From Friendster to Thingster

My twin distractions this afternoon have been Friendster
and Thingster, two different
kinds of social networking applications that I hadn’t tried before.

Andrew invited me to join Friendster and once I signed up, I wasted part of
the afternoon figuring out how it worked and browsing through the gallery. It
definitely weaves a sticky network; once I started exploring, I found it hard
to stop.

Once I tore myself away from Friendster, I free associated a bit on the name,
which led me to visit a site I’d run across a couple days ago: the www.thingster.org.
I signed up and spent some time finding out how it works. It seems to be somewhat
early in its development, but the concepts
behind it
are exciting:

"Thingster is an open-source weblogging service for locative media.
It is being developed by Anselm Hook, Tom Longson and Brad Degraf in association
with Locative – a multi-disciplinary group of theorists, artists and engineers
exploring the implications of attaching information to place.

Users can publish ‘virtual post it notes’ about any geographic location:
a street intersection, a street address, a restaurant, a hiking trail or a
geocache."

What I found particularly exciting was the connections it made with the care
of actual places:

"The reward or ‘exit strategy’ for a project like Thingster is social
and environmental. The hope is to enrich neighborhoods such that it becomes
easy to discover local services at a lower cost and to create additional environmental
awareness."

In fact, the authors take as their starting point the reality of a worldwide
environmental crisis, and they identify with the central question the project
is trying to wrestle with:

"How can we shift our ethical foundations from one of simply protecting
human life to one of protecting biodiversity as well?"

At first glance, this seems like this is an odd starting point for a social
software software experiment, but it makes more sense when viewed in relationship
to a few of their other core assumptions:

  • Our generation is shifting towards an age of ‘always-on’ always-logged’
    media where people of all ages are able to publish and share information about
    themselves, events that are happening, places and things of interest.
  • 80 percent of human knowledge is about location. The way we think, the metaphors
    we use, our needs and values all come from our fundamental embodiment in the
    physical world.
  • We are being deluged by a huge volume of digital ephemera. Capturing, organizing
    and publishing digital information is hard.

In their vision, geographically-oriented social software may play a role in
addressing the complex environmental problems we face and helping overcome the
fractiousness and disunity among the many like-minded interest groups.

"Emerging grass-roots tools for sharing geographic information have
a particular value. Such tools provide individuals with a way to share their
own view of the world – not a corporate, orthodox or official view with all
of the rough edges removed.

Grass-roots cartography – as it continues to evolve – has the potential
to let individuals understand their surroundings in depth; to see the web
of social, economic and environmental issues that tie their community together."

This is exciting to me because it intersects directly with a question I’ve
been wresting with lately:

In the context of globalization, does the web provide us with a certain
kind of local knowledge without which we cannot fully understand our local places?
In other words, can we fully know where we are without the web?

Of course, this does not in any way suggest that online technologies and networked
communications could ever become our sole source of local knowledge. However,
I do think that because there is no place that is touched by globalization,
we need to use the Internet–arguable one of the primary media of globalization–to
understand how every experience of the local is now shaped by global forces,
often in ways we cannot see or understand very easily.

All of this raises many questions that those interested locative media and
blogging need to address. For instance, consider the following paragraph:

Tools are not there yet but are improving. As they improve individuals will
have more power, awareness and hopefully wisdom. Member communities as a whole
may then wiser as well; better stewarding their resources. A communities knowledge
could be handed as a gift to each successive generation.

How does community knowledge on the web really get passed on to the next generation
when the medium changes so quickly? Are blogs really going to be on the web
for generations to come? Most of them barely survive a year or two before disappearing
into the cyberether. It seems to me that the very speed and ease of social software
which allows users to create and share local knowledge may also threaten the
sustainability of that knowledge. Is it possible that local knowledge created
on online will find ways to live offline, beyond the medium that gave birth?

These are just some initial reactions to thingster. I’m looking forward to
exploring the topic more, hopefully in a dissertation chapter.

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