesn’t require
                                                          any self-reporting, easing the time demand on
Modeling Complex Social Systems                           participants and ensuring greater data accuracy.
We are now exploring such issues in a human-              Also, it provides more than just a “snapshot” of a
dynamics project at the MIT Media Lab, in which           social network. In fact, continuous information
100 mobile phones will be distributed free of             can be obtained to characterize how a network
charge to incoming students who want to partici-          evolves over time, much like the effect created by
pate in the study. Throughout the school year, the        time-lapse photography.
phones will continually log where the users are              One interesting possibility is that the technol-
(general locations obtained from the nearest cell         ogy could be used to model how information
tower), the people nearby them (from
repeated Bluetooth scans) and their
                                              The technology could be used to model how information
calls and text messages (just the
header information, including the ID          disseminates across a social network. Are e-mails, phone
of the other party and the day, time
and duration of the communica-                calls or chance encounters the predominant medium?
tion). This data will be combined
with other information, such as the users’ e-mail      disseminates across a social network. To seed
logs (just the name of the other party and the         information, one or two people in the study
timestamp information), to create personal diary       could be told that a $10 reward will be given to
viewers of where and with whom the participants        the first dozen or so people to send an e-mail to
have been spending their time.                         a particular address. All of the participants could
    From that data, the system will be able to detect  then be followed to determine how that tip is
patterns, enabling the participants to be catego-      relayed. Specifically, will e-mail or phone calls
rized (for example, as “early risers,” “afternooners”  be the predominant medium? Also, what role will
or “night owls,” depending on when they tend to be     purely chance encounters — one participant ran-
most active). The study will also model the links, or  domly bumping into another — play in trans-
relationships, between participants. Software is       mitting the information across the network?
being developed to predict the type of relationship       Over time, Serendipity could be developed and
between two people (for instance, good friends,        fine-tuned for studying, tracking and — perhaps

                                                                                             FALL 2004   MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW   13

                                                                      ments tracked by a Big Brother-like system.
                            most importantly — predicting the dynamics of a
                                                                          In the research project at the MIT Media Lab,
                            social network. Recently, the CEO of a multimil-
                                                                      all subjects will give their explicit consent to par-
                            lion-dollar manufacturer of office equipment
                                                                      ticipate and will know that, when their device is
                            became interested in the technology as a means
                                                                      consciously turned to “visible” mode, others will
                            to increase workplace collaboration. Like many
                                                                      be able to detect their presence. If users want to
                            organizations, his company suffers from the “silo
                                                                      prevent their phones from logging data, they
                            syndrome” — employees from different depart-
                                                                      could simply choose the “invisible” mode. (But,
                            ments and various groups tend to keep to them-
                                                                      of course, if everyone were to do so for extended
                            selves, leading to unnecessary inefficiencies and
                            frequently missed opportunities.          periods of time, that would defeat the whole
                                                                      purpose of the study.) In addition, centralized
                               To address that problem, the CEO had tried a
                                                                      (instead of peer-to-peer) control helps ensure
                            number of initiatives — for example, having some
                                                                                   that people share only the information
                                                                                   that they want to share. With Serendip-
As the technology is refined, it might even be able
                                                                                   ity, a server helps mediate which people
to predict the outcome of certain initiatives, enabling                            have access to certain data. A user
                                                                                   might, for example, specify that certain
the CEO to run various “what if” virtual experiments.                              pieces of information be shared only
                                                                                   with those who have the same interests.
                  of the people from marketing switch offices with    Or the user could specify a hierarchical level of
                  their counterparts in engineering — but he wasn’t   information sharing (with friends, for instance,
                  sure whether those well-intentioned efforts were    but not with friends of friends).
                  really working. The company had conducted               In general, companies have found that people
                  extensive surveys, but the data only provided a     are usually willing to relinquish a portion of their
                  snapshot of the current social network. Instead,    privacy in exchange for something. Consumers,
                  the CEO said he wanted “footprints in the sand”     for example, have been willing to divulge personal
                  to understand how the network was evolving.         information (such as the names of their friends
                  With such information, he could then determine      and relatives) to receive complimentary benefits
                  which initiatives were working and which weren’t.   (such as free gifts or reduced rates for a service).
                  Serendipity could help capture exactly those types  Within an organization, that type of quid pro quo
                  of dynamics by providing continuous data. And       arrangement could take various forms. Employ-
                  as the technology is refined, it might even be able ees might, for example, be compensated (in finan-
                  to predict the outcome of certain initiatives,      cial or other terms) for playing active roles as
                  enabling the CEO to run various “what if ” virtual  intermediaries. Already many companies offer
                  experiments to determine his or her most effective  small bonuses (or “finder’s fees”) to employees
                  options ahead of time.                              who refer their friends and acquaintances to fill
                                                                      certain jobs at their organizations. Such
                  Privacy Protections                                 approaches could help applications like Serendip-
                  According to a forecast by International Data       ity gain widespread acceptance within a corporate
                  Corp., nearly 80% of all mobile phones will have    setting. If that were to happen, the technology
                  Bluetooth capability by 2006. If that prediction    would finally enable social software to be used
                  holds true, applications like Serendipity could     where it could potentially have the greatest bene-
                  have the potential to dramatically transform        fits — in social settings.
                  the ways in which people meet and connect
                                                                      Nathan Eagle is a graduate student in Media Arts and
                  with each other. For that to happen, though,
                                                                      Sciences and a Media Lab Europe Fellow at the Massa-
                  researchers need to address a number of privacy     chusetts Institute of Technology. He can be reached at
                  concerns. Specifically, many people might prefer
                  eating their meals or riding an elevator immersed
                                                                      Reprint 46102. For ordering information, see page 1.
                  in the silence of their own thoughts, and they      Copyright  Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2004. All
                  could easily take offense at having their move-     rights reserved.

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