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Beyond Connection: Situated Wireless Communities

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As Kate walks into the mall on saturday afternoon, she tries the Buddy Finder on her cell phone to see whether any of her friends are nearby. Her nearest buddy Tom, who she just met a week ago in a nightclub, is about two miles away. She smiles when she remembers how they met each other at a party after exchanging information through Proximity Dating on their phones. Of course, Kate would rather have one of her girl friends as a shopping companion. However, most of them are near the city concert hall. Wondering why, Kate checks the posts on the Digital City board, and notices that there will be a big event there this evening. The city council has posted a call for voluntary helpers who'll be rewarded with free tickets, and she expects that her friends could not resist the offer. Kate cannot go to the big event anyway because of a trip she has to take early next morning. She is here in the shopping center to look for some luggage. She posts a question in the Wireless Local Community and in a while she receives a reply from another shopper that one store has "real nice cases on sale." Kate goes to the store and finds a case she really likes. She then posts a thank you note and a picture of the case she just bought.

Advances in wireless information technologies have placed users in a ubiquitous computing environment that allows them to access and exchange information anywhere and anytime through wireless handheld devices such as smartphones.6 Various wireless community applications have emerged which provide users with entirely new experiences. In the preceding episode, our heroine has used four different wireless community applications, the interfaces of which may look like those in Figure 1.

Buddy Finder allows users to locate their friends through wireless positioning technologies (such as GPS). When a person finds someone they are acquainted with in a particular place, they can chat or talk and even arrange to meet if they are nearby. On the other hand, Proximity Dating helps people know each other, especially when they are in the immediate vicinity. Based on short-range wireless telecommunication technologies (such as Bluetooth®), Proximity Dating covers a much smaller geographical area than Buddy Finder. In a place such as a clubhouse or party, people can get to know each other by exchanging information with handheld devices when their personal area networks (PAN) shake hands.

Wireless Digital City is an application that allows people living in a town or city to organize and manage matters concerning their residential, business or political lives. For example, in Helsinki Finland, people discuss, plan and coordinate local events with handhelds through the Helsinki Virtual Village ( Wireless Local Community (WLC), on the other hand, fixes its coverage to an area that is both geographically and functionally defined, such as a shopping center, tourist park, or traffic system.9 People in such an area can join a WLC to share their local experiences with each other. In contrast to information pushed by the companies that supply and sell products and services, customers are likely to regard peer-to-peer reference groups as credible sources of product/service information and be open to informational influence.7

These wireless community applications are different from the Internetbased virtual communities commonly defined as "...groups of people with common interests and needs who come together on-line... to share a sense of community with like-minded strangers, regardless of where they live."4 In those tradition on-line communities, people are connected with one another, but they neither know each other in person nor do they necessarily care where they are at a specific moment. However, in the wireless communities mentioned here, people are more closely bound with each other through a sense of sharing common physical and/or social contexts. Thus they can be referred to as situated wireless communities (SWCs).

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A Classification of Situated Wireless Communities

Unlike those who access virtual communities through the Internet, members of wireless communities are usually on the move, and their information needs are likely to be related to where they are. As the setting for wireless community members to communicate with each other, their context consists of both physical and social elements, which can be either stable or dynamic in a relative sense. We can call a stable social group a "clan" and the dynamic social group a "mix," whereas the stable physical situation will be termed "settled" and the dynamic physical situation "nomadic." This yields four types of SWCs: "Settled Clan," "Settled Mix," "Nomadic Clan" and "Nomadic Mix." Each of the abovementioned four applications is an example corresponding to one of these (Table 1).

SWC members must at least share some contextual elements, physical or social, in common. The physical context for the members of a wireless community is related to the locality and scope of its coverage area. Members of a Nomadic Clan (such as Buddy Finder) or Nomadic Mix (such as Proximity Dating) share relatively dynamic physical contexts because the locations of members are changing constantly. Whereas the geographic scope of the former is flexible, the latter is usually limited to a small range so that the members, who are likely to be strangers, can see each other. On the other hand, members of a Settled Clan (such as Wireless Digital City) or Settled Mix (such as Wireless Local Community) share relatively stable physical contexts because each community covers the an area that is likely to remain the same over a period of time.

The social context for the members of a wireless community is related to its membership and internal social relationships. Members of a Nomadic Clan or Settled Clan share relatively stable social contexts because the membership and the internal social relationships of Clans change infrequently and relatively slowly. For example, in a Buddy Finder community, members are friends with certain degrees of closeness; in a Wireless Digital City community, members are citizens that play different roles (such as residents, administrators and legislators). On the other hand, members of a Nomadic Mix and Settled Mix share relatively dynamic social contexts because both the membership and the internal social relationships are continuously changing. For example, users of Proximity Dating or Wireless Local Community applications are not presumed to know one another but they just happen to be in the same place.

