By Xiaochang Li | August 15, 2011
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).
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 in overly simple terms, it feels as if Twitter uses people to 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.