LOS ANGELES — Walk on a college campus these days and you'll see cellphones everywhere, but only some being used for conversations. Baruch College sophomore Yelena Slatkina in New York City recently rustled up an emergency sub at work by typing a plea to her entire work group on her cellphone. University of South Florida sophomore Nate Fuller routinely uses his cellphone equipped with Global Positioning Software (GPS) to find recruits for his intramural football team and locate friends in Tampa, Fla. Texas 21-year-old Brittany Bohnet uses photos she and 20 of her networked buddies snap on their phones to locate one another, using visual landmarks they spot in the pictures they send.
These under-25s (the target market for early adoption of hot new gadgets) are using what many observers call the next big consumer technology shift: Mobile Social Networking Software, or Mososo. The sophisticated reach of cyber-social networks such as MySpace or Facebook, combined with the military precision of GPS, is putting enough power in these students' pockets to run a small country.
But while many young users are enthralled with the extraordinary conveniences of what amounts to a personal-life remote control, others who have been tracking technology for more than a few semesters say that as the benefits of the multipurpose mobile phone expand, so do its risks. Not only do they point to possible security issues with GPS running on a cellphone, but cultural observers worry about the growing preference of young users to stay plugged into a virtual network, often oblivious to the real world around them.
"These technologies are addictive," says author Michael Bugeja, bemoaning what he calls a growing self- absorption encouraged by social networking. "With a society that is increasingly amusing and distracting itself to death, what's at stake is nothing less than the collective conscience."
The Iowa State University media professor, who has written extensively about the cultural impact of new technologies, suggests that an increased focus on networking only with like-minded folks could diminish the ability to deal with the unfamiliar – a skill that is vital to democratic institutions.
Mobile GPS will open a Pandora's box of possibilities, say others. "I'd be very concerned about pedophiles or identity thieves hacking into a system and locating me, my wife, or daughter," says Henry Simpson, who coordinates new technology for the California State University at Monterey Bay (CSUMB). "It raises huge safety issues," he adds.
But new technologies have always brought new risks – such as identity theft. Philosophically, every technology has both positive and negative values, says Andrew Anker, vice president of development at Six Apart, a Web consulting firm. "In fact," he points out, "the most positive aspects are what also add the most negative."
Companies looking to do business on college campuses have paid particular attention to security concerns. Rave Wireless introduced a GPS/MoSoSo enabled phone for students this past year, emphasizing the security value of the GPS feature over its potential to deliver underage victims to predators. While the Rave phones enable students to find like-minded buddies (Bored? Love Indian food? Meet me under the clock!), it also offers a cyberescort service linked to campus police. If the student doesn't turn off a timer in the phone, indicating safe arrival at a destination, police are dispatched to a GPS location.
Campus residents give the service high marks. Kristen Halverson, a resident adviser at CSUMB, says her students are often alone on campus late at night. "The GPS escort is probably the best new thing for students I've seen," she says.
There is a certain irony in the concerns about safety using GPS, points out industry analyst, Bijan Sabet, a partner at the venture capital firm, Spark Capital. Mobile GPS was created in response to a federal mandate, because cellphones couldn't handle 911 emergency calls. But, safety concerns aside, the phone is clearly the hot new platform in the tech world – witness Steve Jobs's announcement of the Apple iPhone. "It's not a matter of 'if' the mobile phone will prove important, it's just a matter of how fast," adds Mr. Sabet.
The phone is the primary tool for planning and organizing lives today, says Rave CEO Roger Desai. He argues that rather than undermining a larger civic awareness, the combination of mobile social networks with GPS has the potential to reinvigorate moribund civic areas, such as old downtown business zones. His company has been working with cities such as Newark, N.J., to connect people with their local attractions and services. "This is their opportunity to take back the community," says Mr. Desai, who says people can now open their phones and find the local taco stand or dry cleaner, often businesses they never knew existed.
Other firms are rushing to explore the possibilities of MoSoSo. Helio was one of the first to take the plunge, betting on the importance of the tiny tool. "Most of our users don't even have landlines anymore," says Michael Grossi, Helio's vice president of business development. The company's first MoSoSo phone did not have GPS; the current version, dubbed the "Drift," combines MySpace with GPS. Mr. Grossi is quick to point out that the locator function is strictly "opt in," meaning users can turn it on and off at will. The company does not store location information. "It's part of our ethic not to collect customer data," says Grossi. "Our purpose is to encourage communication and connection without any fear that Big Brother is watching."
Students have clearly connected with the mobile social networking worlds offered by their phones. Walking the campus at California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA), Samantha Jones is a typical student. Focused on the phone she grips in front of her, she's been texting and cyberchatting with friends all day, barely breaking her stride to eat or attend classes. The photo-happy Ms. Bohnet says she only tolerates actual phone calls – which take her attention off her network of friends – from her parents because they aren't up to speed with MoSoSo.
But concerns over the self-absorption potential of social networking are also somewhat ironic to Gilbert Gonzales, chief information officer for CSUMB. The campus sought out a contract with Rave Wireless, in part to help combat growing antisocial behavior created by the Internet on campus. "Students were stuck in their rooms using the Internet on their computers," says Mr. Gonzales. By allowing them to become mobile, he hopes to get students back out onto the campus to connect with other students.
While phones are clearly omnipresent on campuses, naysayers can take small comfort that there is the occasional holdout. Possibly one of the few college students on the planet not to own a cellphone, Carlos Rodriguez says he prefers interacting with others in person. "I like the subtlety of a human face – you can't get that on the phone, in a picture, or using GPS," says the CSULA electrical-engineering major. "I'd rather meet somebody and interact in person," he adds. "It's just a richer experience. No phone or any other technology can replace that."