Archive for August, 2011

The Place of Space: what makes Google+ location features unique

Posted in research on August 15th, 2011 by Xiaochang Li – 2 Comments

A few weeks ago, on a whim, I tagged a public Google+ post with my location. I did it as a personal documentation measure, so that I could go back and remember where I took the photo of the pneumatic tube system from the 1950s that I thought my media history-inclined friend would get a kick out of. But something unexpected happened: a complete stranger, having found my post using the “public/nearby” feature, commented on my post, sharing his memories and experience how the tubes were used. A week later, after I posted about a surreal bike accident, people in the neighborhood where it happened commented alongside my friends to wish me well. Looking online, I saw numerous descriptions of similar uses and it got me thinking about what makes the experience Google’s Public/Nearby feature so different from those of Twitter and Foursquare (I don’t really actively use Facebook at all, so I can’t comment on Places).

You Are Here (1968) by John Lennon

You Are Here (1968) by John Lennon

Part of the difference, of course, is the publicness of the content in Public/Nearby. My “shouts” on Foursquare are viewable only to my friends (unless shared through Twitter or Facebook). My location-tagged content on Twitter, while potentially public, is accessible if you’re looking at my feed, making the information very much personal in that sense.

Twitter and Google+ share the fact that you append location to content, rather than appending content to location, as with Foursquare. In that sense, Google+ and Twitter are primarily organized around people rather than places*. For Twitter, however, location is an added layer of data on a piece of content, but it is isn’t an organizing factor. So, if you look at your friend’s location-enable tweet, you can see where they were when they shared that information. However, you can’t see all tweets from your follow-list that have been shared in a given location. The location of tweets gives more information, but it doesn’t change how that information is encountered.

For both Foursquare and Google+, on the other hand, location can be a primary organizing structure for accessing, sharing, and classifying information. However, in Foursquare, the definition of “location” is based on defined venues, however flexible the spatial parameters around those venues might be (consider the many “moving target” check-ins to extreme weather conditions). If you’re sitting in a cafe, you might look at the public information associated with the cafe, or the cafe counter, or that neighborhood, or the nearby park, or a cab driving by, but you cannot see it all the information within the area around your position.

What makes Google+’s location features unique is the fluidity of the role of location data. It can, like twitter, be another layer of information about a post, but it can also, like Foursquare, serve as the organizing structure for accessing and producing information. But unlike Foursquare, if you hit the “public/nearby” feature in Google+, you get all the information shared publicly in a given area around your position. In sharing information, it’s structure of appending location data to content encourages more user-focused content, in the manner of Twitter. However, in allowing location to also be an organizing factor Public/Nearby uses place as a means to access information like Foursquare. To put it overly simplistically, it feels as if Twitter uses people or organize information about people, Foursquare uses place to organize information about place, and Google+’s Public/Nearby feature uses place to organize information about people.

Another potentially interesting, but far more difficult to untangle distinction, emerges if we think (very broadly) about space versus place. I don’t want to get into the complexities and nuances of the space/place relationship, but for the purposes of this post think of spaces as generally a geographical area and place as a specific space imbued with value and meaning that is, as Marc Augé defines it, “relational, historical and concerned with identity.” In that sense, whereas Foursquare emphasizes not only places, but particular places (given their policy of regulating “duplicate” venues), Google+ is more spatially-inflected, grouping information in relation to a given geographical parameter regardless of the boundaries and definitions of the places within it. But the space of Google+ nearby/public is not an undifferentiated space, but a position-specific one full of information and discourse. In that sense, we might think of it as a placed space — defined by the physical area but articulated as “relational, historical and concerned with identity.” Again, this doesn’t go anywhere near the complexity of space/place relations, nor does it take into account the technological functions of how Google+’s GPS system determines spatial parameters. Just some beginning observations on how different technologies shape our encounters of/in spaces and places.

I’m also curious if there’s other location-based services that address/define spaces and places in different ways, so would love to hear about your ideas and experiences.

*At least, in how I use Foursquare. As with Twitter or any other platform, different groups and individuals may use the tools in different ways, resulting in different experiences.

An Academic in Industry: 5 lessons from my year (or so) in “the real world”

Posted in Uncategorized on August 12th, 2011 by Xiaochang Li – Be the first to comment

As many of you may already know, I recently left my job at Weber Shandwick in order to pursue my PhD in the fall in the department of Media, Culture and Communication at NYU. I was with Weber for a little over a year, during which I had the unique fortune of learning from and working alongside some of the smartest, most capable, and most supportive people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. And this latest transition, along with inquiries from friends and colleagues on the more academic side of things, has me thinking about what I learned, the things that surprised me, the things that will be valuable lessons to keep in mind as I head back into the academic world. On obvious caveat before I start: I’m at the very beginning of both my academic and non-academic career trajectories, so I don’t claim to be a seasoned expert in either arena. There are, no doubt, things that my current perspective doesn’t take into account.

