My back pages: Whatever happened to serendipity?

Originally published 03 July 2003 on my old v-2.org site, this piece transcribes my talk closing out the First International Moblogging Conference, an event that Nurri and I and some Tokyo friends organized and one ahead of its time if ever anything was. (Everyone involved: take a moment to pat yourselves on the back.) But for some now-dated language and examples, I’m astonished by how well the talk holds up as a discussion of the terrain where people, place, and networked devices intersect. Hope you enjoy it.

We’re here today to talk about moblogging, and the interesting thing about moblogging is that everyone has a slightly different take on just what that word means.

When we were putting together the agenda for this conference, we very deliberately did not say, well, this is moblogging and that is not. We wanted to cast a wide net, and the result is the diversity of presentations we’ve seen today, from GPS-based shared photo albums to phone-to-Web hacks. This sort of agnosticism is exactly what is needed at this point in the evolution of any technology and associated practice: let a hundred flowers bloom, and all that.

But personally, I’ll confess that I’ve always had a more specific definition in mind. I think moblogs are what happen at the intersection of…

people,
place,
and
information,

…and I think they spontaneously arise almost immediately, any time a means exists to harness these three ingredients together.

Here’s what I wrote about it last November: “Take a look at HipTop Nation for a compelling glance at the future-becoming-present in real time: this is what happens when you fuse digital cameras and text-entry functionality with a way to publish it to the Web.” (Emphasis added subsequently.)

My guess was that as soon as the technical and infrastructural wherewithal appeared, people would just naturally figure it out. They’d probe the possibilities afforded them by this particular combination of features, and the first to explore would do so whether they knew or particularly cared that they were so far out in front of the pack.

And as it turned out, that’s just what happened. We’ve met some of them here today, on our Earliest Adopters panel – for example, when I first discussed it with her, Mie Kennedy told me that she had no idea that there was anything particularly revolutionary about her site, tokyotidbits.com.

And she’s not being disingenuous, either. Without wanting to take anything away from her, she was simply doing what just about any observant, curious human being equipped with this technology would get around to doing sooner or later. This is my house, this is my neighborhood, this is my best friend, this is where we hung out last night: this is, in short, any feature of my world that I find interesting or inspiring or worthy of comment.

Well. Not merely is this interesting technically – and you’re truly jaded if you regard the act of entering textual and graphic content on a handheld, mobile telephone set, and making it available to anyone on the planet equipped with a Web browser, seconds later, as anything short of a practical miracle – but it’s fascinating in how it recapitulates the history of weblogs themselves.

ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny yet again

If you think about Mie’s pictures as links to places, this becomes more obvious. The first weblogs – we know them now as blogs, but of course they weren’t called that until someone came along to so dub them – were more or less unadorned lists of links of interest. We have someone in the house today – Justin Hall – who’s been posting more or less continuously since that era. This is made plain by the name of his site, links.net.

But the evolution that Justin’s site went through presaged and prepared the way for what’s about to happen with moblogs, and that’s what I want to spend the lion’s share of my time remaining here today discussing.

Like Justin’s, some of the earliest personal sites were logs of notable destinations and interesting places someone had discovered, strewn throughout the endless, mapless reaches of what was then a largely unexplored wilderness. This was necessary because it was frequently difficult to know what was out there, and such directories, portals and search engines as existed at the time did not do a very good job of bringing coherence to the profusion of options on offer.

Critically, they lacked the point of view, human voice, or organizing curatorial intelligence that might have given shape and direction to this amorphous mess. See, we humans seem to need that sort of thing, and that’s what the fledgling blogs excelled at – in my book, one of two main reasons for their rapid uptake and spread as a cultural practice, the other being their vanishingly small cost of entry.

Some of them were nothing but point of view, and eventually gave rise to a whole tradition of blogging – a perfectly valid tradition, mind you – that’s about nothing more, or less, than one person’s experiences and opinions. There are literally millions of personal sites, each with its own idiolect and narrative rhythm, but the apotheosis of this tendency, at least so far, is the post-September 11th school of commentary known as warblogs. As far as I can tell – I tend to shy away from the anger and the spleen – warblogging is less about linking to anything in particular, and more a general expression of frustration and rage.

