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My Talk at AAG 2012

My talk at the AAG this year was on the final day, early in the morning, during about three other similar sessions, and held in a forgotten corner in the bowels of the Hilton NY. Though it was still well attended (maybe 15-20 folks), it's understandable that some people who may have been interested in what I had to say weren't able to come. That's why I post it here. Sadly, this time, my phone failed to record my talk for an exact transcript, so I have to go off of memory. Forgive me if I build on or improve/regress upon my thoughts in this version. :-)

The title (to allow it to be more searchable): "Performing Place: Geo-Social Networking and Digital Performances of Personal Geography."

 

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Thanks for coming this morning, and thanks to Derek [Alderman] and John [Strait] for organizing this session. It's a pleasure and an honor to be here today. If you'll notice, the title of this talk on the slide is slightly different than what's listed in the program. This doesn't mean that the content or main ideas have changed, rather I simply replaced "location-based" with "geo-social" to adequately represent a gradual change that's happened in the conversation about these networks.  

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  So, what is the focus of today's talk. First and foremost, we need to take a look at what geo-social networking is. I'm assuming that many of you have at least heard of these attributes of social media even if you've never called it what it by that name. We'll look at some of the characteristics and I'll attempt to classify the various geo-social networking platforms just to ensure everyone here's on the same page. Then, I argue that participating in these geo-social networks is a digital performance of place. I look at why we bother to do this, because there are significant costs associated with participating, and specifically, what the return on our investment is. Finally, being that I am from a community-oriented teaching institution, the main driving question of this research is, how can we use this knowledge to empower users and the larger community with geographic knowledge and skills?  

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  So, what is geo-social networking? It's when information on standard digital social media platforms is combined with some sort of location information, or "geotag." Usually this data is combed from the GPS chip in smartphones, or from IP address information about the connection from where the social media update occurred. Basically any update to social media, including text updates, photographs, videos and links can be "geotagged" in this way, if the user's set up their account to allow it. In addition, users can also make the specific effort to "check-in" to locations via smartphone, an action where the announcement of that user's location is specifically announced to the network. In either of these cases, the geotag is then available to linked contacts. Depending on the platform, users can be "rewarded" for their efforts with public badges that display "accomplishments," "mayorships" for being the person to check in the most often, points that are used to compete with contacts, and coupons for special offers from nearby retailers.  

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  We can put these geo-social networks into three broad categories, based on the general purpose of the social networking platform. First, the fully geo-social services. The most popular of these are Foursquare and Gowalla. The sole purpose for participating in these networks is to check-in and announce the current location to chosen contacts. Second, there are opt-in geo-social add-ons to the three big general social networking sites, Facebook, Twitter and Google+. In these cases, geo-social is not required but is integrated directly into the social networking and sharing experience, to be activated by the user. Finally, there are opt-in geo-social add-ons to more topic specific social networking. A good example of this is Yelp, which is a social network focused on providing reviews of restaurants and other venues. Users can check-in to venues using Yelp to bolster their credentials as experts. Yahoo's Flickr and Google's Panoramio are both photo-sharing networks, in which geotagged photos can display the location data to viewers as well. In fact, Panoramio is responsible for most of the photos you see in Google Earth.  

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  So I wanted to look at this idea of geo-social networking from the perspective of performativity. Performativity is broadly defined as the ability of expressive action to perform a type of being. In other words, people can express themselves as something they aspire to be, other than what they actually are. The genesis of this in the literature comes from J.L. Austin's How to Do Things with Words, in which he claims that a performative utterance, that is some sort of expression that aims to present a different being, is something with no inherent truth value. At the same time, Austin says that uttering is not just a communication of information, but a performance. Much like actors on stage, performers in this sense are not portraying their actual realities, but rather some alternate form of being which they wish to create. I also pull some guidance from philosopher Jacques Derrida, who in his mission to deconstruct seemingly everything, looked at Austin's performativity and suggested that these performative utterances can be deconstructed to look for deeper meanings and motives from the performers. Now, it's been well established in social science research that the essence of social networking is that people are sharing performative utterances with a selected audience to portray a certain version of the user's self. From here, I argue that it's not really a big step to say that geo-social networking is the act of performing place. If you think about it, geo-social networking is very public and shared, but because it is public and shared, it lends itself to being self-curated and self-censored as well.  

