“Familiar Strangers” in the Age of Urban Computing

Kendra Thompson investigates the urban technologies that both divide us and reconnect us.

Enabled by mobile phones and accessible internet connection, urban computing has brought the ambience of human connection and interaction to the foreground. Mark Shepard suggests that architecture used to play the most vital role in shaping the urban landscape, but technology has now usurped architecture’s role.1Shepard, Mark. “Toward the Sentient City.” Sentient City: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space, 16-37. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2011. Before the insurgence of technology, the strategic placement of buildings is what shaped where people went and how they got there. As technology has become more socially integrated into society, architecture works along with technology to create spaces where people can become linked through networked computing. As Eric Paulos and Elizabeth Goodman state in The Familiar Stranger: Anxiety, Comfort, and Play in Public Places, “Emerging mobile communication systems are fundamentally reshaping the spatial and temporal constraints of all aspects of human communications in both work and play.”2Paulos, Eric and Goodman, Elizabeth. “The Familiar Stranger: Anxiety, Comfort, and Play in Public Places.” CHI 2004 Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 223-230. Berkeley, CA: Intel Research, 2004: 224.

This article will introduce the concept of the familiar stranger, as well as analyze the impact that urban computing has on society through the use of mobile devices. In a city where everyone seems outwardly distracted and disconnected on their mobile phones, urban computing can connect us more than ever before and in new ways. The Familiar Stranger is a research project conducted by Paulos and Goodman in Berkeley, California, that allows an individual to keep track of the familiar strangers around them, those recognizable people one sees every Monday on the bus, and who are observed repeatedly, but without any interaction.3Ibid. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) conducted a similar study called The Serendipity Project, comprising an application that can link co-workers and strangers through common interests listed on public profiles. Through analyzing these two projects, I argue that urban computing can ease our minds and connect us by identifying familiarity in an era marked by the perception of being disconnected. Through an analysis of the goals, procedures, and results of these two projects, this article will argue that urban computing can ultimately shift citizens’ perceptions of interpersonal relationships in ways that were not possible before ambient technology. These projects brought about the concrete awareness and acknowledgment of relationships that have always existed, but have never been fully analyzed. An individual’s sense of awareness of interpersonal relationships ultimately shifts when they are able to actively seek out those with similar patterns and interests with whom they would not have had a noticeable relation if it were not for the sensors or algorithms used in these projects.

Modern technology affects society in a variety of ways in the contemporary city, specifically through the use of mobile devices as a conduit to ambient, publicly available wireless networks. As Zizi Papacharissi discusses in “Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology, and Politics,” the current technological age allows people to become aware of other’s ambient lives with platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, intended as they are for mass sharing and connection with friends and followers throughout the day.4Papacharissi, Zizi. “Affective Publics.” Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology, and Politics, 125-136. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014: 133. In technologically urbanized environments, information is in a constant state of being accessed, shared, and distributed in new ways. 5Shepard, “Toward the Sentient City,” 2011: 25. An example of such a technology would be the GPS-based navigation system on mobile smart devices. These systems are able to access, share, and distribute information based on a user’s location, the time of the day, the weather conditions during that time of the year, arrival time based on traffic, and the specific preferences stated by the user.6Ibid., 25. Google Maps allows users to rely on the system as a form of augmented reality, to see “[themselves] as moving dots or pins on a map.”7Varnelis and Meisterlin, quoted in Shepard, “Toward the Sentient City,” 2011: 25. Yet this particular use of an easily accessible technology does not necessarily involve immersion in the city itself. Someone can use Google Maps on their cellphone or tablet to see where they are in relation to where they want to go, then proceed to plug into their music and only focus on the virtual path in ignorance of their surroundings. Though not every individual using Google Maps will conform to this behaviour, Shepard argues that this possibility allows inhabitants to be absolved of any responsibility to respond to circumstances in their proximity.8Ibid., 24. Perhaps after months of using Google Maps, these zoned out individuals will look up from their phone and not know which way to go, or perhaps the technological system gave them a deeper understanding of their route, in a sense allowing them to memorize it through muscle memory.

