Monday, October 19, 2009

Now who's holding the mirror?

The NYT ran a story yesterday about a new social media platform called Foursquare. Jenna Wortham reports:
A combination of friend-finder, city guide and competitive bar game, Foursquare lets users “check in” with a cellphone at a bar, restaurant or art gallery. That alerts their friends to their current location so they can drop by and say hello.
Read the rest here.

As soon as I got to the last sentence I did two things: I immediately joined.

And then thought about joining.

Foursquare, it occurred to me as I looked at the site, is like Meetup but less lame, like Latitude but less stalkerish, like Yelp but (hopefully -- too soon to tell) less gushy. You're somewhere fun, you "shout" your whereabouts, and people in your network, aka your friends, can show up. Plus there's a whole "game" component -- you compete with other members and gain status by going to places frequently. Sounds like silly, harmless fun.

But there's something about the idea that's monumental.

Let's take a step back and think about a question we lit nerds like to ponder. "What's the relationship between art and life?" Erich Auerbach wrote some essays on the subject of imitation (named, mimetically, Mimesis) that pretty much helped found the field of comparative literature. Long before him, humans have been wondering: does art hold up the mirror to nature, or vice versa? Why do we keep taking matter and shaping it into statues or smearing it onto canvases to make things that look like us? Even if we didn't want to "represent" through art, could we? And what does it take for a work of art or an aesthetic movement to inspire, influence or even alter society?

Well, today we can reframe that "art/life" question in terms of technology, social media, user interfacing, user experience. Like art, those innovations are man made and they're mostly focused on recreating experiences or concepts from real life. We have web "pages" and virtual "friends." One heavy hitter of the virtual world named itself something that constantly reminds us what it's trying to emulate: Second Life. But the name also means that the site recognizes it's going to play second fiddle to your real, "first" life. (Or, at least, it should, is the implication. Because if your second life is your first one, then you have a problem. Which you could blog about. Endlessly. Like someone I know. Who I occasionally refer to in the third person. For reasons neither of us can really comprehend.)

Beyond technology that imitates life, there's the more ambiguous category of sites, interfaces and apps that sort of imitate life, but sort of don't. You have Lifehacker, which is supposed to make your life better -- but which "life," the digital or the real one? And sites like Facebook, which was originally built on social networks that already existed, but has ended up rewiring relationships. Now people's divorces, job searches and childbirths are complicated, tainted or enlivened by their walls and postings, for example. Yet note the lingo -- these terms are still words we use to describe the spaces around us: walls, tags, posts. Facebook may be "poking" life, but life pokes back harder.

Most revolutionary is when life directly imitates art, technology, artifice. This is evident when I find myself saying "delete" instead of erase and "scroll" instead of move, or when I think in terms of pixels and wish I could link from a notepad to an article online. (I'm sure someone has a word for this. Digital creep? Hmm.) If If Web 2.0 was the internet imitating life (interactivity, conversations, virtual everything), then the next evolution will be life imitating the web. But should we call that Web 3.0, or Life 2.0?

Obviously technology is shaping the world outside the screen -- that's no revelation. But there's aggregate influence (over time, lots of things combine and swell to produces subtle or stronger changes) and then there's acute impact. Foursquare falls in that second category. Rather than trying to imitate human interactions, Foursquare is actually reshaping human interactions to operate like a social network. Because you're connecting with friends through the site, you start thinking of people in terms of networks, you express reactions and make decisions based on the site, and wherever you are, Foursquare is there. And it has the potential to become a conduit and a medium for hanging out, in the same way that Google revolutionized not just the practice internet search, but the concept of searching.

So I'll be watching it closely. I think it could be TNBT. And I believe its success will say much about not only the tech world, but the real world. Whatever that means, these days.

[image one via geekology, image two via MySiam]

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