But there remains another clade of blogs, a hybrid lineage, which exists not merely to serve up a constant stream of linked discoveries for its audience’s perusal, but to afford commentary on them. Perhaps the best-known site of this type is MetaFilter, a blogging community I am proud to say I contribute to in some small wise. The community ethos at MetaFilter is this: find something new and interesting to post about, and then comment on it to your heart’s content.

Sometimes these conversations go on for literally weeks, far removed in time and thrust from the link which nominally inspired them, but one consistent feature of MetaFilter is that the tenor of the discussion tends (I said tends) toward the civil, reasonable, and adult. By spurring the development of its own organic community, to say nothing of getting a great deal more traffic daily than the vast majority of the sites linked from it, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that it is the collective voice of the site itself that is the true novelty and object of desire.

I think we’ll see examples of all of these traditions popping up in the mobile context, people using their phones or other devices: simply to document the people, things and places of interest they encounter; as a particularly convenient way to record and offer their personal thoughts and opinions; and as a springboard to communal discovery and discussion.

But those are just the conceptual armatures, the endoskeletons around which in the fullness of time (i.e., the next year or so) will grow the really interesting, and enduringly valuable, features of moblogging.

moblogs and cities

True confessions time: I don’t particularly care about moblogging per se. My absorbing and enduring interest, going back to my fascination with the Situationists, and my childhood experiences before that, is in cities and how they’re citied by the human beings and other inhabitants (vehicles, animals, microbes, memes) in their interactions with them. My interest in moblogging, then, is that whether done via phone, PDA or some other platform, it looks like the best candidate yet for that long-awaited grail, the “remote control for your life,” and most especially if that life is urban in nature.

Remember: people, place and information. In the context of the city, that means “last night I went to a restaurant in Aoyama called Café Eight, and they make amazing bread daily, and they’re one of the pitifully few places in Tokyo you can get good vegetarian food and organic beer, and I think you ought to check it out.” That’s the foundation. Now layer over that all the paraphernalia that is certain to come along.

Paraphernalia? Consider: here’s a brief list of some evolutionary elaborations that Web sites have sprouted since the bare-list-of-links days.

- Comments: Direct audience response, anonymous or attributed.
Trackback: “Here’s what other people are saying about this at site X.”
GPS tagging and other location-based metadata: “This entry was published from 38 degrees 17 minutes 11 seconds North by 130 degrees 42 minutes 37 seconds East.”
Faceted classification: “View records by Place, Date, Language, Rating, Category, Author…”
– Amazon-style collaborative filtering: “Others who rated Café Eight highly also liked the following restaurants/books/music:”
– Slashdot-style reputation management: “This entry has an average rating of +4 Useful, and has been rated by 271 users.”

There is no reason on earth why these features cannot be applied to mobile publishing. Now imagine for a moment that the city is overlayered with a palimpsest of user-created tags, and everyone in the city over the age of five has a cheap, easy-to-use device that affords publishing, browsing, searching and filtering from among same.

What does it look like when you can stand in a given location, press a single button on this device, and avail yourself of the collective experience of everyone else who’s occupied that same spot?

“Do NOT use this bus stop – no fewer than three of my friends have been mugged here over the last year. If you must use it, be sure and stand on the south side [picture], where the light from the bodega reaches.”

“I love this magazine stand!!! Lots of cute ppl, you can always get hard to find stuff like French Vogue, and there’s a soup bar around the corner which serves tasty minestrone. (+1 Mildly Informative, rated by 21 users.)”

“This is the car that hit her – this happened right here last night (corner of Geary and Divisadero), at 9:31. Sorry it’s so blurry, but I took the picture with my phone. If anyone has any information on this car or its driver, please mail me, or call SFPD Sergeant Bill Fong at 555-1212. Jill is OK, but she won’t be running anywhere for awhile.”

“i saw david beckham at the Shinjuku tsutaya about half an hour ago, third fl. He looked fashed but then again I would too. anyway I rented Donnie darko cuz the cover looked cool, but haven’t watched it yet. Is it any good.”