Navigating the perilous maze of corporate america

Philosophy isn’t Strategy – When I was a researcher at the Convergence Culture Consortium, I had naively imagined that what we did was high-level strategy. I still absolutely stand behind the value of what we produced with that project, but their usuability as strategic guides were limited. In carrying campaign strategies through the execution, I was able to get visibility into far more complex sets of factors than I could have imagined. To generate “strategy” without knowledge of the execution process is like trying to plan a war without knowing the terrain. In that sense, the work we did at C3 (and, perhaps arguably, any “purely strategic” thinking projects) is important foundational knowledge to help orient your approach, but it’s ultimately a philosophy, not something you can take with you to battle.

Smaller isn’t always better – The thing that people always warned me against when I first set out to get an industry job was to not join a big company. Find a boutique, creative shop they said. You’ll be happier/do more innovative and interesting things. Big companies are dinosaurs, on the verge of extinction, out of touch. And, of course, I didn’t listen to any of that advice, and joined one of the largest PR firms in the world. And my logic was simple – even if, at the end of the day, I would eventually prefer to work someplace more independent, it doesn’t change the fact that I will probably have to do business with people who work in big corporations, and I need first hand understanding of what that means, and what their concerns and objectives are. But even more importantly, I think working the a company with the kind of scale and reach that Weber Shandwick has let me work on projects that were below sea-level, as it were. That is to say, the cool, fun stuff is the visible shiny bit, and yes, often smaller companies are better structured to execute that more quickly and nimbly, but they also don’t have the resources (or trust) to handle the far less glamorous, far more difficult work of shifting the business. I’m certainly not a proponent of big business, either ideologically or functionally, but I do feel that working in a larger company, at least in the short term, has given me far more visibility and insight into how this industry really functions.

Being Smart (or “Right”) isn’t the same as being effective - I once helped organize a panel on the unique challenges and opportunities of working across the Academy-Industry divide. One of the more contentions moments erupted when an industry rep said that sometimes, they look to the academy for 3rd party validation, to which an academic rep, offended, suggested that academics might not want to play yes-men. That exchange makes much more sense now that I understand a fundamental, but utterly unintuitive, difference between the two worlds: in the academy an idea’s value is based on its complexity and accuracy, in industry an idea’s value is based on its actionability and efficacy. Or, to put it another way, academia is ultimately an independent enterprise and your success begins and ends with your intellect and capacity (more or less). Not to say that industry doesn’t value or reward intelligence (though it’s a less certain bet), but outside academia, there are so many more factors and objectives between your idea and the end product that require very different skillsets to manage and the most useful ones are the ones that get things done. There’s just a different value criteria at work, and it helps to check your ego and assess what that criteria involves before you make judgements. What was really refreshing about Weber was the number of female role models there, women who were smart and effective, and handled the negotiation between the two while remaining incredibly accessible and pleasant.

You don’t have to take it so personally - Probably one of the most valuable skills that I learned (but far from perfected) was being able to separate myself from my work. One of academia’s great perils is that, like producing art, your work often gets so tied up with who you are that setbacks and frustrations can wreck all manner of emotional havoc, which in turn makes it that much more impossible to get any further work done, which of course will put you even more in a tailspin and then make everything that much more insurmountable. The cycle is barbaric. The sort of fundamental separation (dare I say, alienation) you have from the fruits of your labor in a corporate setting, while problematic in other ways, can be really valuable in teaching some perspective. While not necessarily less stressful (I lost plenty of sleep to client-related anxieties), that stress is nevertheless not quite as epic, not quite as existential in nature. It’s contained in the project, it’s a part of the work, and as much as you put of yourself into it, there’s something liberating in knowing that it can never be yours. That no matter how frustrated and daunting it gets, you have that backdoor, that moment where you can say, it doesn’t matter, let’s just get it done. At the end of the day, having my work be my work is really important to me, and it’s what drew me back to the academic world, but I feel more equipped now to handle the anxieties that can cripple productivity because even if it’s not quite as easy to decathect from your own research, I know at least that it can be done.

Ask Yourself the Right Question - I think, ultimately, the most important thing I learned was that I was asking myself the wrong thing going into industry. I thought the questions I was trying to answer were “can I do this? Will I enjoy it?” and to a certain extent, I did answer them (yes on both counts). But the questions that ended up mattering more, at least in the short term, was “could someone else do this? And is there something else I need to do?” And it was yes on both those counts too, which is why I’m heading back into research. Not because I didn’t like my work, but because I did. I enjoyed my work and still feel that there’s other work that needs to be done that my specific talents and inclinations are suited for, at least for now.

Ultimately, though, I hope to see a little more fluidity between the two worlds. The academy could benefit from more visibility into the day-to-day processes of the industries they analyze and critique. Industry could benefit from the kind of deep, nuanced thinking afforded to those of us who don’t have deadlines and earnings objectives.