Mobile Computing

Mobile computing and the evolving digital public sphere:

Location-based social media services beyond the social-networker/consumer paradigm


… The screen has become the city square, the cross-roads of all mass media…

– Paul Virilio, 1991


Location-based mobile services have significantly grown in popularity with the expanding usage of geo-location enabled mobile computers, more popularly known as “smart phones”, but mobile computing is much more significant than merely enabling the internet to be accessed wirelessly from anywhere. By changing how and where the internet is accessed, it also has the potential to dramatically change the nature of the internet itself in ways as significant as social-networking, taking it from a system that is essentially desktop/laptop and global, national or municipal and repositioning it in the always connected, always accessible and always local.

Perhaps the most unique feature of mobile computing is that it allows for a digital layer of information and media to be added to the physical landscape at the same moment that landscape is being initially experienced. This layer can then be interacted with by means of a geo-location aware ‘smart phone’ in varying degrees of dependency on a participant’s physical location and movements in the real world. The longer term impact of this technology, as it continues its widespread adoption at the mass-consumer level in the developed world, is just beginning to be felt.


Closely related are the various mobile map applications (or ‘apps’) that position the user on an interactive map and chart out areas of interest nearby, allowing ubiquitous way-finding and geographic self-locating. The information technology (IT) giant Google was the originator in this technology, and their Google Maps application programming interface (or ‘API’) which enabled customization and encouraged the widespread global adoption that standardized this technology (and the related Java-powered ‘Google Maps for Mobile’ API from 2006), in addition to a fundamental misunderstanding of value these services embody has also allowed for Google to be outmaneuvered in the location-based social-network mobile app marketplace by a continuing flurry of offerings. Some of the currently most popular include: FourSquare, Gowalla, Facebook Places and Google Places – all of which are, notably, based in the United Stated and have been developed specifically for that market and culture.

The common central purpose of these location-based mobile services is as ‘social network apps’ – essentially as a ‘friend-locator’ that gives the user the ability to search for nearby friends and share his or her physical location within a closed social network to enable more convenient, unplanned real-world social interactions. Most of these services have also expanded into corporate partnerships, encouraging users to virtually ‘check-in’ at place-specific public forums representing actual shops, where they are rewarded for their customer loyalty through real-life promotional discounts. This corporate influence has been integrated into the mobile apps interfaces on multiple levels: corporate partners are essentially positioned as ‘super-users’ – their retail spaces are indicated on the public digital map interface by disproportionally large corporate logos, emphasized above non-sponsored, user-added locations, and users are encouraged to “explore” a neighbourhood for “specials” which are unfailingly corporate promotions.


When experiencing an urban environment through these apps, the digital layer provided invariably filters ones surroundings into a social shopping mall, virtually manifesting the Dutch architect/theorist Rem Koolhaus’ quip from the 1995 that “Shopping is arguably the last remaining form of public activity” and revealing the potency behind his suggestion that “the historical facades of [European] cities often mask the pervasive reality of the un-city.”

As these devices, apps and the location-based digital public sphere they generate, continue to grow in popularity and significance, the question arrises: Is there a way to use these services in a way that would break the limited paradigm of user/participant as social networker and/or consumer?


To test this, a short experiment was conducted in Malmö, Sweden involving three of the more popular services – Foursquare, Gowalla and Google Places – and using their corporate partners’ virtual storefronts’ public forums in a way not originally intended. After analyzing the recent public histories of a limited selection of these corporations in the mainstream media for social justice related issues, identified issues were then distilled into short messages and url links to the more detailed mainstream media reports. These messages and links were then added to virtual storefronts to raise awareness.

For instance, following a report by SverigesRadio that the profitable coffeehouse franchise Espresso House is providing their employees with low-wages and sub-par, stressful working conditions, the message “Espresso House borde ha bättre arbetsförhållanden för sina anställda!” (Espresso House should have better working conditions for its employees!) and a link to the original article was added to all of the franchise’s virtual locations in Malmö, within the three previously mentioned dominant location-based social networks.

Similar messages with links to media stories were placed on the virtual spaces belonging to a number of other corporations, including a message relating to mass illness amongst workers in a Cambodian factory (in the case of H&M)4 and a message relating to money laundering for organized crime syndicates (in the case of Forex Bank).


