I confess that for a while after it first launched. I couldn’t figure out what to do with foursquare. No, really. I couldn’t figure out the app. I came at it from the wrong angle, wanting it to behave like Yelp! as a local guide when it really wanted me to jump through some hoops for the benefit of its engineers and VC investors. The check-in always felt like a dog whistle to me. I bristled at the prompt.
But even when I sort of figured it out, the utility of these random localized brain droppings from nearby “check-ins” still felt like just that -- random brain droppings. Much like Twitter, localized crowdsourced mobile media is understandably but annoyingly haphazard, uneven, and still filled with massive portions of irrelevant blather. No matter what the app, the amount of sheer grunts and ughs emanating from any given location is enough to make some of us reticent to engage at all.
I think both Pinterest and Instagram are interesting counterpoints to the tedious torrents that often are Facebook and Twitter. As my daughter has observed in her use of the social platforms, the two big -- and now old -- social nets can be either uncivil or just overwhelming. In my mind, what distinguishes the newer social nets, especially Instagram, is that they mine our best moments of inspiration. The results are eminently browsable and generally upbeat. In essence, the image-based nature of these networks acts as a kind of mood filter on the nature of the postings. A fight is not likely to break out over an Instagram image.
There are a lot of ways to find filters with which to curate the everpresent mobile medium. When every damn moment of every damn day by every damn person is now recordable and share-able, God help us -- we need some filters on all of this.
The high-end travel magazine AFAR recently issued a crowdsourced travel app that suggests how some of the existing SoLoMo apps and tools can be combined to turn user-generated content into richer experiences that feel curated. The app allows its readers to post images from their travels and makes them fully searchable to others. The Discover mode in the app is in the form of a wall of thumbnails. You search by location and a cascade of gorgeous images pour in. The images are remarkably good -- often travelogue-quality. The attached prose tales are informative and fun.
AFAR did a few things right, but also had some things working in its favor from the start. The first and most important filter that this app applies to user-generated content is the prefabricated audience itself. AFAR is a a higher-end travel magazine that itself is enjoyed for its great imagery and poetic takes on travel. The audience for the app and the brand are self-selected in a way that is rare for most SoLoMo apps. They have been trained by the host medium in what constitutes quality content and they meet the bar. Any user to the app can see how impressive the existing images already are, which exerts some subtle form of peer pressure to make the grade or not to post.
It also kept the app simple and straightforward. The built-in geolocation schemes help you attach your image and text to a known nearby location for better indexing. And the entry is pretty simple: headline and a text story. In fact, the input interface actually tells you to “tip off travelers to your AFARish moment.” In its own small way, the app asserts some editorial prod that helps shape the content.
The AFAR app is a gentle reminder of how much can be done with mobile social media if we don’t shackle ourselves to some of the silly conceits of tech purists. The presumed democracy and efficiency of crowdsourced social local content can harden into a kind of rigid blind faith in the wisdom of user-generated content. The reality is that much of this content always was -- and always will be -- ugly, stupid and unwieldy.
It will be interesting to see if some of the digital ideologues of Silicon Valley will adopt and accept the wisdom of old media and its “regressive” values of editorial direction. When widely applied within the context of new media, editorial coherence can be powerful. Even user-generated content needs a curator, a filter, a guide and an established tone -- just as every party has a host that establishes the mood and models good behavior.