There's a secret mobile network being tested on New York City subway cars this week that could pave the way for far more than anonymous hot straphanger hookups.
It's happening on certain cars on the L Train, the favored line of models, style aficionados, musicians, artists, and others zipping between some of the city's hippest neighborhoods (and other stops not cool enough to get into in this context). "The L Train Notwork" doesn't actually connect them to the World Wide Web, but it seems that way at first. Instead, users are linked to fellow riders in a chat room, plus webby-looking visual and literary content curated by the digital agency WeMakeCoolSh.it. Maybe one day soon, they'll get exposed to an ad or two, too.
The pirate Wi-Fi stunt comes as city officials probe a last bastion of Big Apple downtime: the subway. Despite recent efforts of the Metro Transit Authority to bring Wi-Fi and cell service to subway platforms in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, New York’s trains remain an unconnected space.
Every morning during the week of November 14, Matt McGregor-Mento and Mark Krawczuk (pictured here), the founders of the seven-month-old shop, plan to hand out laminated iPhone-shaped flyers outside of subway stops in Manhattan alerting riders to their "Notwork."
On Saturday, I joined McGregor-Mento, Krawczuk, and a group of about 10 friends and collaborators as they beta-tested their project, which the team has been working on for several months. Krawczuk arrived at around 11:30 a.m., dangling a green canvas grocery bag that held a small white box containing the apparatus--a plug computer, battery, and car inverter--that would fuel the Wi-Fi and serve the content. We boarded the train, and the members of the group whipped out their phones to try this novel experience: connectivity on the subway.
“When [McGregor-Mento] first told me about it, I exploded with excitement,” said Dolan Morgan, one of the beta testers. “The idea of homebrew Internet is something really exciting.” The group wasn’t connecting to the World Wide Web, but rather to the web server in Krawczuk’s bag, and to each other. The “Notwork” had two main components: a selection of visual and literary content curated by WeMakeCoolSh.it and their friends--poems and drawings by local writers and artists, for example, as well as a few newsfeeds refreshed daily--plus a decidedly old-school chatroom that was called “Missed Connections.” The whole experience is closed-circuit and site-specific, something more like a local area network than the Internet proper. If the World Wide Web is a Borgesian, universal library, then the L Train Notwork is an intimate art gallery. “We’ve been calling it social art,” McGregor-Mento said.
There were a few kinks to iron out. I had trouble joining on my phone, so I borrowed Krawczuk’s. I logged into Missed Connections, choosing a handle and an 8-bit avatar (the team wanted a Web 1.0 aesthetic to communicate that this was not the Internet we use today), and answering a few geeky questions, like what “red” means to me (wine? meat? 630-740 nm?) and what my favorite kind of cake was (wedding? chocolate? the cake is a lie?). Some of the beta testers were making a game of it, trying to figure out just who they were chatting with. “I’m talking with JiggaJigga,” said Daeha Ko, a freelance stage electrician. He had identified JiggaJigga fairly quickly as a guy in a yellow raincoat a few seats down, he said, “but it took him a while to figure out me.”
A man who had been on the train before we boarded began to wonder what all the fuss is about. McGregor-Mento handed him a flyer. The man puzzled over it a moment. “How are you making it?” he asked Krawczuk.
“See that little green bag?” said Krawczuk. “That’s the answer.”
Signs all over the New York subway system famously urge commuters to “say something” when they see suspicious packages. WeMakeCoolSh.it has hired 15 people to accompany the bags that will be running on 15 different L trains at any given moment during the morning rush this week, but still, was Krawczuk worried someone would nonetheless “say something”? “It just looks like any other box,” he said. “We did as much as we could to make it look as innocuous as possible. There’s no wires sticking out, no glowing switches.” To the best of their knowledge, WeMakeCoolSh.it is not in any violation of MTA rules. They even reached out informally to one employee about it. “They didn’t say it wasn’t fine,” is how McGregor-Mento phrases it. He adds that the team chose the term “pirate radio” in homage to the old British pirate radio stations that had a similar DIY, under-the-radar vibe.
At Eighth Avenue, the Manhattan endpoint of the L, the group transferred and shot back to Morgan Avenue, where they reconvened in Krawczuk’s Bushwick loft, which doubles as one of WeMakeCoolSh.it’s workspaces. Krawczuk (shown here with all the team's hardware unpacked), stood in front of the group, writing down their comments on a whiteboard hung from a set of modular bookshelves. The xckd comics were hard to read, said one person. It was annoying that you had to re-fill out your chat profile each time you connected, said another. “Missed Connections” seemed a misnomer, leading you to expect static, Craigslist-style content, said a third. “What about, like, ‘I Saw You’--or ‘I See You’?” asked Ko. (The team eventually settled on “Train Connections.”)
The beta test was a success, but a question remained: What exactly is the L Train Notwork? “Social art,” as McGregor-Mento said? "Situated net art,” in the phrase offered by another tester? Or simply another piece of “cool sh.it,” and a nice way for a fledgling agency to promote itself? All those things, maybe--but it also could be something else entirely.
“We’re building a marketing channel from scratch,” McGregor-Mento says. Once you’re captured in a notwork, “you can’t go anywhere,” he says. “You’re in our gated universe of content. From a marketing perspective, it’s kind of gold.” McGregor-Mento and Krawczuk have a passion for art projects. But they also do work for major brands through their agency and they have rent to pay--the partners have just put up about $15,000 to finance the L Train experiment. "Why shouldn’t every store in the world have its own closed Internet?” asks McGregor-Mento, dreaming up ways to monetize a "notwork." A customer might walk into a Macy’s or a small boutique, get a prompt on his phone inviting him to the store's own notwork, and suddenly he’s a rat in their virtual maze--with no banner ads or stray links to steal his attention. “That’s the most grossly commercial application of this technology,” says McGregor-Mento. “I could so easily see that.”
WeMakeCoolSh.it has no plans to license the technology; at any rate, they say, they've only brought a novel application to existing tech. They’re even open sourcing the code they used on Github.
“It was just an idea,” says McGregor-Mento. “We’ll be onto something new next week.”
Follow Fast Company on Twitter.
[Images: David Zax, Matt McGregor-Mento, tamografia]