The Place Race

February 26, 2010
By | 4 Comments

At the end of December 2009, Twitter acquired GeoAPI with their purchase of Mixer Labs, further propelling what MG Siegler at TechCrunch declared “The Great Location Land Rush of 2010”. But what exactly does GeoAPI do? And what could it do for Twitter?

GeoAPI’s website boasts services like reverse geocoding (or translating latitude and longitude coordinates into words, like names of towns and intersections), searching for places of interest, mapping and annotation capabilities, and a “writable private layer” that allows tech developers to perform various “geo queries” (ie “which burger joints in Madison, WI has Germaine checked into?”; or “where do all the bike messengers in San Fransisco hang out?”). In short, the product can help locative media developers, and consequently other locative media users, track your whereabouts more efficiently. These services could also be harnessed for place-based recommendation systems, or identifying patterns of activity.  Judging by reactions from competitors, once Twitter fully integrates GeoAPI the locative media industry, and the mobile tweet: “Eating lunch downtown, then going to the movies”, might never be the same again.

Though Twitter has yet to fully integrate GeoAPI or other geocoding software, it might be useful to take a look at the emerging “place race” now, and what some of the major players have to offer. It’s difficult to say exactly how Twitter will further introduce location into it’s service. But judging by the recent merger of mobile social network services and locative media, we might begin to imagine how the combination of 140 characters and “place” might change the way we tweet.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I think “where” does matter in social media and everyday life. I’m also very interested to see how developers implement something like GeoAPI, and the information produced and gathered through its various services. However, “where” can definitely be overdone, or done. . . creepy. The flak Google has recently received concerning Google Buzz and privacy issues, might have overshadowed the flak Google is concurrently receiving regarding Google Latitude and privacy issues. Additionally, Foursquare founders were recently prompted to give a public statement in reaction to concerns and controversy surrounding Please Rob Me,  a parody site which re-presents tweets and Foursquare check-ins as evidence that a user is not at home.

While privacy and surveillance have definitely been main concerns, there’s still something completely intriguing about displaying and playing with location, especially the location within which you currently reside. Ads and websites for various locative media services like CitySense, EveryBlock, and Foursquare all emphasize discovery of your neighborhood, your city, and connecting with friends within your hometown. These applications seem to render the city as a layered space full of encounters waiting to be had, hidden treasures, secret hot spots, and “you should have been there” gatherings that even the urban resident needs help finding. In a sense, living like a local merges with seeing like a tourist. Yet, these mobile applications invest the user with an augmented visual capital, and the illusion of an omniscient gaze over the city and its exchanges. By alerting you to the location of your “friends” or other people with similar traits, a suggested route of travel or particular image of the city might be offered — one that extends the way a person is “at home” while moving through urban space.

There’s a further tension between exploration and familiarization in some mobile locative media projects as well. The promotional descriptions and gaming aspects of these projects encourage the user to explore the unfamiliar, but simultaneously reward participants for repetition. In Foursquare for example, points are awarded for traveling across distance, but the status of “mayor” for frequenting the same place over and over again. In either case, there seems to be a promise of comfort through connection. The “ambient awareness” of your position, and other peoples’ position within the city, might not only render urban space more manageable, but keep your social network in tow in a very tangible way. The potential for physical accessibility of your social network, coupled with the “social proprioception” that Clive Thompson notes Twitter has capitalized on already, will deem them leaders of the place race. However, the problem might be that sensing where your social limbs are (especially the ones you connect with on Twitter), is only useful when it’s just a sense.


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4 Responses to “ The Place Race ”

  1. Sean C. Duncan on March 6, 2010 at 9:53 AM

    So, as someone who vocally and petulantly ridiculed Foursquare users for a long time… only to eventually succumb to its charms, your post got me a-thinkin’ about why that’s the case. You say: “There’s a further tension between exploration and familiarization in some mobile locative media projects as well. The promotional descriptions and gaming aspects of these projects encourage the user to explore the unfamiliar, but simultaneously reward participants for repetition.”

    For me in Foursquare, at least, it’s about this exploration/familiarization tension — I think you hit the nail on the head. Going to a new place (even if it’s just the umpteenth airport in a week) is rewarded, taking a little bit of the edge off of the unfamiliar and adding a little bit of fun exploratory sheen to the activity. That is, it might encourage players to explore, sure, but it also casts regular everyday activities as fun and engaging. That’s the big positive spin to it, though I still find it a bit sad when I see friends apparently quite excitedly checking in at Target for the 10th time in a week. It also reifies consumerist tendencies that I find a bit troubling.

    • Liz Ellcessor on March 6, 2010 at 9:58 AM

      Sean, your point about consumerist tendencies was interesting for me, because I’ve had some conversations with students about that element of Foursquare. One of them was frustrated that he could only check in at “bars and restuarants” and we tried to brainstorm other options – and came up with retail stores, coffee shops and university buildings.

      In that way, though I know you find it frustrating, people who check in on a specific flight, or a street corner might be doing something interesting in terms of marking transitory, limited place/time experiences?

      • Germaine Halegoua on March 7, 2010 at 6:18 PM

        I’ve also been really frustrated with the promotion of places to “check in” as places of consumption (as well as noted landmarks). Not being able to check in at parks, on cars and trains, or other places where I might be doing something really check-in “worthy” is equally frustrating. I want to display the fact that I’m riding my bike around the lake at 2pm sometimes more so than the fact I’m going to a bar on a school night at 2am, but unfortunately the former is not really an option. (Interestingly though there’s a badge for the latter, but I think you need to stay out until 3am to get it).

        I sometimes also feel like there’s this rendering of certain places as safe (for lack of a better word) when they come up on the Foursquare roster, verifying that you’re supposed to be there. Which is another reason why I find the consumerist slant a bit unsettling — that the bounds or possibilities of the city are being defined through places of consumption. But I do feel like I’ve leveled up or gained experience points or something when I have to type in the location I’m at because it doesn’t register on foursquare — there should be a badge for that.

        • Sabine Gruffat on September 7, 2010 at 9:18 AM

          I am reading Henri Lefebvre’s “The Production of Space” and so it is influencing me in this reply. If Foursquare wanted to define social space it would have to consider communal and shared spaces not just privatized spaces.

          The Foursquare attitude entails a certain logic:
          This space belongs to you or to me. This is already problematic.

          As Lefebvre writes “every space is already in place before the appearance in it of actors”. is there a way to think about space that does not privilege a subjective relationship to it?