Getting Lost In Social Discovery

“Social discovery” is one of the hotter buzzwords these days, referring to how people can tap friends’ implicit and explicit recommendations to experience something new. At first, it sounds like more jargon, but when you experience it firsthand, you can get a sense of what it really means.

Consider a recent Sunday afternoon. I had been cooped up more than usual, a self-imposed internment following an ironic summer cold, and took advantage of the extra time indoors to watch every episode of the most recent “Battlestar Galactica” series during a five-day stretch. Forcing myself to leave home on a day with heat that was only stifling and not paralyzing, I ventured to the New Amsterdam Market at New York’s South Street Seaport. After snacking on lobster rolls and Dutch pancakes, I was ready for a detour – or a quest, courtesy of Traveler’s Quest.

Traveler’s Quest is a mobile game that epitomizes social discovery. Players hunt for virtual treasures and earn points reburying them as far as possible from the point of discovery. For the especially aggressive hunters, players can buy maps to reveal the locations of treasures hidden further away. Yes, it all sounds pretty silly if not pointless, but as opposed to most mobile games, Traveler’s Quest creates relationships between the players and their physical surroundings. Often, treasures are just out of reach, so players are motivated to go out of their way to nab them. This gets back to social discovery – discovering a place one didn’t intend to go to, in search of something shared by another person.

Now let’s return to that stifling Sunday. A few treasures were buried downtown past the market, with the furthest a good 10 blocks out of the way of where I planned to go. In Manhattan, 10 blocks is a short walk when you’re going from point A to point B, but a hike when it’s out of your way. Still, I was in need of fresh air, and I had to clear my head, after nights of dreaming that everyone I knew was a Cylon. Traveler’s Quest fulfilled my need to pursue an unplanned course.

Walking further south, I stumbled upon Stone Street, a vibrant alley crammed with outdoor seating, and an old favorite spot when I worked near Wall Street back in my eMarketer days. It was just out of the way of the treasure, but I took this detour. Not only did I discover the street, but I discovered two friends, Noah Brier and Faris Yakob, wrapping up their brunch over beer, and they invited me to join them. It was, at that moment, surreal. I was on a street I hadn’t visited in years, having wandered in that direction thanks to a relatively obscure mobile application for the sole purpose of collecting a worthless virtual good.

Logically, it made no sense. It’s not like Traveler’s Quest is designed to connect people with long-lost friends and nostalgia-inducing side streets. Yet I’ve also discovered that the most unexpected social interactions come from taking a route I didn’t intend to take at a time I wasn’t supposed to take it. It’s like when I was driving up to Lake George and pulled off a random exit to drive two miles to a McDonald’s all because a “30 Rock” episode had my wife and I hankering for a McFlurry, and I ran into a former coworker. That happened without any digital technology beyond GPS, but Traveler’s Quest creates far more occasions for something like that to happen. As you hunt for virtual treasure, it encourages you to get lost. Getting lost is the most reliable route to social discovery online, offline, and where the digital and physical worlds meet.

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