Putting the World Into the Wide Web

An instant messenger that knows where you are.

Technology pundits seem to have one thing in common: They hate to travel. As the Internet and other global networks became faster, cheaper, and more ubiquitous, the most respected seers forecast a world where we would no longer need to get out of the house. “People will soon be saved the expense, tedium, and energy waste of conventional travel,” George Gilder prophesied in his 1989 book Microcosm. Frances Cairncross, author of 1997’s The Death of Distance, has said that “The most important consequence is going to be the way we think of geography. … It’s more important for us to know what time zone somebody lives in than physically where they are on the planet.” But the death of distance turned out to have an equal and opposite reaction: a new hyper-awareness of location.

Wi-Fi, this year’s buzz technology, is the best example in years of how a tool meant to obliterate a restriction on our lives—location, in this case—can also sharpen our sensitivity to it. Wi-Fi users are the most location-obsessed people on Earth. Do I know the direction and distance to my hotspot this second? All too well—I’m sitting sideways in my chair for better bandwidth.

A new product called Trepia (pronounced with a short e, as in “intrepid”) that launched a few months ago takes advantage of this rebirth of distance. Connect to a Wi-Fi network, and Trepia’s servers figure out what other users are also plugged into your little section of the planet. The program displays a buddy list of friends and strangers who are nearby and online, with a photo and profile of each. You can then message one another if you want. Basically, it’s an AOL Instant Messenger that knows where you are.

The company’s suggested uses for its product are lacquered with a thin veneer of productivity: Finding friends at the airport, meeting like minds at a conference, identifying other students working on the same homework assignment. But who are they kidding? Trepia has built the latest, greatest Internet dating service. “Aren’t you in my psych class?” “Are you here for MacWorld, too?” Focusing on Wi-Fi users makes the conversation flow more easily, since the technology’s early adopters feel a sense of bond similar to that among smokers huddled on a loading dock. Surfing in public gets me chatted up in Manhattan as reliably as walking a small, excitable dog. “How’s the bandwidth?” is the pickup line of a new generation.

Previous ideas for location-based services lacked zing because they focused on routing consumers to nearby products and services: mobile yellow pages that route you to the nearest Pizza Hut, or phones that ring when you walk past a shoe sale. But that’s like saying in 1993 that the World Wide Web will blow your mind because of its ad banners. Trepia founder Jawed Karim understands that what people really want is to connect to other people.

The only problem with Trepia is that the company doesn’t have many users at this point. There’s nothing more disappointing than a buddy list with no buddies on it. In order to test it, I had to persuade nearby strangers to install it. To reach critical mass, Karim expanded the latest version to include people on any kind of Internet connection, not just Wi-Fi. You have to wonder if Karim expects to convert millions of users from AIM, Microsoft, and Yahoo!, though, or if he’s really just hoping for a bidding war for his technology.

Either way, the results will be fascinating to watch. Part of the excitement of test-driving Trepia was the uncertainty of what would happen when I connected with complete strangers who knew who I was and where I was sitting. Meeting fellow Wi-Fi enthusiasts beat the heck out of talking to dog owners or bumming a cigarette as an introduction. Maybe this will end the stereotype that Internet addicts ignore their families and friends. Trepia gave me an excuse to finally meet my neighbors.