The experiment could be deemed a success in that the messages were still present two weeks after their initial placement. It should be noted that in the context of personal ‘check-ins’ and customer incentives, there is an undeniable element of inappropriateness and unexpectedness, which could actually work in favour of effectively transmitting the messages. Users expecting to find a discount coupon, product review or to find out if a friend is nearby would instead be confronted with a message related to the ethical practices of a particular corporation at precisely the moment when they are about to make a choice as a consumer to support that particular corporation.

However, the experiment does have several obvious limitations. One is that location-based social networks still have fairly limited mainstream adoption in Sweden due to the high costs of mobile phones and their data access subscription plans, and that the three currently dominant global players have focused on expanding in the lucrative US market, as well as the stagnation of the evolution of these services caused by the mishandling by the dominant IT player Google. The most important hinderance is probably that that no major Swedish player has yet entered the market, so the particular values of Swedish society have yet to be taken into consideration.


Another problem that the experiment highlighted is that similar operations couldn’t be replicated in developed societies that have had their mainstream media impartiality and viability eroded to the point of no longer serving their necessary role in a healthy, functioning Liberal Democracy’s public sphere. If corporate responsibility violations and social justice issues are not reported by a compromised mainstream media, how can reports on the validity of these issues be trusted by the public? In extreme situations, what if the public has been convinced that a well-functioning Liberal Democracy is somehow no longer in its best interest? Can an evolving digital public sphere actually contribute to the rebuilding of an uncompromised, impartial media that contributes to a balanced, well-functioning society?


The world has arrived at an age of cheap complex devices of great reliability; and something is bound to come of it.

- Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think”, The Atlantic, 1945


The Internet has often been hailed as an emancipatory digital revolution – an uncensored, distinctly interactive medium that would empower the public beyond the active-passive division of the previously dominant broadcast communication model – and usher in a global, user-driven ‘pull’ culture for a global citizenry no longer willing to be ‘pushed’.

And there is some truth to this utopian vision. Campaigns based on current social media infrastructure have proven their transformative power on numerous occasions: to mobilize political protests during this year’s so-called ‘Arab Spring’ or, staying with the theme of corporate responsibility, Greenpeace’s recent successful campaigns to pressure Facebook to power its datacentres with green energy rather than coal8 or to convince the Swedish clothing giant H&M to end its practice of dumping hormone-mutating toxins into rivers relied upon as fresh water supplies.

We have seen that mainstream location-based social-networking services do enable people to virtually re-claim corporatized public areas, not just for themselves and their friends, but also to draw attention to social justice issues, and potentially contribute towards effecting actual change in the real world. But we have also seen that these emerging services use a common central paradigm that envisions the participant as social networker/consumer – subtly perpetuating the politically-potent Libertarian ideal of the self-defining individual – a self-definition that more often than not manifests itself through consumerism and high personal debt-levels. The crucial point of consideration here is the role of the root metaphor of the current location-based mobile services, and how it affects their evolving contribution to the transformation of the digital public sphere in general.



The media has long been conceived as a political, social and economic battleground by corporations, governments and activists alike. It is a battleground that has morphed dramatically with the ascendancy of the internet and networked media as key components. And it will undoubtably continue to morph with rise of mobile computing. As the Italian political-economic theorist Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) postulated, social order is best maintained not just through coercion but also through active consent, which is secured through the cultural leadership of the dominant social grouping. This results in most people involuntarily making sense of society within what Gramsci termed its ‘horizon of thought’. As we have seen, there is little mystery as to what ‘horizon of thought’ has been implanted into the interfaces of the currently dominant location-based mobile services.

In the words of the Canadian political theorist Margaret Kohn: “Spatial configurations naturalize social relations by transforming contingent forms into a permanent landscape that appears as immutable rather than open to contestation.” So the question then becomes: Is the core goal of a digital public sphere a socially active individual and blindly loyal consumer or a socially-engaged and well-informed member of a well-functioning and sustainable society? With this in mind, and given the mutability and immature state of existing location-based mobile services, co-opting existing systems maybe be less effective than a more wholesale transformation. 



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One Response to this post
  1. 22 January, 2012 | Peter

    Facebook acquiring Gowalla means something interesting is brewing in this sector…