They hope to make technology-assisted dating more spontaneous and closer to the way people meet socially. Instead of being matched via a dating agency's website and with a formal date following at some later point, subscribers can meet immediately in a social setting. True, you will still be thrown in at the deep end, but people in the dating industry seem to think the idea is a good one. "Anything that can be done in real time where you interact with a person more quickly will help a lot," says Craig Newmark, founder of the immensely popular networking and dating website craigslist.org. His site has become a way of life for young people in major US cities, who rely on it to hook them up with romantic partners, jobs, second-hand furniture and housemates.
Fuelling demand for such networking sites is the tendency for young people to stay single for longer and move around more for work. Serendipity, says Eagle, is one of many projects (see "Software gets to the hard truth") aiming to enhance the technology-mediated socialising services they use, adding a proximity aspect not only to dating but also to friend-finding sites like friendster.com and business networking services such as linkedin.com. Serendipity works out when people are close to each other by harnessing the short-range Bluetooth radio system built into many cellphones. Bluetooth transceivers put each user inside a 10-metre radius "bubble" within which they can connect with similar devices. It is used, for instance, to allow Bluetooth-equipped laptops to connect wirelessly to the internet via a cellphone, or to let a cellphone user buy products from a Bluetooth-enabled vending machine. The Serendipity software needs an always-on - GPRS or 3G - phone and would "sniff" for Bluetooth signals twice a minute. If it finds one, it tells the database, via the net, which phone it has found.
If the users' profiles match, they will be alerted and can seek each other out. Users would be able to set the degree of personal separation they require from their potential dates, says Eagle. To rule out complete strangers, for instance, users can set their profile so that it is only sent to people who are friends of friends, but no one further removed than that. This is the same type of social vetting offered by friendster.com, tribe.net and Google's orkut.com. They only let users see profiles within a few degrees of separation, or allow people to set the maximum number of degrees away possible matches can be. The idea is that you are more likely to trust the people your friends already know. But such settings need not be permanent. They might reflect a mood or a situation. If you are out with work colleagues or family, you might not want to know about close matches but may only want to be informed when an unmissable match is in your vicinity.
So if cellphone networks and social sites take up MIT's idea, what are the risks? Mark Granovetter, a sociologist at Stanford University in California, says that by exposing ourselves to ever larger numbers of people through social sites we risk spreading ourselves too thinly: "Some worry that as these technologies become more common, people will become overloaded with networking requests and start to ignore them." And Cameron Marlowe, a social networks researcher also at MIT warns that it would be a constant distraction. "You wouldn't want to switch it off just in case." But Paul Martino, founder of tribe.net, thinks wireless-based introductions are unstoppable: "When proximity computing meets social networking, very interesting things will happen," he predicts. "The industry will go in that direction eventually."
New Scientist issue: 20 March 2004
Written by CELESTE BIEVER, BOSTON
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