Tuesday, 8 May 2007

'Sent' Marking

Image from the Honolulu Zoo

Faris wrote a very interesting piece for Contagious last week regarding the advent of what he calls Mobile 2.0. One of the three themes he identified as currently characterising the phenomenon was the importance of 'social locations' and how 'social networks' are increasingly being taken to the networks. In particular mobile geotagging seems to be taking off; Socialight for example allows you to share and discover virtual sticky notes at specific locations using your phone. Dodgeball notifies you when anyone in your extended network is in the area. And Twittervision plots updates of what people are doing at that precise moment on a map. All very cutting edge and innovative services.

Or are they? Geotagging is nothing new. Nor is it something that we humans have suddenly invented either. Watch any dog as it walks along a street or path and you suddenly realise that geotagging is in fact a core part of most animal societies - the only difference between theirs' and ours being that they use chemical instead of electronic tags. Instead of electronic sticky notes, animals leave complex pheromone messages at different locations for others to pick up as they pass. Rubbing against particular trees, urinating by certain boundary marks, scent marking is a powerful way of communicating with other members of a particular pack or herd.

Which inevitably brings us to Mark Earl's notion of the Herd - because mobile geotagging is perhaps just another example of our propensity towards herd or even pack-like instincts. Mobile 2.0 is no longer simply about connecting to those ten or twenty closest to us - we are beginning to talk to the wider herd; leaving text 'sent' markers for other unknown members to pick up as they pass.

Of course animals use scent marks to communicate a wide variety of messages. Research for example has found that lemuers use scents so complex that they are effectively leaving whole sentences. Scent tags, according to Gese and Ruff are left for a variety of reasons:

"Scent marking may serve as a mechanism for territory maintenance (Peters & Mech 1975; Rothman & Mech 1979; Bowen & Cowan 1980) or sex recognition (Dunbar 1977; Bekoff 1979), as a signal of empty food caches (Henry 1977; Harrington 1981, 1982), as an indicator of sexual condition, maturity or synchrony (Bekoff & Diamond 1976), or as internal information to orient members of the resident pack (Wells & Bekoff) and to dispersing animals entering occupied territories (Rothman & Mech 1979)."

Scent-marking by coyotes, Canis latrans: the influence of social and ecological factors Eric M. Gese & Robert L. Ruff

Unsuprisingly we're not so different when it comes to the type of information we're leaving other herd members either. We too are leaving messages that are primarilly concerned with food caches and sexual condition; a vast number of Socialight's sticky notes are reviews about "food caches" with strangers telling us that this restaurant or bar is good; and as for sexual condition, Dodgeball allows you to "choose up to five crushes online and they get notified when you are nearby."

In his original paper Earls' notes the importance of movement to the herd dynamic. For herds "to be static is also to be vulnerable." Monty Roberts the extraordinary horse whisperer Earls cites, uses "movement" to control his herds. Roberts has even "applied the same basic thinking to juvenile delinquents - understanding their need to belong to a herd, their need for movement and so on." (My italics) Movement is clearly a key element of herd behaviour. So it comes as no surprise then, that it is in the world of mobile technology that we are beginning to see herd-like communications forming. Like many other species, we have it seems an overwhelming urge to communicate with the herd as we move through our environment.

1 comment:

Faris said...

Of course! You are such a genius. Sticky tags are just like the chemical transmitters that termite herds use! Have you read that Johnson Complexity book? It rocks.

Awesome. As usual my dear.