The Internet has fallen in love with place.
From wildly popular Instagrammers like the photographer behind Humans of New York, to globe-trotters leaving digital travel notes on the story-sharing site Findery, to cloud-based services that help brands pitch themselves through location-based storytelling, the digital masses have discovered the thrill of writing about where theyre at.
With social media applications that let us share real-time stories about places we love, live or linger in, users are adding a new layer of intimacy to their online experience while tapping into their inner raconteur.
Our increased sense of isolation that technology has helped create is making the physical reality of place that much more important, said Silicon Valley author Andy Smith, who has written about using social media to create good in the world. This trend of telling and sharing stories from real places is like a counterbalance to the placelessness of our online world.
The irony is rich: While we increasingly inhabit an online world that seems to be both everywhere and nowhere, were using the same technology to celebrate actually being somewhere.
Theres a new appreciation for the here and now, said Caterina Fake, the co-founder of Flickr whose new startup, San Francisco-based Findery, links people around the world by letting them share notes, or mini-dispatches, from wherever they are. Whats more and more important to people is the place theyre actually standing in right now. What is it about this place, versus some other, thats special? Thats what people are telling stories about.
Tapping into a basic human instinct to share location-based experiences, whether its a meal at a taco joint in California or a Buddhist ceremony at a shrine in Sri Lanka, entrepreneurs have unleashed a steady stream of websites, in-the-cloud mapping services, and mobile apps we can use anywhere we go.
Many are commerce-driven, as retailers and other businesses use crowd-sourced storytelling as a marketing tool to sell us Colombia-grown coffee beans and Colorado ski resorts. Others are products of someones passion, like Placing Literature, a crowd-sourced website that maps out scenes from novels in real locations. Zoom in on the map of North Oakland, Calif., then click on a little black book icon to read about a scene from Michael Chabons Telegraph Avenue, where Archy is seeing Elsabet Getachwe, daughter of the proprietor, and is later confronted by his wife while he is sitting in a booth talking to Elsabet. The scenes location is, as the contributors note points out, the real location of Asmara restaurant.
The common thread among all of these tools is simple: to harness technology to capture and share the narrative of a place. And its a practice that resonates with our mobile society.
One of the more prominent online narrators is Brandon Stanton, a former bond trader-turned street photographer whose photos and mini-stories of New York City residents on the Instagram site Humans of New York have become a sensation. Roaming the city with his camera, Stanton snaps a photo, then asks a question of the stranger before him, spurring answers that run from whimsical to heartbreaking. In the process, his mini-profiles offer followers a richly textured portrait of Manhattan and the human spirit that fills it to overflowing.
It is the way this arsenal of new digital tools magically connects us through the word descriptions and images of a shared place that Finderys content manager, Amanda Law, finds so powerfully beguiling.
Being able to share these stories online really humanizes technology for me, she said, adding that narrative tools can make a place come alive online, and in the process kindle an instant connection between storyteller and reader. On her site, said Law, you have all these people leaving notes about places theyve been, and because weve been sharing these little stories, when I meet some of them in person I feel like Im meeting a long-lost friend.