Malcolm McCullough questions whether or not this technology heightens the users’ skills in the urban city, or whether it makes them solely more dependent on the smart technology with which they interact. He writes, “if, after a decade of street-level informatics, everyone were to put their technology away, would their city skills be higher or lower than they had been before the technology?”9McCullough, Malcolm. “Megacity Resources.” Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information, 195-224. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2015: 203. Such technology includes city features such as “smart” traffic light control systems and instances where discount coupons will beam to a mobile device that passes by the establishment. Though this technology is seen by many as “smart”, it simply holds and distributes information and is not self-aware. In other words, the city is “able to hear and feel things happening within it, yet doesn’t necessarily know anything in particular about them. It feels you, but doesn’t necessarily know you.”10Shepard, “Toward the Sentient City,” 2011, 20. Though citizens once had more independence within the city before modern technology, new technology has allowed them to access more information than they were ever capable of accessing before. Therefore, if this technology did not exist today, citizens would still be able to make their way through the city, as McCullough argues, but they would simply not have the heightened knowledge of the city that only becomes accessible with the aid of technology. Similarly, individuals have always possessed the ability to create friendships face to face, independently being able to identify familiar strangers and create relationships with coworkers on their own. On the other hand, it is becoming more common to see two strangers pass by each other while looking at their phones, avoiding eye contact and ensuring their anonymity towards one another. This technology is valuable in a society where people are always looking down. They can then be notified of the familiar strangers that they may not even realize should be familiar, and know of the coworkers who have common interests who otherwise would have gone unnoticed. Since individuals tend to exclusively connect with their immediate circles through social media and withdraw from social experiences with strangers, both The Familiar Stranger project and The Serendipity Project are ways in which technology can help to reconnect those relationships. As McCullough states, “[P]ostmodern posturban city dwellers don’t become dulled into retreat from public life; they grow up that way. The challenge is to reconnect.11McCullough, “Megacity Resources.” 2015: 222. The following projects attempt to reconnect individuals to the physical beings who surround them, both symbolically and physically.

The Familiar Stranger
The Familiar Stranger project is meant to connect strangers symbolically, for the project is not meant for developing a substantial relationship. A familiar stranger relationship exists when a person’s familiarity with another person lies between that of a complete stranger and a friend.12Paulos and Goodman, “The Familiar Stranger,” 2004: 223. An example of such a relationship would be between an individual and a person who they see every Wednesday on a street corner, without directly interacting. These relationships are based temporally and geographically within the city as familiar strangers “establish our connection to individual places.”13Ibid., 223. Though mobile phones are designed to allow for interaction between friends and family regardless of their whereabouts, this project is interested in how a mobile phone could be used to form a “loose connection” between familiar strangers based solely on their geographic location. The project consists of using a device or application for mobile phones that is able to “display some measure of ‘familiarity’ of people and places”14Ibid., 224. Paulos and Goodman focus on two specific reasons for how this technology would aid inhabitants of the city. First, if someone is uneasy in a new area, the device or application is able to reassure them that they are in a familiar place with familiar people around. Second, if someone wants to escape from those around them, the device or application is able to inform them that they are in an unfamiliar place with only complete strangers around.

Paulos and Goodman’s first study in the research process was called Milgram Revisited, which recreated an original experiment from The City University of New York. This study consisted of presenting participants with photographs of various strangers at a local urban plaza and asking them to identify all of those who seemed familiar. They were also asked to answer a questionnaire pertaining to their specific level of comfort and familiarity with the places and neighbourhoods around them. The results of this study revealed that most of the participants, eighty-nine percent, could identify at least one familiar stranger. It was also found that most of these people were recognizable due to their unique physical appearance, or their frequent reappearances at certain times and places. The second study was called the Urban Walking Tour. This tour consisted of one-on-one strolls through local areas in which the interviewer would ask the participant to rate their comfort level in a variety of locations within the city, to identify any strangers that they recognized, and to gauge whether their sense of comfort or discomfort was affected more so by the people around them, the physical characteristics of the location, or the current weather or time. The results of this study found that the majority of people felt their comfort level was affected most by the number of familiar strangers around them. This study also suggested a hypothetical scenario of a mobile device that could publicly list the level of familiarity surrounding a person. Many stated that they had qualms about such a device, for they would be interested in seeing such data, but would be concerned about their safety being affected if strangers in a crowd saw from their public device that they were not surrounded by any familiar beings.

