Color and Elastic Networks

by | May 4, 2011

I have recently been exploring a new app called Color, which allows you to see photos and videos taken using the app by anyone within 150ft of you. The app lists those who have shared photos within this vicinity as your connections, on a temporary basis. This is your elastic network, according to founder Bill Nguyen. The app essentially aims to be a revolutionary social network platform, enabling you to make connections with those around you via pictures and video.

The app has received quite a lot of funding (a reported $41 million) and bad reviews (currently averaging at 2 stars on the App Store, with several reviewers lamenting that they could not award 0 stars). The problem seems to be that for it to work successfully you need to have a number of people around you taking photographs using the app. This could be encouraged at a larger event, but is not as likely to occur out in the streets on a normal day.

As a tool for events, I can see the benefit of encouraging delegates to use the app to collect a variety of angles and perspectives on the proceedings – particularly at trade shows or exhibitions, where there are more visually stimulating things to photograph. Enabling delegates to see who is in proximity to them, the way they are seeing the event and a visual representation of what they find interesting, could be a good way to help facilitate introductions. However, a search for tweets in the local area could also achieve the same effect, and whilst obviously not such a visually stimulating medium, could arguably be a more useful way to informing a delegate’s decision to say “Hi!” than a picture of the same object that the delegate can already see first hand in front of them.

People who are in the area can collect photos and videos from those taken around them by others, but if you are not in the same geographical space, you will not get that benefit, meaning the app potentially has less value as an amplification tool for those outside of the event. Albums can be shared on Facebook and Twitter, but these represent someone else’s movements around the event space and chance social connections.

Whilst I am still undecided about the best application of this app within events, I was particularly interested in the idea of the “elastic network” used to describe the social aspect of the app.

What is an Elastic Network?

I couldn’t find any references to elastic networks outside of molecular science, except when associated with publicity surrounding this particular app. I’m quite surprised that the idea has not been explored in an events context and fleshed out in more detail.

My understanding, from the way the expression is used in relation to Color, is that an elastic network is a flexible network of connections or potential connections, calculated based on shared experiences. In the case of Color, the shared experience is physical proximity, but if could also be participation in a themed discussion or event. The key aspect is that your network of connections evolves based on who you connect with regularly, and expands and contracts in response to the level of activity within each relationship, rather than any permanent bonds. Relationships are ordered based on the level of actual interaction, rather than any conscious organisation on your part. Thus it encourages social interaction rather than passive following behaviours.

Elastic Networks at Conferences

If you attend a conference in person, you enter into a temporary, elastic network with the others around you. You are in immediate proximity to them. You see them. You can read their names, job titles and affiliations from their name badges. You don’t know anything else about them without engaging in a deeper, but controlled conversation. You don’t subscribe to follow a constant news stream from everyone who attended that event. You network by identifying and building high quality connections within the context of small group and individual discussions, quickly tuning out the surrounding crowd. If the conversation does not yield what you are looking for, or reaches a natural conclusion, you walk away to a different physical space, surrounded by different people. Your local network shifts depending who is around you physically.

Elastic Networks at Amplified Events

An event hash tag could be considered an elastic network, gathering people temporarily around a digital object which represents the shared experience. However, I would argue that amplified events are perhaps not as naturally elastic as physical events, or as flexible the participants might assume them to be, due of other factors – mainly the design of the social networking platforms we use to facilitate amplified events.

Most social networking platforms want you to have lots of friends so you engage more with their site. Therefore, they place an emphasis on adding to your permanent network by creating more intimate connections at a comparatively early stage of your relationship with someone. If a person says something publicly that interests you, the evolving convention dictates that you “friend” or “follow” them in order to initiate a more personal conversation. Even within Twitter, you have to commit to follow a person in order to send a private message. In most social networking platforms, this process makes the historical activity of both parties more visible. There is also more of a permanent bond, which has to be consciously severed. This can be more socially damaging than excusing yourself to get another coffee at a physical event. Your network, therefore, does not shift flexibly so much as continually expand. This has some obvious advantages in terms of helping to start off longer term relationships that emerge over time, but it also has its disadvantages in terms of the general noise levels that you could be inviting into your daily news stream.

Do Amplified Events Need to Become More Elastic?

I think the emergence of an app like Color will make us question how we view our connections and the level of commitment we make to online relationships whilst participating in a conference or event. Social networking platforms that allow loose, temporary relationships based on a shared experience, such as proximity, may become more popular within events as people seek to engage in conversations, but limit the noise they bring into their every day news feeds.

I also wonder whether we need to think more about the role space plays within a conventional event and how this could be translated for online and amplified audiences. Current models usually involve one large discussion space (such as a Twitter hash tag), which can be very loud, repetitive, and fast moving, and where the natural order of a discussion can be easily disrupted without heavy moderation, which is often inappropriate. Whilst many delegates thrive in this soup-like conversational arena, if we want to progress to the next level – where the online and physical experience of an event are more akin – we need to think about how we can facilitate more intimate conversations without necessarily forcing participants to commit to trusting social media relationships and taking the conversations underground in order to get the peace to focus.

It might not be a tool I end up using, but Color has certainly convinced me that space may be the next concept we need to explore in amplified and hybrid events.
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