“You’re on the corner of Washington and Greene facing southeast. In front of you is what is now NYU’s Main building. Now look up – you’re looking at the site of the worst fire in the history of New York City. On March 25th, 1911, 146 women doing textile piecework burned to death inside of fifteen minutes because the bosses had locked the doors on them.”

And all of this content bound to the place that inspired it! When location is the natural interface to such content, what you get is a sort of bottom-up, distributed GIS database. What is this if not the ultimate Zagat’s, the ultimate Village Voice apartment listings, the ultimate Time Out and Moviefone and police blotter all rolled into one?

If for three thousand years we’ve relied on rumor and reputation, custom and external data stores and never least explicit signage to organize our urban experiences, the advent of latent, user-generated, unedited, location-based content is something that has the potential to change the way humans do cities, change it utterly and in short order.

And if your primary involvement is commercial, fear not: “m-commerce,” presently so vaporous and sketchy, becomes a much more viable proposition, although perhaps not quite in the way its boosters envision.

Among other things, a robust urban moblogging culture means instant buzz around sales, niche or specialty items, one-time events.

It demolishes the idea of empty taxis cruising the boulevards at random, or waiting in redundant queues at the train station – a user can just post a request to be picked up phrased as time and present coordinates, and wait for the closest response.

It allows newly self-aware communities of taste or of practice to spring up around, and nurture, just about any location that supports a specific activity. A bar devoted solely to Guinness Stout. A documentary-only cinematheque. A monthly salon for cross-dressing Republicans. Any of these might have existed before moblogging, but finding them and participating in them will be immeasurably easier when the information is generated by real people, tied to place, and cast out there onto the mobile Web for anyone and all. People, place and information: any scenario that derives its power from the combination of these elements is moblogging too.

There’s a lot that remains to be worked out before such a vision can come to pass. Particularly, the user interface of mobile devices remains woefully inadequate, by and large: text-entry by thumb is punitive, the legibility of text is atrocious, and poorly-labeled and multimodal buttons coupled to obscure functionality is nothing short of an insult to the user. So ease of use is definitely something that will have to be addressed, with the needs and desires and predilections of real human users taken seriously into account (for once) before the real mass-adoption curve can happen.

And finally, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t try to get out ahead of what we’re talking about here, to question and problematize it. Right now, in this room we’re all sort of moblogging enthusiasts and promoters and pushers, but the title of this speech refers to the passing of serendipity, and that’s something I do worry about.

Because, as my friend and comrade Fabio Sergio reminds us, in this world where we’re all issued the keys to the city as soon as we’re old enough to grasp a palm-sized device, there’s precious little room for accident. There’s not much incentive to go offline and stumble around blindly, regardless of the intangible benefits that may accrue to those who do so. And the self-selection gradient that results in streets that are known for diamond merchants and neighborhoods that are devoted to consumer electronics – in short, the frequently-ungentle osmosis that has shaped our gathering places for centuries, for better and just as often for worse – only becomes reinforced.

instant gratification and its discontents

When I was sixteen, punk rock music meant the world and more to me, and in the Philadelphia I lived in at the time, there was only one reliable source for the records I craved, a shop called Third Street Jazz. As the name implies, the store was on Third Street – far from any location self-consciously identified with punk rock or youth subculture, like South Street – and devoted not to the music I favored but to an older and less raucous rebellion against mainstream taste.

As I remember it, the only punk rock to be found in the city, with any consistency, was the vaguely damp Minor Threat and Avengers and Stiff Little Fingers records found stacked in two milk crates, literally in the concrete dust on the floor in the back of the basement. There was no way you would know that these records were there if you didn’t have a friend (who had heard from her friend whose older brother worked in the store…) who had hipped you to the possibility of their existence.

That is, the records weren’t RFID-tagged, GPS-traced, search-engine-indexed, metadata-enhanced and rated by hundreds of prior users. You couldn’t simply be struck by a taste for thrash as you were walking down the street, key in a request and have the answer served to you in milliseconds, complete with map. These tenuous trails to knowledge were something one acquired by happenstance, nurtured through their contingency, cursed in their failure and cherished when they finally came good.

