My research topic of ”the coffee house” has developed into a study of the characteristics of the evolution in ‘the production of a social public sphere’, and the coffee shop’s role throughout history as a facilitator of different kinds of ‘social hotspots’ in New York City. It comes as no surprise that the means for social public spheres to be created, depending on temporality, context and media paradigms, are a lot different today than previously. The concept of the ‘social hotspot’ has changed radically over time. Today, social hotspots do not necessarily start in a place; they start with the buzz around a place. For my map critique, I have chosen a contemporary “generator” /aggregator of social hotspots: “FourWhere” - that can be found at: http://www.fourwhere.com/.

FourWhere was launched in March 2010 by Sysomos Inc. It is a location based search tool that shows venue locations including number of people ‘checked in’ and comments about venues from the three leading location-based services: Foursquare, Yelp and Gowalla, based on Google Maps as the base.

Critiquing FourWhere, I will address how it is “created as a field” with a system and rules, based on two general principles behind its premise of service: proximity and recommendation. As a field, FourWhere is not intended to give its users an overview over everything out there. Rather, it organizes information according to a specific location. It seems logical that Google Maps has been used as the base map in order for this service to potentially reach the whole world, however, the graphics of the big-scale ‘field’ of Google Map confuses (Adrienne Gruver ref. in “Critiquing Maps”) the intention of showing small-scale local venues at FourWhere. The graphic layout does not meet the intention of proximity. The premise of the classification technique (Wood and Fels 2008 ref. in “Critiquing Maps”) is build on recommendations, organized in a user-aggregated hierarchy of novelty. The sources of this information are user profiles of the collaborating social media platforms (Foursquare and Gowalla), including an indicator of when the recommendation was posted. This is both suitable and problematic for an aggregator tool. First of all, it is unclear whether the identity behind those who recommend the venue is related to the recommended venues, which is a critical issue for all types of online aggregators. Secondly, it is important to question not only the intended functionality of FourWhere, but also the cultural discourse that is promoted with the “Remove venues without tips”-button. When frameworks of searching for cultural social hotspots are so anchored in a temporality of ‘the now’ and of only recommending places that are ‘hot in the moment’, an injustice is done to venues that do not attract the audience seeking novelty. We may not forget that mapping is ‘an active agent of cultural intervention’ (Corner 1999, 217).

The graphics of the parimap (Wood and Fels, 2008) makes a proper graphic context for searching for venue recommendations, not aesthetically pleasant, but as simple as possible. There is no meta-guiding of legends or defined categories, but in its current simplicity this may not be necessary either. An unnecessary feature is the repetition of the search result in the side bar and in the pop-up box. Together with the epimap in the form of the website medium for representation, the general paramap lives up to its intention, but it does not challenge a common social aggregator tool design or contribute to develop and challenge the ‘genre’ of the aggregator map significantly.

Outlining the most important shortcomings of the FourWhere map, it is necessary to pay attention to its premise: It is a public service that helps the user to find local venues recommended by other users. What could be redesigned or re-conceptualized are:

- The lacking option of searching for a specific venue, as it is irrelevant for one’s thirst for coffee to get recommendations on night clubs, for example.

- The lack of possibility to compare venues nearby based on relevant criteria’s.

- And finally, the lack of possibilities for re-terriatorialization through plotting, whereby the map does not open up for new possibilities of interpretation for its data (Corner 2009, 230).

My suggestion of an improved remake of FourWhere is based on my identified shortcomings and aims at sticking to the intention of the map. My redesigned FourWhere website contains a ‘venue search’ button that allows the user to specify the type of venue of interest, a ‘compare’ button that compares the nearby venue types based on fixed categories like price, proximity, wifi etc., and, most importantly, a ‘Search for what you feel like’-button that allows the user to type in four emotional/practical/subject-based/any-kind-of word. This option allows for a re-territorialization of the FourWhere map because user recommendations, on which the map is built, are related in new ways. This way of navigation is an active act of constructing new search-result possibilities that are more agency-driven and perhaps more metaphorical. This means less power to the recommenders and more power to the autonomous navigation and personal appropriation of the map.

On a final note, taking away some lessons from FourWhere to our own mapping project, we might want to try and pursue flexible search options to allow for various forms of uses and interpretations of the map. For my own map, this exercise has reminded me to loosen up for the organization of my empirical material and perhaps base my own organization of content thematically rather than timely. This way I will be able to re-territorialize my empirical findings and discover new possibilities for interpretation.

References:

From Shannon’s blogpost “Critiquing Maps” on August 29 2010 on Words in Space.

James Corner: “The Agency of Mapping: Speculation, Critique and Invention”, in Denis Cosgrove [ed], Mappings, (London: Reaction Books) 1999