Before joining AREA 17 two years ago I spent a year and a half trying to get my startup, justmap.it, off the ground. I wanted to create a simple app where people could log and share places. And while it’s been a grind, I’ve pushed forward and will be releasing a new, much more polished version soon. Maps and places continue to intrigue me and seem to always find a way into all of my work.
Places are choices
Humans are physical creatures. Throughout our days, we travel from place to place, leaving our homes in the morning to go to work, sometimes stopping along the way for a coffee or croissant. We have lunch or order food from restaurants we enjoy, go out for a beer at a bar we feel comfortable in, go listen to music in venues we love. All this is the result of an ongoing process of curation, of constant iteration — trying, testing, and failing until we find places we like. And when we do, these places become a part of our lives. Part of our identity.
Taken as a whole, these places have a lot to say about who we are. They paint a vivid portrait of our physical existence by providing insight into establishments we enjoy and neighborhoods we gravitate towards. We live in a world increasingly driven by technology, one where multiple screens compete for our attention, slowly eroding our offline social interactions as those exchanges move online.
But online interactions, for all their differences, remain quite familiar. They still need some content around which to spark some dialogue — a song to comment on or to react to, an article to discuss, or a photo shared with your peers. Creating that content forces concise communication around which these social exchanges take place. Therefore, the most successful apps are often the simplest ones to use: Instagram, Twitter, Foursquare. Instagram is so good because it allows you to take a picture, make it look great, and share in three clicks. Twitter, Foursquare, Vine, all these start by defining a content piece (photo, video, location, thought) which is simple enough to create quickly.
Maps’ time has come
Until fairly recently, painting the geographic picture of a person’s life was a very complex enterprise, hence not as widespread an endeavor. You’d start by manually creating a map, adding and removing each place individually; a tedious task reserved for the most advanced users.
Luckily, most of the content we now create is geo-tagged, or has the option to be. This mass of data, however, is too often visible only from within the platform where it was created. This provides a limited view, one where content is presented together because of its nature (video, photograph, article, thought) not because it is bound by a common story. The next logical step is to “liberate” this content — to bring together all the pieces that contribute to a given storyline and place them together on one canvas: the map.
Places reflect who we are. And when put together that geography provides an intimate depiction of ourselves. A month or year of places visited will paint a sort of sphere of influence of a person, you’ll see where one gravitates, which neighborhood or areas are frequented and at what time of the day. Williamsburg for work and lunch; Greenpoint on weeknights; Bushwich or the Lower East Side on weekend nights. Places taken one by one are interesting. Places lumped altogether paint a fascinating portrait of a person.
Not a lot, if any, interactive experiences offer this compelling of a portrait. We have ways of seeing what others see, hearing what they hear, reading what they think, but no way to look at each other from a bird’s eye view, seeing how each and every one of us interacts with our physical environment over the long term.
What’s a perfect Saturday morning for you? Where do you go? Why do you appreciate it? I think of taking my bike, in the morning sun of Greenpoint, and slowly riding down Franklin avenue, observing the city wake-up. Then I’ll venture into Williamsburg and hope that Cafe Colette has a table in the sun where a simple espresso will make me the happiest man on Earth.
Now I’m not saying justmap.it does that — very far from it actually — but that’s the intent. Bringing together these micro-experiences that one might not think twice about on to a bigger canvas and painting a true picture of who we are in all our different colors and incredible variations. As with everything, it’s often the details that reveal the true beauty of a friend, family-member, or loved-one. Places are those details, the connective thread that makes up our lives. Now that’s exciting.