Both of these studies led to the development of the Jabberwocky portable Mote device and mobile application. Portable Jabberwockies can be worn to connect with people as well as public spaces. This allows users the ability to relate both to strangers and places within the city. The way in which Jabberwockies work is that each device has a unique “digital scent” or “digital tag.” A Jabberwocky device or application is able to track how often familiar scents and tags cross paths with its own, identifying and storing the familiarity of strangers and places. This technology is reflective of Shepard’s argument about the “sentient city,” as this technology does not really know its users, but it is able to feel the familiar paths that it comes across and retain that information. The biggest difference between the Mote device and the mobile application is that the data on the former has the potential of being viewed by the public if it is simply clipped to clothing or a bag. In such a case, the user would have to be comfortable with this data being semi-public, unlike certain individuals from the Urban Walking Tour. Though identifying and keeping track of familiar strangers and places is a useful and helpful tool, Paulos and Goodman make it very clear that the Jabberwocky is not made to create friends in any sense. The device and application are simply to have more information about familiar strangers, while maintaining that same stranger relationship, for “the very essence of individual and community health of urban spaces intrinsically depends on the existence of strangers.”15Paulos and Goodman, “The Familiar Stranger,” 2004.

Though the purpose of The Familiar Stranger project is to simply feel more comfortable in the city without having any requirement or expectation to further the connection past familiar strangers, the purpose of The Serendipity Project is to match make and create new friendships if its users so desire.

Developed by MIT’s Media Lab Human Dynamics Group, The Serendipity Project was designed to enable “interactions among nearly, previously unacquainted colleagues.” Nathan Eagle became inspired after working with an unfamiliar operating system for mobile devices and found help in Tom, a familiar stranger within his workplace. Based on this experience, Eagle developed the concept of a device that could connect colleagues and familiar strangers through common interests and needs. An application such as this is necessary because there are a number of familiar strangers and colleagues whose paths cross every day, but since they always pass one another while looking down at their phones, they remain oblivious to the fact that they are compatible or familiar strangers with valuable skills that the other may be in need of.

The goal of the application Serendipity is to facilitate friendships or partnerships based on common interests or skills. I argue that this application is similar, but more informative and interactive than the application used for The Familiar Stranger project. One similarity between Jabberwocky and Serendipity is that both applications work with spatial boundaries; matches are not able to be detected with the Serendipity application unless the users are within a ten-meter range of one another. The MIT application is much more informative and interactive than Jabberwocky in the sense that personal information is sent to those who have common interests, and individuals are encouraged to follow through with meeting their matches. Serendipity could be comparable to other applications, such as Tinder/Grindr or other dating websites, but the potential relationships developed through Serendipity are not strictly romantic or intimate. The device allows for freedom in the type of relationship one wishes to form with a familiar stranger. A match is made using Serendipity when two users with common interests walk past each other so long as they both have the application and are connected via Bluetooth. There are limitations with this application if an individual’s profile is not set to “available.” The efficiency of the application ultimately relies on its users to be active and keep their profile open in order to find matches. When a successful match is made between Serendipity profiles, the user’s name and photo are sent to the other’s mobile device, letting them see how they are connected to the co-worker or familiar stranger immediately surrounding them.

The data that is stored through The Serendipity Project includes the user’s location as well as other users’ locations in relation to them, as well as call, text message, and e-mail logs. Due to the fact that Serendipity is able to track and collect the real-time movements and activities of its users, the collective data over time could aid in the creation of the most efficient urban infrastructures in terms of having an in depth knowledge of human traffic. Therefore, this data could also aid in the creation of the smart cities discussed by Shepard, above. As Eagle states, “Serendipity could be developed and fine-tuned for studying, tracking and—perhaps most importantly—predicting the dynamics of a social network.” A smart city could be developed over time, using this data to predict the needs of its civilians.

