If you live in a city, you pass by thousands of strangers every day. Many of these strangers have problems. Maybe you have problems that one of these strangers could resolve, if only you knew to talk to them. The problem is knowing who to talk to. You can’t bother them all. At the same time, many people are leaving information trails, posting their hopes, dreams, and problems to Facebook, Twitter, and similar services.
Created by designer Itai Miller as part of a speculative class project, Opportune is a concept app that addresses this situation. The idea is that it scans your Internet activity for clues as to your current desires. At the same time, it is scanning everyone else’s activity. By coordinating location, needs, and offerings, Opportune can act as a matchmaker. Ultimately, it would guide you to a face-to-face meeting with a stranger who can help you out.
"For example--I’m looking for an apartment. I’m looking in the relevant websites and posting on Facebook (or even Twitter)." says Miller, "The app knows that I’m looking for an apartment, and it will find me people who can help me--landlords, roommates, real estate agents--and they will be notified that I’m also in their area." Whether you find this intriguing or horrifying probably depends a lot on your attitudes towards privacy online and information overload.
Of course, if you are going to have a butler that anticipates your every need, it must know everything about you. Discretion is key in human servants. When it comes to your life stored in data centers, this is a privacy nightmare. "I know that the concept raises questions about privacy, but people already share their entire life on Facebook and such," Miller points out. We share a lot online. Perhaps more than we realize. Think about apps like Please Rob Me (for a more benign version, there’s We Feel Fine). These work by surfacing and aggregating information that people are giving out publicly.
Still more can be learned when the Internet focuses its terrible gaze on an individual. Consider Anonymous’s habit of finding and posting the information of people it doesn’t like. Network analysis uncovered a slumlord conspiracy. Google automatically creates a profile where it guesses your interests, age, and gender. To say nothing of the government’s sometimes clumsy attempts to anticipate threats.
The cleverness of Opportune is that it recognizes these realities and harnesses this information for individuals. It accepts that a great deal can be deduced by gathering together public threads and turns that into a feature. "I think that the biggest experience is actually the 'no experience,'" says Miller. "The app guesses what you want and gives it to you. It is like another way to search 'on the way’ without the actual act of searching. The app is based on the idea that face-to-face meeting is still the most powerful interaction, and it 'pushes’ you in that direction." The challenge with these kinds of things is that, so far, software tends to be exceedingly socially dumb. For example, Facebook used to keep suggesting that I might like to be friends with the guy that my girlfriend left me for because we had so many connections in common. Socially stupid, but logical given the social graph.
Similarly, here, the idea is that you give yourself over to extreme surveillance by the network in the hopes that it’ll do a good job of networking for you. But how do you let it know that you don’t want to be bothered? Most people are busy all the time and interruption isn’t welcome. What happens if the poor real estate agent just wants a coffee and five minutes to themselves? "I thought about it," says Miller, "What if people don’t want to be approached. But as this is only a proposal for an app and not a whole app, I chose not to deal with the minor details such as availability." And yet a key part of social life in the city is that we spend a lot of time discretely not noticing each other. The danger of social agents that go out and start trying to introduce you is that they miss that point, like an overly gregarious friend at a party dragging you from conversation to conversation when all you want is to get a drink.