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  Now, how does a person become involved in these performances? If you want to perform on geo-social networks, a significant investment is necessary. First and foremost, and perhaps the easiest to see and comprehend, is the investment in technology. To participate in one of these geo-social networks fully and to take advantage of the features offered, a user almost always needs a smartphone with a data package. This is a monetary investment that immediately excludes a large proportion of the population from participating. Beyond that are investments that we don't really think of putting a dollar figure on, but are investments nonetheless. Checking in requires an investment of time, not only in the act of checking in itself, but also the alteration of habit necessary to ensure that all check-ins are recorded. The check-in is a process that only takes a matter of ten to 15 seconds, but when a user has 3,000+ check-ins over a couple of years, this is a significant amount of time! In addition, something we don't normally think about is the alteration of habit, not only to compel ourselves to check in at every arrival, but then how are we impacted if say our phone's battery is dead? Some folks don't consider this an investment or loss, but I do: the exposure to advertisement. Advertisements not only take up time, but also mental energy expended on something I simply don't care to think about. But, it's advertisements that fund these geo-social networks and make them profitable. One thing I consider to be an investment -- or, perhaps more accurately, a loss -- is that we don't own the data we produce. If we had made these investments in tracking our own geo-location histories but owned the data, it would seem that we were giving up less than we actually are. In most of these geo-social networks' Terms of Service, users don't own their data, and in many cases also can't export it. Finally, users who wish to perform place using geo-social networks face a loss of privacy because many of these networks have relatively limited privacy settings. One of the draws of social networking is to essentially spy on (or follow) your friends, and without the wide sharing of data, this isn't as possible. On the good side, personhood is (thus far) optional in many of the services. If you notice on the image above, my avatar is Pablo Escobar, the infamous Colombian drug lord who's been dead for over a decade. On the other hand, this loss of privacy is still likely to lead to a measure of self-censorship. Let's look at these concepts using some simple illustrations.  

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  What if someone checks into a place that is, for whatever reason, considered controversial? Now I personally don't find a visit to Planned Parenthood to be controversial, but given the recent news stories featuring attacks on women's rights and health care, you can imagine how such a check-in would be interpreted. With the ubiquity of Facebook in particular and the wide-reaching social networks that people have built there, how can you be complete in your location recording without resorting to a level of self-censorship to save this grief?  

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  One good, and important, question you might be asking at this point is: why bother? Well, in order for people to participate in anything, there has to be some perceived return on that investment. In the case of geo-social networking, a few things are required to enable that return. First, there must be a critical mass of participants. The most obvious reason for this prerequisite is that there must be an audience for those performative utterances, otherwise why would the utterances be made? At the same time, if a user is taking part in this performance by divulging the otherwise private details of location, that user wants to see that other folks are doing the same thing. Much like a musician on stage, performing as an ensemble provides an amount of security that performing solo does not. The main other return is the few business discounts that make their way to the service, but really, there are very few tangible rewards for participating. So, if the main return on investment is the platform on which to perform place, the question would really be better phrased as "Who are you performing for?" The obvious answers would be that users perform their place for friends, contacts, and acquaintances. People in business who have embraced the platform also perform for clients and prospective customers. But here's where I differ just a bit: I argue that performing for "yourself" is a totally valid answer! Some illustrations of what kind of benefits come from these performances.  

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  Some folks use geo-social networking to brag about place, and this is easy to do. If you're on vacation or on the road, check into that really nice resort you're staying at, or check into a tourist attraction. Or maybe you've visited a really nice restaurant tonight to celebrate X-Y-Z, then you post about it.  

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  Sometimes the performance of place can be a badge of honor or a display of loyalty. Take the aftermath of the 2010 World Series victory by the San Francisco Giants. In a city of early adopters, we noticed people checking into "Giants Riots" on Foursquare, simultaneously displaying loyalty as fans of the sports team, social and physical freedom to celebrate their victory, savviness to create a check-in for this temporary but notable place on Foursquare, and a tongue-in-cheek joke about the temporary nature of places and events that happens when combined with mob mentality.  

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  Of course, one use of the social network is to follow your friends. In this case, a user can identify where other connected users last checked in and perhaps arrange a "chance" meeting with that person.  

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  But, at the same time, we're not as likely to check into a place that doesn't portray that performance alter ego that we want to display to our friends. Our public selves are not too interested in posting about, say, visits to the proctologist's office.  

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  Even if we are careful to curate our geo-social persona by self-censoring, the social networking platform sometimes identifies and displays trends that we either don't notice or don't want displayed. The "crunked" badge on Foursquare is remarkably easy to earn (four stops in one night), but displays what you could call... an affinity for social lubrication that the user might not even possess.  

