Maps as Communities
Nov 24, 2008 | Mobile & Web
WHAT IS IT?
I’ve noticed a trend in social media to use maps as a basis for building a sense of community. The founding father of this trend is probably Twittervision, which was launched over a year ago. Its premise is very simple: take the public twitter stream and plot them on Google Maps. Sounds brain dead simple, and possibly stupid, right? Well, I dare you to go and watch it animates the stream of global consciousness, and not be mesmerized by it.
But one data point does not a trend make. This trend only became obviously to me after I played with a recent iphone phenomenon, Smule’s Ocarina. Like twitter, its “function” is very simple: Ocarina turns your iphone into an ancient flute-like instrument, known to most of us as the instrument featured in the fifth game of The Legend of Zelda series .
The music playing aspect of Ocarina is very cool, leveraging the iPhone’s mic as the mouthpiece of the electronic instrument. However, as a terribly non-musical person, it was the game’s social angle that intrigued me the most. It featured the same map based visualization as in Twittervision, and does a superb job of forming an ad hoc community of Ocarina players across the globe.
WHY IS IT RELEVANT?
Both of these apps takes something super simple (140 characters of text and simple MIDI stream) and turn them into a compelling social media application. Putting these simple activities in the context of the world map creates a tremendous sense of the human community, relating strangers across the globe with only lines of text or few musical notes. On Twittervision, for example, it was fascinating to watch how the entire world was tuning into the US presidential election and the well wishes was keenly felt around the globe. The traditional world of print and broadcast media tried to capture the feeling, but it was filtered and summarized, and didn’t capture the moment as well as Twittervision. As for Ocarina, I’m not sure the human race has ever witnessed such musical synchronicity across the world. As the globe spins from one pied piper to another, Ocarina deftly adds a bit of drama to the simplest melody, not unlike the echo of a lone flutist in a large empty concert hall. The effect is that of a solitary and lonesome player in the world, and yet one after another the players come to be heard. It is very poetic and compelling.
One wonders what other type of simple activities can be given the same treatment? Unlike real-time collaborative gaming, the tasks that lend well to this treatment tend to be simple and accessible to a large number of users; beating back legions of zombies is not the right kind of activity. Perhaps tapping out a simple beat with your feet? Whistling? I don’t know exactly where we can take this trend, but I imagine we will see more to come.