Why “Where” Matters: Mobile Media and Urban Experience

Curator's Note

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. 


 Another interesting column, Germaine, thank you. The range of ways that mobile technologies are now utilised is really coming through this week. The idea of mobile phones tracking our every movement seems to exemplify moves towards recording the minutiae of life that blogs, Facebook and Twitter began - rather than reporting back the big events of a day or week to friends when we see them face to face, they can now see everywhere we've been and read the random thoughts we had throughout the say.This then suggests that identity (and how we use it to construct relationships with other people) is becoming less about an individual choosing to display or hide aspects of their identity. Instead the choice increasingly seems to be to put everything on display and let our selves emerge organically through it.

Obviously individuals can choose not to use these services but I wonder whether these developments encourage a shift in control (for want of a better word) over the public display of self away from the individual and onto the group of observers invited to see them. Whereas before we could keep stuff hidden, now we're encouraged to display it all and let others decide whether they see it or not. I guess my point boils down to whether the developments in this column are part of wider changes in how identity and self are publically presented. 


Thanks for the excellent post.  I think you are right to assert that locative media challenge us to think of new definitions of mobility that acknowledge geography, the technological matrix, and the activity of users.  I especially love your thoughts on the difference of locative media from Ito, Spigel, and Bull.  What my fellow southerner leaves out in the video is that these services are games (or at least game-like). Foursquare treats the city as a game map, with achievements awarded to repeat visitors (much like clearing levels, power ups, and extra lives in video game play).  

I'm also thinking about the ways in which many cities are designed.  Neighborhood haunts off the high/main streets are often most treasured by urban denizens, but these establishments are often only known to those living in a small radius, rendering them more economically vulnerable in an economic downturn.   

I'm wondering if the use of Foursquare, in particular, can be seen as a way to reinscribe the city and mark the particularity (and popularity) of places during an economic recession in which the viability of neighborhood establishment comes under attack.  By making some of these places visible in the network, do we compensate for the "out-of-the-wayness" of these restaurants/bars/venues on the actual map of the neighborhood/city, broadcasting the specialness of a place because we are invested in keeping certain enterprises open and a part of urban experience?  These tools seem designed to make us more invested in our city - a kind of "the city is here for you to use" ethos) that encourages us to participate in the city, to reimagine the city as a space of play.  

Elizabeth and Ben, thanks for your comments and you both raise really interesting points.

Other than the gaming aspect of these applications, another element to keep in mind is that a person's location isn't reported automatically, you usually have to "check in" or upload your physical location. I recently, signed up for a variety of these services and found myself debating whether to check in when I was at my favorite, off the beaten path, places of interest. On one hand, I was eager to promote the business on my social network, yet hesitant to easily impart a knowledge of the city I've worked to garner. So Ben, I think your ideas about making off the grid places visible to support their economic gain, and our "investment" in the city is definitely at play.

Elizabeth's comments about identity performance through social media is something I've been thinking about a lot recently as well. I wonder if Goffman's work on the presentation of self in everyday life particularly in regard to the audience(s) and their access to information, and the variety of material that qualify as props on the front stage might be valuable to revisit in this context. Locative and social media networks and practices tend to expand both elements, and complicate the "stages" Goffman delineates. But before I say more, I'd be interested to hear if others have thoughts on this.

This is a really interesting post, Germaine.  Thank you.

My addition to this conversation is a bit far afield, but tied to comments regarding identity building via social networking. I'd like to throw it out there and see if it sticks.

The consumption of cool in one's everyday non-virtual life and certainly part of one's self-presentation (particularly in urban settings) has been tied to where a person lives, hangs out, dines, and drinks.  I wonder if we can/should think about applications such as these as a kind of virtual gentrification process?  A kind of plugged-in status-building method for experiencing virtually-annotated real space that would exclude those who do not have the technology or knowledge to participate?

Thanks for the post.  It is interesting.  I sometimes compare social networking users’ status or “where I am” and “what I am doing” tweets with instant messaging (IM) “away message.”  Baron et al. found that the away message in IM enables users to establish a continuing sense of social “presence.”  Grinter et al. found teens use away message to explain their communication absences and made use of away messages to “fill in” their absences by explaining more about where they were and what they are doing at the time.  The mobile media provide the direct contact with people.    However, the location-based mobile media could help users to maintain the “perpetual contact” without texting or making calls.

I don’t have data to learn the motivations why mobile media users share their locations and their business with their social network.  I do have some informal interviews with a few American college students.  They told me “it is fun to share” with many friends at the same time.  And, some Taiwanese business people have told me that they would like to share where they are and what they are doing with their closed friends and family members because they “don’t always available to make a phone conversation.”


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