Matchbooks as Interface

Ephemeral anonymous interactions about feelings of urban love and hate

No longer confined to our offices, schools, and homes, technology is expanding at an astonishing rate across our everyday public urban landscapes. From the visible (mobile phones, laptops, and blackberries) to the invisible (GPS, WiFi, GSM, and EVDO), we find the full spectrum of digital technologies transforming nearly every facet of our urban experience. Many current urban computing systems focus on improving our efficiency and productivity in the city by providing “location services” and/or interactive navigation and mapping tools. While agreeing with the need for such systems, we are reminded that urban life spans a much wider range of emotions and experiences. Our claim is that our successful future urban technological tools will be those that incorporate the full range of urban experiences - from improving productivity and efficiency to promoting wonderment and daydreaming.  We discuss intervention as a research strategy for understanding wonderment; demonstrate an example of such a study using a matchbook experiment to expose relationships between locations and emotions within a city

While observations, interviews, and surveys provide valuable insight for researchers, the challenge of exposing urban wonderment required us to study urban life “in the wild”. We would need to create seemingly unplanned situations and objects that would catch people off guard and spark their desire to wonder. Adopting urban and cultural probing techniques, we designed a direct urban intervention to study individual curiosities about each others views of love and hate within their city.



Playing into a “seemingly” serendipitous encounter with an ordinary abandoned object, we hoped to draw people into a state of brief wonderment.  In our case, to wonder what and why others loved and hated about their city. The goal was to design a series of low-tech objects which would be of such small value that they were neither trash nor personally owned.  It was important that these objects be inexpensive to produce, lack ownership thus allowing them to be found and taken without guilt, and avoid being viewed as so worthless as to be simply ignored as trash.

Our solution was to use literally thousands of custom designed functional matchbooks especially designed to provoke emotional responses from locals about what they loved and hated about their city – in our case Portland, Oregon, USA. Intentionally designed to look “under designed” and non-flashy, each matchbook invited curiosity and anonymous interaction with other citizens of Portland via a simple SMS mobile phone message. The strike side of the matchbook was printed with the text: “I hate Portland.  I want to know what you really think about this city”.  The front contained the text: “I love Portland. I don’t want you to buy anything.  To play, text message your secret identity (I wrote it inside) to 503.791.4542.” Inside each matchbook was a unique identity that was chosen to be easily entered using T9 predictive text entry common on mobile phones. The URL was also printed on the spine of the matchbook.


Matchbook Deployment

Overall 1150 matchbooks were distributed across the city of Portland, Oregon during the first week of April 2005. The matchbooks were bundled into groups of five and dropped at a wide variety of venues throughout the city. Sites included bars, cafés, public transportation, bus stops, hotels, bookstores, newsstands, sidewalks, benches, etc. For each drop a familiar name for the location and an address were sent via SMS to a server.  This allowed every matchbook to be geo-located on a map of Portland.

Matchbook Interaction: Ephemeral Dialogue

Upon discovery, a person initiated the interaction by text messaging the secret identity provided inside the matchbook. An SMS gateway server handled all incoming and outgoing messages. From each received text message, we were able to log not only the actual SMS message but also the time and sender’s phone number. From the secret identity, we were also able to uniquely identify which matchbook had been found and activated.

Once activated, a user was sent the last love-hate SMS message that had been sent to the system and asked to text back what they loved or hated about their city, in this case Portland. The system required the use of the word “love” or “hate” in their reply. Their message was then delivered back to the original sender of the previous message.  Some time later (minutes, hours, or days), when someone found another matchbook, activated it, and received the most recent previous love-hate message, their love-hate message in reply would be delivered to the current user.  The result was an ephemeral dialogue among city dwellers across time with each user receiving only the previous and next message in the chain.
Using the URL on the matchbook, their phone number (logged from their SMS), and their secret identity, participants were also able to log in and view an interactive map of the city of Portland color coded with matchbooks drops and response types for love and hate.

Matchbook Results

Of the 1150 matchbooks distributed across Portland, 50 were activated by participants successfully sending an SMS of their secret identity and 31 participated by providing a love-hate message to the system (2.7% participation). This far exceeded our expected participation rate of 1%.  Of the 31 participants, over two-thirds were from Portland area codes.  Recall that each participant only saw the message before and after their own so often brief threads emerge. Below we iterate them in order.

i love the blinky green thing
I love all of the hot liberals
I love that there are starbucks on every corner
I love that the tram is east and free
I hate this art project
I hate the earnestness
I hate the fact that they have not outlawed smoking like the rest of civilizalized America
I love skating the river path
I love the movie theatres with pizza and beer and couches...
I love the prozac in the drinking water
I love chatting up buzzed cute chicks
I think i am in love with you
I hate the teases
I love the free public transit
I hate the irregular placement of crosswalks
I love how courteous drivers are to pedestrians
I love watching dumb drunks trying to chat up cute buzzed chicks
I love the Max!
I love the eco-awareness
I hate the lack of strip clubs
I hate the pan handlers
Oh, I love that the streets down town run alphabetically
I enjoy the rich colors and smells of the farmers market
I love neighborhood bars in Portland
Hate- panhandelers love-freaks
I love the aura!
I hate the hawthorne bohemia
love free downtown transit
I love that portland lets you smell trees, even in sw
I love the confidence of its youth.
I love how green this city is. Vapir it!

The matchbook intervention generated a “love-hate mapping” of Portland. Our first intuition was to play into this “location service” with a mobile phone application that responded to these locative love-hate feelings as you crossed the city.  What is the health of the city?  How is my neighborhood feeling today? What are the desires – the passions of uptown and loathings of downtown? While certainly an interesting project, we wanted to more deeply invert the very notion of a location service. Just as the matchbooks sparked wonderment about the loved and hated elements of a city, how could we promote a less emotionally charged and more interpretive curiosity about invisible personal patterns of urban movement? Resisting the urge to make a literal connection to the matchbooks and love-hate mapping, we desired to design a tool that would (1) spark a similar style of provocative, open-ended curiosity as the matchbooks, (2) be driven by real data from our invisible urban landscape, (3) invite personal interpretation and reflection about its output rather than a calculated meaning or summary, and (4) demonstrate the value of avoiding the literal location mapping techniques popular in much of today’s locative media systems. The resulting artifact was Sashay.





Eric Paulos

Chris Beckmann