Was it a pain in the ass? Sure. Did I suffer through all that and still occasionally waste my precious few dollars on something wretched because I knew nothing of it other than that it had wound up in that golden crate alongside all the others? Of course. But at the risk of sounding like an old man, this ritual – make no mistake, that’s what it was – invested the purchase with meaning and value for me, and I despair at a world that doesn’t at least offer the possibility of similar adventures to its inhabitants.

Yes, I suppose you could always switch the thing off, leave it behind, deliberately “forget” it. But when you’ve lived your entire life through the intercession of a mobile and benevolent Delphi, is that realistically an option? I suppose we’ll find out.

At any rate, these are some prospects for this exciting practice, this experiment in people and place and information that is still so evidently in its infancy. With any luck, some of the conversations that have begun or continued or evolved in this room today will contribute to shaping its course, will help us manifest the benefits and account for, if not avoid entirely, the pitfalls that we’re sure to encounter as mobile Web publishing becomes more and more an everyday, universal practice.

I thank you for your time, your interest, your voices and your efforts. Let’s see what becomes of this.

9 responses to “My back pages: Whatever happened to serendipity?”

  1. Boris says :

    “Let’s see what becomes of this.”
    Isn’t it amazing? :)
    (awesome example: Flickr Aaron + Dan’s area shapefiles derived from geo-coords and place name tags: http://c8l.ca/4n )

    Tangentially, thank you Adam for having invited me back then, and also to all the people who were part of it, organizers and attendees, whom I met at this marvelous intersection for the first time, and many of whom to this day are some of my truly dearest friends *and* esteemed colleagues. (I was standing in Super Deluxe just last night with Paul, after an earlier lunch with Gen. The memories always come back.)

  2. cataspanglish says :

    “My absorbing and enduring interest, going back to my fascination with the Situationists, and my childhood experiences before that, is in cities and how they’re citied by the human beings and other inhabitants (vehicles, animals, microbes, memes) in their interactions with them.”

    “Was it a pain in the ass? Sure. Did I suffer through all that and still occasionally waste my precious few dollars on something wretched because I knew nothing of it other than that it had wound up in that golden crate alongside all the others? Of course. But at the risk of sounding like an old man, this ritual – make no mistake, that’s what it was – invested the purchase with meaning and value for me, and I despair at a world that doesn’t at least offer the possibility of similar adventures to its inhabitants.”

    Maybe it’s because it’s Hallowe’en or there’s some other esoteric reason but it’s eerie to see words written by another being that so accurately mirror my thoughts. Coming across the Situationists was like finding THE node, the one that brought together and destroyed all the others. Even hanging out with the last remnants of the London Situs didn’t change that.
    And I’m glad to see that someone else feels like an old man in the face of the loss of innocent discovery – even at the same time as enthusing over the endless possibilities of what is to come.

  3. AG says :

    Heh. Check this out – you’ll dig it.

  4. cataspanglish says :

    Hey, I’ve actually MET female situationists

  5. mike says :

    “Take a look at HipTop Nation…”

    Oh, please don’t.

  6. Ida says :

    Hi Adam. EthanZ referred me to this blog post after I shared some thoughts with him on a talk he gave at my school. I find this post charming in it’s exuberance and intellectual honesty. The function of early blogs as lists of links composed by individuals seems strikingly similar to the social information that go you to the pile of punk rock records in the random music store. The only way to penetrate the dark masses of information is socially. I share your concern in creating systems that over-mediate to the determent of social interaction.

    I hope there will always be those informal paths that some prefer and those formal paths that others will be very reluctant to deviate from. The system will just keep shifting, right? To say ‘the systems will just keep shifting’ perhaps underestimates the work needed to make those shifts. It’s like we are all still executing the experiments that the Situaitonist left for us.

    What’s at stake is the human element, right? How much does mediation propel one toward interacting with others and how much does it allow one to retreat and maintain distance. But how does location based digital information somehow evoke a concern for this differently than the early internet did, when the people we were connecting were physically removed for one another, as well as emotionally and intellectually? I’m struggling for the right Walter Benjamin quote…

    This was a fantastic read. Thanks! Hope the project is going well.

  7. AG says :

    Hey Ida, I fixed your link. I’ll have a look at your piece when I’ve had some coffee and let you know what I think.

    Say hi to Ethan for me!

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  1. Our digital senses at Alper.nl - 5 November 2008
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