Can we make a social network? For real….

It is 6am and I’ve woken up a little early. The sun does funny things in Scotland. It doesn’t get hot like the most of the rest of the world and while it forgets to get up in the winter, it forgets to go to go down in the summer. So it’s been light for a few hours… And I started to think about this: What is a social network? I’m asking this question because I’m going to build one or rather I’ve started to build one and now I want to tell people about it. Building social networks is something I’ve been doing all my life in the real world – as have you. At some point in the mid to late 1970s in the blistering heat (15C) of a long hot summer my best friend in the whole world, Toby, and I became ‘blood brothers’. I think we struggled a little with pricking our fingers to actually get blood, but we knew that the blood marked the friendship of the highest kind. We formed a network from the exchange in blood. Or at least, we formed a bond over the idea that we could exchange blood. That exchange marked us as special. We were a new form of kin.


Some forty years later at the very moment I’m writing this post, I have on my twitter account around one thousand five hundred and twenty five ‘followers’. That’s seems a lot – particularly as before twitter being followed was either a little creepy, or marked you out as having a particularly special relationship with a god.. my this one and a half thousand followers is nothing like Katy Perry who has seventy million followers. SEVENTY MILLION. That’s, like, nearly ten times the number of people who watched the Doctor Who Christmas special! How does someone do this? For me I have no idea who all but twenty five of my followers are but I imagine they are sitting there waiting with baited breath on my every 140 chars that comes through my fingers onto the screen. …

And that’s just twitter -what about facebook?


Real Madrid footballer Cristiano Ronaldo has overtaken Shakira to become the most followed person on Facebook.


Said the BBC in March 2015, as apparently the footballer Ronaldo has over one hundred million likes. That’s a LOT of likes. I’m not sure I’ve liked that many things in the world in my forty four years of existence – and I like a lot of stuff (marmite, beer from barrels, fish in batter, swimming in the north sea, The Tiger That Came To Tea, France and the colour coding on resisters – beach towels with colour codes from resistors would be AMAZING.. but I digress, sorry).



But what does having that many people follow or like you really mean? For toby and I, long before the web or of having heard of social networks, at a time when a friend was invited to your birthday party and a like was something less than a love, our network of two was sealed in an ancient bond that could never be broken. At least until we went to different universities, got jobs, got married, moved countries and had kids…But I’ve not become a blood brother with anyone since and that’s quite an amazing thing.

That physicality and cultural significance of an (albeit interpretation) ancient ritual made our friendship special. Blood is a precious limited resource and only one person got to be my blood brother.

The web has enabled us to escape the limitations of the physical world. Friending someone or liking something is all very easy. There’s no contract. No precious resource. No end. No friction. It’s all so very easy. But it all feels a little bit hollow. Sometime in the late 1980s I shouted “all back to mine” in the local pub when my parents were on holiday. I was seventeen and it was more than a bit scary having most of the village of Benson (population 4,000) walk the one mile to my parents’ house at midnight. I didn’t know anyone so I mostly hid upstairs and waited for them to leave. It was dawn when they did and I spent the rest of the day clearing up and realised that cigarette burns were hard to cover up… That the house was broken and that I was pretty much doomed. What would happen if Ronaldo did the same? All back to my facebook page for an after hours party? Would there be any mess to clear up? Would anything happen? Would it be any point? Would it create any difference in the real world – the world that Ronaldo and his one hundred million likes occupy?

My point being is that physical social networks are very very different to digital ones. Duh! Of course they are I hear you scream. Yet you say this, but most of what we’re doing with IoT technology is building one thing that can connect to the web. Rather than building networks that are powered by and ARE the web, we’re simply adding dead nodes to an existing system. My call to action is to design entirely new forms of physical networks that are a part of, and not an aside to, the web.

Have you thought of building your own bridge between these worlds. Could we make physical/digital social networks that the Internet of Things (or the web with things as I continue to call it) technology can enable? I don’t think that connecting household appliances to the web is particularly social, exciting or interesting – do you?

So why not build our own physical social network. Which we’ve done. Or at least we’ve started to do. And I’ll share this with you here.

We have built the world’s smallest social network. It’s a network of small till-roll printers that are connected to the web powered by the amazing Electric Imp. We’re calling them Tap Writers. Because you tap at a screen and it comes out on paper – on all of the rolls at the same time. It’s changing a printer from a printing appliance into a social media device – where paper is the media rather than Facebook’s or Twitter’s screen. This limits resources (Katy Perry and Ronaldo would run out of paper pretty quickly if they had this network). We’ve created a social feedback mechanism by having a single button that you tap as a form of ‘receipt’ – a deliberately ambiguous interaction that is neither a ‘like’ or a ‘thumbs up/down’. It’s simply a response that is printed across the small network. We’ve installed seven in small shops, cafes and a yoga centre in Dundee. And we’re watching to see what happens. We want eight in a network and are looking for the next place in Dundee to join.

So how does it work? Mike’s been playing with the till rolls connecting to Imp using a bit of code from instructables. An amazingly powerful feature of Imp is that it handles Http messaging and it’s super straight forward to have all of the printers connected in a network. So this is great technically. Yet the thing that got me most excited is the scalability that Imp provides. With so few components in the TapWriters and the cost and scalable tools Imp has for mass production, we’re almost ready to go live with a product… a physical social network that connects people through paper…..

It’s quite exciting to have a social network. Next up we want to take it international so we’re heading to Mexico City to install another eight there with a Spanish translation built in.

So watch this space as this early trial has made me decide that we need to further this and we need to look at how we can design for physical, human and real networks – that are limited by resource and therefore force us to make choices about who we want in our network and what and when we say things. They do I think take the Internet of Things into a much more social space that I’m calling the Web With Things.

Want to take part in this experience? Get in touch – we’d love to talk to you about what we’re doing. Over the next twelve months we’re going to further this and build a number of physical social networks to find out if we can do this and what it will be like. We’ll share the results as we go and let’s see where this takes us… I promise if you join us I won’t be asking for any of your blood but I might be asking you to get physical with a few of your friends.