Emerging Trends in Social Computing

Social media tools now permeate our personal and professional lives.

{photo1-left}###by Dr. Elizabeth Lawley

Social media tools now permeate our personal and professional lives. At the Lab for Social Computing at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) (, faculty and students from a range of academic disciplines have been studying these technologies since 2004 — and have begun to identify key characteristics of successful systems, as well as emerging trends. Here’s a short list of influential emerging social technologies:

Location-based services

The rapid adoption of GPS-enabled smartphones — as evidenced by the growing sales numbers for iPhone and Android devices — has enabled the development of several location-centric tools. Foursquare ( and Facebook Places ( both encourage users to share their current location with their friends. Foursquare goes beyond the simple check-in to award points and “mayorships” of locations, which in turn are being used by businesses to encourage repeat business. With mobile software like RunKeeper ( or Nike+ (, users can map their running or cycling route in real-time, and can then share that information with their friends. Early fears that users would resist sharing location information out of privacy concerns appear to have been unfounded.

Games to enhance learning and productivity

At our lab, we’ve been talking for quite a while about the concept of “productive play” — the idea that lessons learned from game design can be applied to a variety of contexts that we don’t normally associate with “play.” We applied these concepts very successfully with our city-wide game Picture the Impossible last year. Forward-thinking companies like Area/Code in NYC ( design games that address social issues, from community disaster preparedness to risky behavior in children. Game designers like Jane McGonigal ( speak regularly about how game mechanics can be applied to everyday life. Her new book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Happy and How They Can Help Us Change the World, will be published by Penguin in January 2011.

A new generation of gamers is poised to enter the workforce, and businesses can better recruit and retain this newworkforcee by designing work environments and systems that make work environments playful rather than painful.

Social objects and spaces

GPS-enabled devices have made our movements through the physical world more immediately social and shared, but sensor and radio frequency identification (RFID) technologies are allowing us to make the objects we use and spaces we inhabit more inherently social. These objects are beginning to form what’s been referred to as an “Internet of Things.” From the Withings wifi-enabled scale that allows us to share our weight loss progress (, to offices that adjust automatically to the users’ behaviors, we expect to see more physical and tangible interfaces being used to facilitate social interactions.

Dr. Elizabeth Lawley is the Interactive Games and Media Department Director at the RIT Lab for Social Computing.

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