Soft(knit)ware: Wearing Your Social Media

March 5, 2015

The MIT Media Lab has just developed a new way to exhibit social media to the outside world. The lab’s Fluid Interfaces Group has created a “Social Textiles” T-shirt that alerts the wearer with a vibration in the collar when another person within a 12 foot range is also wearing this T-shirt. Once the two wearers share some form of physical interaction, such as a hand-shake or high-five, their shirts then use Bluetooth to access information stored in their phones. The shirt will then use thermochromatic ink to spell out on a grid of letters located on its front something the two people have in common, like the name of a former school or employer.
With a recent spike in privacy concerns regarding online information, especially after the celebrity photo hacking scandal, it’s interesting that this idea has sparked so many people’s curiosity. The developers of this technology believe that the shirt could potentially be used to connect two people who have matched on dating sites or if they are compatible organ donors, and that the possibilities are only limited by the designer working with it.
Facebook and Twitter are two examples of large social media entities that have recently amped up their user privacy settings, so displaying information from these sites or others on a shirt for everyone in the vicinity to see could pose some potential problems. The shirt has certain built in safe-guards for only sharing your information with people that also own a shirt, have in common with you whatever is being displayed, and that you have more or less approved of by initiating some form of physical contact with them. However, the obvious fact of the matter is that your information is being plastered onto the front of your shirt for anyone with eyes to see. If this is just the name of a school, then it’s no different from wearing a shirt from your alma mater, but if the shirts are given a wide range of access and discover something much more personal, such as a blood type or criminal record, then this may not be something you want advertised.
The laws governing the use and sharing of private information online may be implicated here by the shirt accessing personal information stored in a user’s already existing social media profiles or other online caches. However, if a privacy issue was to arise, it would be very difficult to claim that any laws or policies were broken. People who choose to wear these T-shirts should be fully informed about the exact information that will be accessed and to whom it can be shown. Once the shirt has spelled out what you have in common with your new acquaintance, there’s no way to hide this revelation unless you happen to have a second shirt handy or a jacket to hide under.
Knowing how long the information will be displayed is therefore an important question that should be answered before putting on the shirt. What if you shake someone’s hand and then realize you don’t want them to know anything about you? Or what if you accidentally make physical contact with someone and didn’t mean to reveal that you go to the same university?

A T-shirt does not have a password or a delete button, and while the information shared may not be as secretive or important as everything the shirt wearer may have online, it’s still personal to a degree and literally being worn on your sleeve.

The creators of the shirt wanted to give people a tangible social media presence, and they hope to expand the breadth of information that the shirts have access to in order to unite people who have connections they might be unaware of. The idea does have the potential to grow into a useful tool, but greater expansion needs greater precautions. Federal regulations could come into play depending on how much personal information the industry begins tapping into, and if not, consumers may be too nervous to buy an item of clothing that creates such a transparent online existence.
For now the shirt is still in the research and development phase, and if it catches on it could maybe lead to a more open and relaxed atmosphere for sharing information with one another. While the technology behind this is impressive, we may find out that it was better to just let people introduce themselves and share information they personally choose to share with others, rather than having a T-shirt do it for them.