Due to such a vast amount of data being collected through the use of this application, there are also privacy concerns. Some users may want to use Serendipity to find out if they have any common interests with the familiar strangers or colleagues around them. On the other hand, they may not want to feel as though they are being watched through every interaction on their mobile device, or want to share their profile with every potential match they come across. Sharing personal information is not something that everyone is fully comfortable doing, even if it is being shared with a familiar stranger. After all, familiar strangers are still strangers. The goal of this project is to ensure that its users feel comfortable sharing their personal information, which is why it only connects compatible users, and it allows for a variety of privacy settings. Much like Jabberwocky, with its visible Mote that can be hidden through the more private mobile application, the Serendipity mobile application has a “visible” and “invisible” mode that allows for privacy. This allows users to “share only the information that they want to share.” The application works through “comparing profiles and looking for ‘synergies’ between two people,”16Shepard, “Toward the Sentient City,” 2011: 34-35. so having privacy settings on one’s account can be a great limitation for the project and defeat the purpose of using the application. Since the goal of The Serendipity Project is to create interpersonal relationships, these privacy settings can limit or prevent the true purpose and perceived outcome of the application by lessening the likelihood of matches, but it ensures that its users are comfortable. Since the goal of The Familiar Stranger project is to simply become aware of one’s familiar strangers without the expectation of interacting with them beyond being aware of their existence, there is less chance for limitations to affect the perceived outcome of this project.

Papacharissi observes that “networks are only as active as the information flowing through them.”17Papacharissi, “Affective Publics,” 2014: 126. From this perspective, The Serendipity Project and The Familiar Stranger project will be successful only if both parties make their information available to the network. Papacharissi also discusses how the narratives that are developed across social networks “amplify visibility for viewpoints that were not as prevalent before.”18Ibid., 131. Without these networks or current state of technology in the urban city, civilians would potentially feel less safe if they did not know there were familiar strangers around them as the Jabberwocky allows them to become aware of, and individuals would not be able to create the relationships and connections with familiar strangers that can be achieved through the Serendipity application. In relation to McCullough’s concern of postmodern city dwellers needing to reconnect. The two projects have both developed devices and applications that can help in reconnecting them to their surrounding population.

With an ambient technological atmosphere being created through urban computing, the opportunity to reach out and become aware of urban strangers depending on your location in relation to others is more possible than ever before. Due to urban computing, applications such as Jabberwocky and Serendipity are able to affect citizens’ interpersonal relationships in ways that were not possible before Bluetooth technology or accessible networks were available in the urban city. The Familiar Stranger project and The Serendipity Project prove that urban computing can transcend traditional physical constraints of time and space to create interpersonal connections and relationships. Navigating through the urban city can make one feel alienated, as so many people are disconnected from those around them while distracted on their mobile devices. Urban technologies, allowing for the creation of applications such as Jabberwocky and Serendipity, are able to reconnect society through the devices that originally caused us to disconnect. By letting individuals see what they have in common with the familiar strangers around them, or seeing how many times they have come across them, this technology allows for a less threatening relationship with others.


1 Shepard, Mark. “Toward the Sentient City.” Sentient City: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space, 16-37. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2011.
2 Paulos, Eric and Goodman, Elizabeth. “The Familiar Stranger: Anxiety, Comfort, and Play in Public Places.” CHI 2004 Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 223-230. Berkeley, CA: Intel Research, 2004: 224.
3 Ibid.
4 Papacharissi, Zizi. “Affective Publics.” Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology, and Politics, 125-136. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014: 133.
5 Shepard, “Toward the Sentient City,” 2011: 25.
6 Ibid., 25.
7 Varnelis and Meisterlin, quoted in Shepard, “Toward the Sentient City,” 2011: 25.
8 Ibid., 24.
9 McCullough, Malcolm. “Megacity Resources.” Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information, 195-224. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2015: 203.
10 Shepard, “Toward the Sentient City,” 2011, 20.
11 McCullough, “Megacity Resources.” 2015: 222.
12 Paulos and Goodman, “The Familiar Stranger,” 2004: 223.
13 Ibid., 223.
14 Ibid., 224.
15 Paulos and Goodman, “The Familiar Stranger,” 2004.
16 Shepard, “Toward the Sentient City,” 2011: 34-35.
17 Papacharissi, “Affective Publics,” 2014: 126.
18 Ibid., 131.
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