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  Then, there are always the joke check-ins. Some folks, who realize that geo-social networks are a performance, will check into places just to get a reaction from friends. In this example, I've checked into the county jail, an action which earned me seven comments from contacts asking what exactly I had done.  

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  And on those ends, some folks play around with it even more. My example here is a special I run for my basement, where anyone who's invited and checks in gets a free beer. What a deal! Of course, having fun is part of the draw of geo-social networking. But let's look at it a little more seriously for a little bit.  

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    So, how can we use this to empower? Basically, again, being at a teaching-oriented institution, is there something valuable in (and teachable with) geo-social media? Small picture says, sure, we can access the data through APIs, export the data sets and use it in research and for courses, and that's really great... but I'd like to think I'm talking about something bigger than that. Indeed, what I'm proposing is a movement toward a curation of public personal history, in essence, a geo-autobiography maintained in a digital form, where absolute location data becomes as critical to a personal "timeline" as chronology. This has become even more relevant in the past few weeks with the introduction of Facebook's Timeline feature. Indeed, Facebook encourages us to maintain a digital biography of sorts, and asks us to add details about our lives that pre-date the advent of our Facebook accounts. I think that this provides an outstanding opportunity for geographers to remind the world that place is as central to experience and memory as time is, an argument that I feel has been reaffirmed as more and more Facebook users input trips to various locations and permanent relocations as notable events in this newly curated Timeline format.  

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  What am I getting at with this Geo-Autobiography spiel? I define geo-autobiography as a combined sense or expression of personal history that is both chronological and geographical. In other words, its a process of knowing oneself not only historically but spatially. To me, this provides an incredibly rich grounds for teaching about place and space in introductory classrooms or at larger community forums because it makes geography meaningful to people by strongly incorporating it into their personal histories. Likewise, it reminds people that place is important to molding experience and memory, and serves a a useful reminder of potential bias in that message as well. In other words, it serves to teach students how to think critically about experiences of place. And, of course, participation in geo-social media demands that we look at our histories and include place on that personal reflection of experience. This is what I was getting at with the audience of one. Even if a user joins a geo-social network anonymously and makes no connections, it can serve a platform for recording place, much like a diary.  

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  So, how do we begin looking at these geo-social networks and begin pulling our own data into some sort of larger geo-autobiography? Well, this portion of my research is pretty much in its infancy. One way that I personally use is through various mashups. Mashups are small pieces of software that allow the combination of data. In this case, I combine a Flickr album from the 2011 AAG (for which I took a train to San Francisco then drove to Seattle and then train back to Ohio) and a map of the geotagged elements of those photos. This particular mashup, called iMapFlickr, focuses far more strongly on the location of the photo than the quality of the photo, which is what I find to be more interesting anyway.  

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  With a strong dedication to checking into places, you very quickly assemble a detailed record of your movements and places on any given day. This is an example from my own record, looking at the most recent New Year's Eve. Exciting night, no? Maintaining this record provides me a lot more information (and hence, basis for revisiting memories) about that night than I would otherwise have.  

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  ...then again, if I've got this detail, so does Foursquare, who can use the data readily for any number of nefarious corporate purposes. Never mind the fact that Foursquare actually owns this data and can take it away at any time  

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  And really, that notion brings me to the biggest concerns going forward if maintaining a digital geo-autobiography is going to be something worthy of our attention. Most geo-social services maintain ownership of the data, and make it very difficult (if not impossible) to export from their servers. At the same time, a peculiar question arises as to who is "gatekeeper" for defining place? This example, which comes from my former neighborhood in a small town in Ohio, is a place I created on Foursquare. Now, from my perspective, it was absolutely correct, because I lived on a street with several methamphetamine labs which the police largely ignored. Foursquare, on the other hand, does not consider this to be an acceptable place for check-ins and quickly "closed" the venue. Putting the power to determine place in the hands of one single corporate entity is a scary prospect!  

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  So, in sum, I argue that because social media is a performance of sorts, that geo-social media must be a performance of place. At the same time, geo-social media requires significant costs but can offer substantial reward. To really reap the benefits of this reward, we must come up with a way to "free" the data from the servers of geo-social networking platforms and allow users ownership. Something I'm hoping to explore more in months ahead is the concept of geo-autobiography, and whether this reflective and personal concept is in fact a way to make geography more relevant for the larger community. Of course, this is predicated on either devising or adapting a platform that allows significantly more freedom than those currently available are willing to offer.
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