Foursquare and its brethren (Gowalla, Brightkite, Loopt, and so on) are the latest social media darlings, but honestly, are they really all that useful? Sharing your location with your friends is not very compelling when you spend your life in the same four places (home, office, classroom, coffee shop). Are these apps really even fun? Does becoming the Mayor of a Shell filling station or earning the Crunked badge for checking into four different airport terminals on the same night* count as fun? I hope not. In truth, making fun of Foursquare is more fun than actually using Foursquare.
*The Crunked badge is for checking into four separate locations during a single evening. They don’t all have to be airport terminals. That’s just my own quirk.
Aside from the free chips I got for checking into a California Tortilla, the only redeeming value of these geolocation apps is that they offer the slightest glimmer—a glimmer!—of creative and pedagogical use. While some of the benefits of geolocation have been immediately seized upon by museums and historians—think of the partnership between Foursquare and the History Channel—very few people have considered using geolocation in a literary context. Even less attention has been paid to the ways geolocation can foster critical and creative thinking. So I’ve been pondering re-purposing Foursquare and its ilk in ways unintended and unforeseen by their creators.
Following Rob MacDougall’s call for playful historical thinking, I’ve been imagining what you could call playful geographic thinking. Let’s turn locative media from gimmicky Entertainment coupon books and glorified historical guidebooks into platforms for renegotiating space and telling stories.
Let’s turn them into something that truly resembles play. And here I’ll use Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen’s concept of play: free movement within a more rigid structure.
In this case, that rigid structure comes from the core mechanics of the different geolocation apps: checking in and tagging specific places with tips or comments. What’s supposed to happen is that users check in to bars or restaurants and then post tips on the best drinks or bargains. But what can happen, given the free movement within this structure, is that users can define their own places and add tips that range from lewd to absurd.
This is exactly what Dean Terry is doing. Along with his colleagues and students at the Emerging Media and Communication program at the University of Texas at Dallas, Dean has been renaming spaces and making his own places. Even better, Dean and his group at the MobileLab at UT Dallas are not only testing the limits of existing geolocation apps, they’re building one of their own.
I’m not designing my own app, but I am playing with the commercial apps. And again, by playing, I mean moving freely within a larger, more constrained structure. For instance, within my dully named campus office building, Robinson A, I’ve created my own space, The Office of Incandescent Light and Industrial Runoff. Which is pretty much how I think of my office. And I’m mayor there, thank you very much.
Likewise, when I’m home, I often check into the Treehouse of Sighs. I have an actual treehouse there, but the Treehouse of Sighs is not that one. The Treehouse of Sighs exists only in my mind. It’s a metaphysical Hotel California. You can check in any time you like, but you can never be there.
Just as evocative as creating your own space is tagging existing spaces with virtual graffiti, which you can use to create a counter-factual history of a place. Anyone who checks into the Starbucks on my campus can see my advice regarding the fireplace there. Also on GMU’s campus, I’ve uncovered Fenwick Library’s dirty little secret. And sometimes I leave surrealist tips in public places, like this epigram in yet another airport terminal:
All of this play has led me to think about using geolocative media with my students. Next spring I’m teaching an undergraduate class called “Textual Media,” a vague title that I’ve taken to describing as post-print fiction. My initial idea for using Foursquare was to have students add new venues to the app’s database, with the stipulation that these new venues be Foucauldian “Other Spaces”—parking decks, overpasses, bus depots, etc.—that stand in sharp contrast to the officially sanctioned places on Foursquare (coffee shops, restaurants, bars, etc.). One of the points I’d like to make is that much of our lives are actually spent in these nether-places that are neither here nor there. Tracking our movements in these unglamorous but not unimportant unplaces could be a revelation to my students. It might actually be one of the best uses of geolocation—to defamiliarize our daily surroundings.
I recently participated in a geolocation session at THATCamp that helped me refine some of these ideas. We had about fifteen historians, librarians, archivists, literary scholars, and other humanists at the session. We broke off into groups, with the mission of hacking existing geolocation apps for teaching or learning. I worked with Christa Willaford and Christina Jenkins, and as befits brainstorming about space, we left the windowless room, left the building entirely, and stood out near a small field (that’s not even on the outdated satellite image of the place) and came up with the idea we called Haunts.
Haunts is about the secret stories of spaces.
Haunts is about locative trauma.
Haunts is about the production of what Foucault calls “heterotopias”—a single real place in which incompatible counter-sites are layered upon or juxtaposed against one another.
The general idea behind Haunts is this: students work in teams, visiting various public places and tagging them with fragments of either a real life-inspired or fictional trauma story. Each team will work from an overarching traumatic narrative that they’ve created, but because the place-based tips are limited to text-message-sized bits, the story will emerge only in glimpses and traces, across a series of spaces.
Emerge for whom? For the other teams in the class. But also for random strangers using the apps, who have no idea that they’ve stumbled upon a fictional world augmenting the real one. A fictional world haunting the real one.
There are several twists that make Haunts more than simple place-based creative writing. For starters, most fiction doesn’t require any kind of breadcrumb trail more complicated than sequential page numbers. In Haunts, however, students will need to create clues to act as what Marc Ruppel calls migratory cues—nudging participants from one locale to the next, from one medium to the next. These cues might be suggestive references left in a tip, or perhaps obliquely embedded in a photograph taken at the check-in point. (Most geolocation apps allow photographs to be associated with a place; Foursquare is a holdout in this regard, though third-party services like picplz offer a work-around.)
Another twist subverts the tendency of geolocation apps to reward repeat visits to a single locale. Check in enough times at your coffee shop with Foursquare and you become “mayor” of the place. Haunts disincentivizes multiple visits. Check in too many times at the same place and you become a “ghost.” No longer among the living, you are stuck in a single place, barred from leaving tips anywhere else. Like a ghost, you haunt that space for the rest of the game. It’s a fate players would probably want to avoid, yet players will nonetheless be compelled to revisit destinations, in order to fill in narrative gaps as either writers or readers.
The final twist is that Haunts does not rely only upon Foursquare. All of the geolocative apps have the same core functionality. This means that one team can use Foursquare, while another team uses Gowalla, and yet another Brightkite. Each team will weave parallel yet diverging stories across the same series of spaces. Each Haunt hosts a number of haunts. The narrative and geographic path of a single team’s story should alone be engaging enough to follow, but even more promising is a kind of cross-pollination between haunts, in which each team builds upon one or two shared narrative events, exquisite corpse style. Imagine the same traumatic kernel, being told again and again, from different points of views. Different narrative and geographic points of views. Eventually these multiple paths could be aggregated onto a master narrative—or more likely, a master database—so that Haunts could be seen (if not experienced) in its totality.
There is still much to figure out with Haunts. But I find the project compelling, and even necessary. The endeavor turns a consumer-based model of mobile computing into an authorship-based model. It is a uniquely collaborative activity, but also one that invites individual introspection. It imagines trauma as both private and public, deeply personal yet situated within shared semiotic domains. It operates at the intersection between game and story, between reading and writing, between the real and the virtual. And it might finally make geolocation worth paying attention to.