Thursday, August 18, 2011

Stanford MobiSocial Computing Laboratory

Our research group in the MobiSocial Computing Laboratory has been working on an alternative social network where users need not give up data ownership to a proprietary social network.  We have created a system called Musubi (Mobile, Social, UBIquitious) that appears quite promising.

It is a challenging task to create a practical, privacy-honoring open social network.  First, how does one create an economically feasible solution that does not monetize users' data?  Second, given 750 million users already have friends in Facebook, nobody would use an alternative unless it is more compelling beyond just offering privacy.

We have developed Musubi as an augmentation, rather than a replacement of today's social networks.  It is designed to better support private conversations between friends and people we meet.  While Musubi does not help people find friends and share widely, it also reduces the dangers of online social networking.  As a social network only to be used on mobile devices, Musubi takes advantage of the characteristics of mobile devices to provide a novel and compelling experience to end users and to provide privacy.

Musubi enables users to simply tap the phones, using NFC (near-field communication), and they can start socializing with each other.  Also a user can create a group, and share it with friends over any electronic medium, such as email, text messages, or Musubi messages.   Musubi also allows an encrypted and password protected group member list to be distributed to other users at the same GPS location.

Musubi is a group application platform designed to make it easy for all kinds of mobile applications to share information (locations, pictures, real-time finger painting, high scores) on friends' group feeds.  Musubi makes heavy use of contextual information to minimize the friction of interaction, e.g. photos can be automatically shared with a designated group without any extra key strokes at all.

In Musubi, user data are not stored in centralized servers.  The Musubi service simply routes encrypted messages between phones, providing a little bit of queuing where necessary in case the phones were not online.  Users are responsible for backing up content of interest to a server of their choice.  Without a central server that collects and stores users' information, Musubi complies with COPPA (Children's Online Privacy Protection Act) trivially, unlike networks like Facebook and Google Plus, thus allowing it to serve kids under 13.  The lightweight infrastructure means that it can be provided as a low-cost service perhaps offered by the operator, or it can be supported by the application platform, which traditionally charges 30% of the application revenues.

We have also conducted a series of five user studies over a five-month period. We saw extremely enthusiastic responses from a number of adults and college students who believe that Musubi is the social network design of the future.  By and large, however, most students in the study were unaware of privacy issues.  Even though the high-school students in our study  were indignant that their personal data were sold without their knowledge, only half expressed interest in using Musubi.  The user study with thirty elementary students indicates that Musubi is easy to use and compelling for kids who are not already on Facebook.

Musubi offers a solution to those who shied away from social networking for privacy concerns, or are using today's proprietary systems for lack of an alternative.  Musubi's support for private group communication may find new uses as well.  For example, soldiers may use Musubi to stay in touch with their family and play games with their children without the fear of disclosing their locations to the public inadvertently.

This study also suggests that it is important to encourage teenagers to use privacy-honoring systems as they start participating in social networking.  For example, schools can adopt privacy-honoring networks for class discussions and run collaborative learning software on top of such networks.  This reduces the need for students to take the effort to build up their friends' network in a proprietary, less-safe, system.  This may have the effect of increasing adoption of privacy-honoring social networks.

A prototype of Musubi is available on the Android market.  Further information can be found on   Please check it out and let us know what you think.

Musubi is an open-source platform; we welcome collaboration at all levels -- user studies, apps and infrastructure development.

posted by Monica Lam