Sharing contexts that vary in terms of the nature and stability of elements, members of these wireless communities differ in their typical informational needs. Whereas a user may at various points want to know who is in the community and where they are, what they are doing and experiencing and how to do things with the community, each type of SWCs will put a particular need first and consider other needs later. Sharing a stable social context in a dynamic physical context, members of a Nomadic Clan want to find out "where" someone they know are, and so will consider tools such as Buddy Finder useful. Sharing a dynamic social context in a dynamic physical context, members of a Nomadic Mix want to know "who" is nearby, and will find applications like Proximity Dating relevant. Sharing a stable social context in a stable physical context, members of a Settled Clan want to get the idea of "how" to do things together, such as they can explore through using the Wireless Digital City. Sharing a dynamic social context in a stable physical context, members of a Settled Mix want to discover "what" experiences others have in the same place, which they can share through a Wireless Local Community.

Of course, the information needs expressed in these questions are not unique to particular communities. For example, after a member in a Nomadic Clan knows "where" his/her friends or colleagues are, he/she may wonder "what" they are experiencing and "how" to do things together. However, for each community, a typical information need has a priority over the others for most members. That is, members of a community typically need to seek the answer to a particular question first before they can address other questions. The priority characterizes the typical information needs of a type of SWCs rather than a specific application. For example, while we have used Proximity Dating to exemplify Nomadic Mix, this type of SWCs can be based on any applications that allow people in the same location or venue (such as conferences), to know each other, regardless of their genders.

Though people around the world can form virtual communities over the Internet, information exchange alone can hardly lead to a sense of social interaction close to what happens in the real world.10 In real-world communities, social interactions occur in certain physical and social contexts shared by those who are involved. However, most of contextual cues are filtered out in the communications over the Internet. That is why face-to-face communications have usually been found to be more effective than computer-mediated communications at fostering communities.12 With the help of latest wireless technologies, on the other hand, it is possible for people in different groups to access and communicate their common contextual cues. Research has revealed that joint attention and social linkage are necessary conditions for effective mediated communications.2,8 For SWC members, sharing a common physical context leads to stronger joint attention, and sharing a common social context leads to stronger social linkage. As a result, the sense of physical and social coexistence helps to bind people more closely in wireless communities, leading to "contextual communality."

The success of virtual communities, to a large extent, depends on the active participation of their members.11 To enhance social interaction among people in wireless communities more effectively, the application design and implementation should facilitate the sharing of contextual cues. This requires an understanding of membercontext and member-member relationships. Knowledge about how these relationships evolve may be helpful for designing better applications to facilitate the formation of contextual communality.

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An Activity-Based Design Perspective

Through the mediation of wireless technologies, SWC members can share complementary contextual cues with each other. The design of applications, especially interface design, must consider how users interact with each other and their environment. To understand such mediated and situated human behavior, Activity Theory, a well-accepted paradigm in the field of human-computer interaction, is particularly appropriate.

Founded by Russian psychologist Vygotsky in the 1920s, Activity Theory takes human purposeful "activity" as the basic unit of analysis. An activity comprises a series of actions conducted by one or more individuals to transform an object into certain outcome, and the motive provides necessary background to understand specific actions.5 From this perspective, SWC members carry out a collaborative activity when they access and contribute contextual cues to achieve communality. Contextualized in the activity are individual actions such as posting and reading messages.

We can use the Engeström's3 activity model analyze the mediated relationships in the context-sharing activity motivated by the outcome, "(contextual) communality" (Figure 2). In this activity, a subject is a "member" of a SWC, who shares the object, common physical and/or social "context," with other members through the mediation of application "interface" as the tool. The physical positions and/or social identities of members largely determine their "roles" in the community, which constitutes the division of labor in accessing and contributing contextual cues. The rules that regulate how members share contextual cues with one another are the "customs" of communication in the community.

To be consistent with the principle of the intuitive interface,1 interface design should manifest the roles of members and the customs of communication in an intuitive way to SWC members in order to facilitate their context-sharing activity. Across the SWCs that target different physical and social contexts, the roles of members and the customs of communication vary, calling for adaptive interface design. For example, the roles of members in a Nomadic Mix are to introduce themselves to each other within a certain physical scope, and the customs of communication pertain to how they distribute and receive information about their social identities. Therefore, the application design should make the interface capable of facilitating the process of identity setting and exchange for users.

In the case of a Nomadic Clan, the roles of members largely depend on the social identity and geographical distribution of those who know each other. The customs of communication include how to invite others to join one's contact list and how to set up permissions for others to see one's own location and status. Members should prefer an interface design that allows them to categorize the cues of social contexts in a reasonable way (such as colleagues vs. friends). In this way, they can have some control on the contextual access to and from a certain group of contacts at different times (such as working hours for colleagues and evenings/weekends for friends).

