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Neighbornode and Hyperlocal Networking
Emily Gertz, 13 Aug 05

Neighbornode logoThe internet's been great for helping me make new friends in San Francisco and Toronto, keep in touch with old friends in Auckland (who wouldn't know an air mail stamp if it bit them), and made it astonishingly easy for me to take on deadline-intensive work for colleagues in Seattle, all from my home office chair in Brooklyn.

But it hasn't done much for putting me in touch with the hundreds of people who live within a few blocks of my apartment.

Enter Neighbornode, an intriguing project developed by John Geraci that uses urban density and geographic proximity to faciliate hyperlocal networks.

Neighbornodes are group message boards on local wireless networks. And local here means really local -- the nodes transmit a signal for about 300 feet. When you get online using your nearest Neighbornode, you have access to the node's bulletin board, where you can both read and post. Not on the node? Can't read the board.

Nodes are also extensible -- several Neighbornodes in close proximity can form a "supernode" and transmit community information street by street, while remaining geographically grounded in the local nabe.

A Neighbornode is thus more than just a local wifi hotspot. "What I wanted to do was reintroduce the idea of an old town center in a big, modern city," Geraci told "To create a non-threatening place where people who didn't know each other could have a dialog." It can feel easier to get to know someone online before meeting them in person, even if they live right up the block.

In densely populated Manhattan, as many as 30 people may log in and post messages to a Neighbornode in a day. Other nodes, such as Geraci's own in Brooklyn, see fewer than five log-ins a day. The number of people participating determines the dynamic on the node, Geraci says. He believes that when penetration in Manhattan reaches something like 30%—clearly a long way off—new and interesting kinds of behaviors may emerge.

He has in mind the ideas of one of his NYU professors, Clay Shirky, who points out that when four or five things or people are linked together in a network you get one kind of dynamic, but when 100 people are linked, the dynamic changes and things become less predictable. "You start to see things emerge that you hadn't expected, Geraci says.

Such as? He declines to speculate.

Services like Craigslist have local incarnations -- Craigslist New York, say -- which are essentially convenient abstractions of geography in order to control the nature of the content. That's ideal for selling stuff, finding a job, or renting an apartment -- for transactional interactions. Ten years after Netscape went public, I can still get a little thrill at how easy it's become to find out that someone in Sydney needs a rideshare, or a date, but some of the limitations of networks unanchored to geography are also more apparent. I and millions like me can look at this board from anywhere on the globe, and the chances that I'm going to connect with someone around the corner are correspondingly small.

From finding out why the nearest laundromat has shut down (big local quality of life issue, trust me!) to why the cops were on the block last night, from where the good yard sale is to changes in local zoning, to simply making a few friends right nearby, there are all sorts of down-to-earth reasons it might be good to shift attention from the cross-continental, trans-oceanic network for a bit, and get better connected with the local neighborhood.

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If I recall properly, Katie Hafner points (in her 2001 book _The Well_) to the importance of the redundancy or overlapping of geographical proximity and electronic accessibility for the success of The WELL in its original phase. I wonder whether part of the recipe for apprehending - and appreciating - proximity and localness involves the intransigence of actual infrastructure. That is, its uniqueness, its immobility, its own quality of limitation. In this case: the relative weakness of the signal transmission (my grasp of the technical basis of wirelessness is also relatively weak; please forgive me if I'm missing the point).

Posted by: Jon on 13 Aug 05

In a way, Neighbornode is another manifestation of "making the invisible visible." In this case, what was invisible were the various local connections that had loosened or become lost in a globalized community. In the same way, it's a social version of the "smart environment" model, where the location-based information and data are about human-human interactions.

Good catch.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 13 Aug 05

Great points. It's almost counterintuitive in our era, when tech and electronics, and networks, are praised for their growing power -- in megahertz or gigabytes, or millions of eyeballs across thousands of miles exposed to given content -- but the Neighbornode's limited range is part of what gives it value.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 13 Aug 05



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