SideContact: People In Context, On the Sidewalks of the Web

SideContact is an app that makes people visible to each other on the web. As you browse, SideContact displays the faces of other people who are on the same page with you right now, or were there and left a message. If you encounter someone you know, you can recognize them, and chat with them in real time. Once you meet up on the same page, you can walk and talk, following each other from page to page as you browse together.

SideContact makes other people visible to you right on the web page you are visiting, in the right and left margins of the page (called 'sidewalks'). See Using SideContact for details. SideContact does everything right on the sidewalk of the page you're already visiting, anywhere on the web, without ever leaving the page. With SideContact, you don't spend your time at the SideContact web site, it brings its sidewalks to you, wherever you are on any site on the web.

SideContact works on web pages anywhere on the web, if you permit it on the website in question. You decide which websites you want to visit publicly, and which websites you will visit privately without seeing other users. Wherever you choose not to see people, you won't be seen yourself. SideContact reveals people to each other only by mutual consent, when both people are SideContact users who want to be visible there. You can also decide which people - as individuals or by group - you want to be visible to, and restrict your visibilty at any given moment to a particular person, a small selection of people, family, friends, associates or a workgroup -- or turn SideContact off entirely. You can even go 'out in public' and see everyone who's there (and also visible), the way you would walk around in public places in a real city, seeing people you don't necessarily know. In this mode, SideContact facilitates public assembly - on any publicaly accessible page at all, on any website. The websites themselves don't have to do anything to make this possible, it just works everywhere - for SideContact users.

The way SideContact works is by capturing your web location right at its source (on your device or at its point of connection to the network), and sharing it with the people you decide to share it with, through a presence service in the cloud. Ordinarily, websites you visit won't share your presence with your friends, they only make note of it for their own use (and perhaps share your presence with advertisers). Any one website doesn't see all of your clicks, only your visits to their pages. To be visible online to your friends as you move around the web, you need your own SideContact software to observe and selectively share your own presence (when, where and with whom you choose). SideContact is designed to give you personal control over how you remember, organize and share your own online experience.

SideContact also helps you 'share with yourself'. You can annotate pages you visited with post-it notes and hashtags, and quickly find related pages again. Unlike bookmarks, SideContact notes and tags form a linked map of the web organized by concepts, topics or groups or individuals you're following. This map is a graph, not a rigid hierarchy, and you don't have to remember where you filed something to find your way back to it - just search for a key word or two, follow the related links, and you'll quickly rediscover the past experience you're looking for. Remembering a page never involves copying and pasting links in the first place - it can be as simple as one click with no typing, before you leave the page - mark it for your own reference, or refer a friend or group to it, by clicking on a face in the sidewalk.

You can build your own map for purely personal use, but you can also share any part of it with your friends, and collaborate with them to build a collectively authored map of the web. If you choose you can contribute to the global public map using SideContact, the way Wikipedia users everywhere co-author the global encyclopedia.

Making Cyberspace a Real Space

In the real world, we can see each other and communicate simply by talking. But in the vast city of cyberspace, people are invisible. We are all online together, but we can't see or hear each other, even when we're in exactly the same place: looking at the same page at the same time. It's as if the web were a city of ghosts. We can see the buildings and the shop windows and the advertising billboards, but not each other, even though we know there are thousands of other ghosts all around us, everywhere we go. This is the reason most websites don't feel like real places at all.

When you go into a cafe or a shopping mall, or walk down a city street, you can tell if it's crowded or empty. You can see if anyone you know is there. You can feel the buzz of life and sense the nature of the place, even if you are anonymous in a busy public venue. You can meet up with other people, accidentally or by arrangement, and pursue conversations in and about the place itself. You can show each other things, and walk about together. You can freely follow each other from place to place, or part company at any time. It's entirely up to you who you speak to, and social norms govern the propriety of speaking to people you don't know. It's natural to be among other people, many of whom you don't know, and by yourself at the same time. This is what it means to be somebody in society. Every place is a social context of some kind. Some are more public than others. But the web is not really like that at all. Some web pages are designed for communication, like blogs or Facebook pages. But there is no universal, omnipresent visibility or communication available to everyone, anywhere on the web. We can't even see each other!

Reach Out

SideContact is a start at making the web a more naturally social space. But it only works for people who use it.

SideContact makes people visible to other people who are SideContact users, so it won't reveal all the people who are present at any given web page (unless the website itself has a Powered By SideContact icon). Because SideContact is new (in beta test), its user community is still small. It's likely that on many web pages, the only face you'll see in the right margin will be yourself. In the left margin, you'll see other people who are online now or have sent you messages, but are not on the same page with you yet.

To make SideContact more useful, you may want to encourage other people you know to install SideContact themselves. SideContact has various connection features that make it convenient to reach out to people and 'make side contact' with them, from any page on the web. If they're not yet SideContact users, they'll be given the option to install. When your friends adopt SideContact, you can continue the conversation and browse the web with them, instead of just by yourself.