For members in a Settled Clan, the roles of members is determined by the social identities of those who live or work in the same area and the local events that may be relevant or interesting to them. The customs of communication should indicate the way members at different levels can access and contribute information in participating, coordinating and managing the events. Common interface design of this type of wireless communities usually adopts a map layout with indication of events at various locations so that all who are relevant can be put into the same picture when they investigate these events.

These general principles need to be translated into detailed application designs. In the following section, we will discuss how to apply the activity-based design perspective to the interface design of a Settled Mix application wireless local community.

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A Design Example

Members of a wireless local community (WLC), in a stable physical context but a dynamic social context, share their local experiences and needs with each other through handheld devices. These devices, such as handhelds, have limited editing and display capacity, which places constraints on the customs of communication. Most of time, people post messages to describe what is interesting nearby. The textual description must be brief, but multimedia attachments such as pictures and videos can greatly enrich the contextual cues. If message readers are interested in these attachments, they can download them separately. They can also respond with comments, such as "interesting!" or inquiries for details, such as "price?" In asking for information or help, members can describe their needs in the message. For example, when a traveler is lost in a national park, he/she can post a message asking for directions. The moderator on duty or other WLC members who know the physical terrain can then reply to these messages.

Determined by the locations of WLC members in the coverage area, the roles of members are concerned with communicating what are available or occurring nearby or what they are looking for around. To achieve contextual communality, members must be able to tell which part of the physical context each message refers to. Therefore, a person posting a message should reveal the current location so that others can understand the message in the picture of whole physical context.

To manifest to WLC members their roles in the context and the customs of communication in an intuitive way, the proposed WLC interface design includes three basic components: Textual Display, Graphic Display and Message Editor (figure 3). The Textual Display lists the messages in the order of time, subject or proximity. The Graphic Display shows maps, pictures and multimedia attachments. The Message Editor allows a WLC member to compile short messages.

When a message is selected, the Graphic Display shows a map indicating the sender's location relative to the recipient's. If there are replies to a message, an "unfold" button will appear in the front; if a message has a multimedia attachment, an attachment link (such as "pic" for picture attachment) will appear at the end. If message readers are interested, they can click the buttons and links to view the replies and attachments.

Figure 3 illustrates the WLC interface as it appears to Kate, our heroine in the episode at the beginning of this article. Using the editor, she composed and posted a question regarding luggage. Another member named Sue happened to be in front of a store that sold them. Sue posted an answer and attached a picture of a sample case in the exhibition window. When Kate selected the reply message, it was highlighted and the location where Sue sent the message was indicated on the map. Kate clicked the picture link to see the product. She liked the design and later purchased the case there. In addition, she also found discounts available in several stores and some comments confirmed that they were real bargains.

In the design, the interface controls (such as unfold button and message editor) indicate the customs of communication to WLC members related to how they can exchange information with each other. The map reveals information about the specific roles of WLC members by showing which part of context each covers. It is found that "sharing the same physical environment enables people to coordinate conversational content, by making inferences about the set of objects and events that others in the same environment are likely to know about and want to talk about."12 In this way, the proposed design facilitates the process of exchanging mutually meaningful experience in a shared physical space for users.8 The situated social interaction leads to closer social bonding and the formation of contextual communality.

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Compared with traditional Internetbased virtual communities, situated wireless communities (SWCs) go beyond just connecting people togetherthey enable them to share their common physical and/or social context with each other. With contextual cues available, the social interaction among members within a community can be greatly enhanced, leading to contextual communality. Based on the nature and stability of member contexts, there are four general types of SWCs and users have different information needs in priority. The understanding of contextsharing activity leads to the discussion of general design principles with the examples of specific applications.

To successfully implement SWCs in m-commerce, further technical, behavioral and managerial issues must be addressed. Such issues may include: quality of service (QoS) regarding timely and reliable message delivery over wireless networks, ethical standards (such as privacy) and enforcement for appropriate application usage, business models for sustainable community development, and so on. We hope that this article can stimulate further discussions.

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Jun Sun ( is an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Information Systems and Quantitative Methods at the University of Texas Pan American, TX.

Marshall Scott Poole ( is David and Margaret Romano Professorial Scholar, Professor of Communication, Senior Research Scientist, National Center for Supercomputing Applications, and Director, Institute for Computing in the Humanities, Arts, and Social Science.

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This study was supported by a Postdoctoral Fellowship awarded to the first author from Mays Business School, Texas A&M University.


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F1Figure 1. Emerging Situated Wireless Community Applications

F2Figure 2. Context-sharing Activity

F3Figure 3. A WLC Interface Design

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T1Table 1. A Categorization of Situated Wireless Communities Based on Contextual Elements

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