Why “Where” Matters: Mobile Media and Urban Experience
by Germaine Halegoua — University of Wisconsin - Madison
February 16, 2010 – 00:20
Mobile phone users have witnessed the launch of services and applications that track their spatial relationship to “friends” via cell phone. Applications like Foursquare, Gowalla, BrightKite, Loopt, Grindr, Google Latitude, and Plazes, take social networking beyond the desktop and map physical location onto pre-existing relationships within ones social network. Some applications award the user with points or virtual loot for exploring their city, and discounts for maintaining ones status as a bar or restaurant regular (not unlike the free cup of coffee rewarded for customer loyalty at a café). Although the radio DJ in this clip misunderstands a few aspects of Foursquare and Gowalla, he raises two critical questions concerning physical location and mobile media: What are we really doing when we engage with these applications? And why does “where” matter in social networking and mobile media?
It is evident how mobile reporting and monitoring of physical location might be useful to companies for marketing and promotion; governments for policy formation and surveillance; overprotective parents for tracking their kids; tourists and residents for locating connections and hotspots. Yet, what do these locative media projects do for a user’s relationship with place?
For centuries, people have understood themselves and those around them through the places they frequent and their interactions with(in) these places. Where you choose to go, when you choose to go there, and how far you’ve traveled to get there says something about you and your position within society. These mobile services reify and display place-based knowledge and experience as a marker of identity, social and cultural capital. In these projects, it is the exploration and discovery of place that also accumulates clout, not merely where one goes.
Similar to previous studies of urban experience and mobile technologies, location-based applications reinforce a personalized relationship to space. However, the personal space of locative media seems distinct from Lynn Spigel’s “privatized mobility”, Michael Bull’s “private bubble”, or Ito, Okabe, and Anderson’s “cocoon” or “encampment”. Instead, locative media projects tend to foster an augmented connection with the city that is screened, but not screened in. Use of these applications may endow the mobile media touting pedestrian with the powerful opportunity to re-consider and re-organize urban spatial and social relations, and their meaning. The annotation of urban space in these projects layer the cityscape for the individual user and their friends. These projects may also rescue the documentation and celebration of the act of "passing by", an act that de Certeau laments is lost when paths of travel are made legible on a map.
To answer the DJ’s question: our connection to place always means something. Internally, we’ve understood why “where” has mattered for years, but it’s possible that we might have to re-learn how to make sense of urban knowledge and experience when it is announced to others via mobile screen.
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