Tuesday, February 3, 2015

What drives habitual street viewing

For the longest time, I wanted to know where this 1950 Ruth Orkin photo was.

Many of her color photos were in Times Square so I focused on searching photos there, stopping for a while at's Grant's Cafeteria (220 W 42nd St)  with its similar light bulbs and ceiling windows near 7th Ave and 42nd St.

I felt I was close but for many months I was stumped.

During those months, I was participating daily in a Facebook group called Manhattan Before 1990 which rapidly surpassed 10,000 members. It combines curated photos of New York City with location identification.

Great New York photographers, historians, art curators, music chroniclers, bloggers, film buffs and locals share stories and unique photos of Manhattan on every block. It's one of a kind.

Geo-sleuth Nicholas West found the address of Ruth Orkin's (Irving's) Famous Malted Milk photo at 203 W 42nd St. It was right across the street from Grant's!  I was so close. Location identification is that humbling. 

Alexander Alland 1940 photo 
 Irving's Famous Malted Milk (203 W 42nd St)
Nedick's at 7th and 42nd St is left of Grant's

It's nothing I would have planned or predicted. But this group created an intriguing daily viewing habit (by the hour/minute)  I hadn't seen in any other geo-spatial community or photo feed. 

Some of the most mysterious photos had their locations unveiled in this Facebook group. 

In Martin Scorcese's After Hours (1985), the conversation between Griffith Dunne and Club Berlin's bouncer is adapted from Franz Kafka's Before the Law. The script says the punk bar was at West Broadway & Grand (NYC). But a sign for Spring St can be seen nearby. 

Club Berlin was actually at 296 Spring (at Hudson) in New York City. 

Alex Smith aka blogger Flaming Pablum likes to re-enact 
cultural moments with his kids seen at 296 Spring.

296 Spring was once Half Note Club
1959 jazz photo by Burt Glinn 

Cultural threading is common in this Facebook group which is used regularly to identify stories and locations associated with photos.

This group is the closest thing I've found related to what I've seen emerge after curating and geo-tagging 1.4 million pieces into stories and sharing featured posts daily for  years. 

Interesting and nostalgic photos related to movies, music, photos of the day and biographies are followed daily in a featured feed -  with an emphasis on location.  

 Al Pacino on the roof of 150 S 8th St, Willamsburg (Brooklyn) 

Francis Ford Coppola with Robert De Niro 
on set of Godfather II at 534 E 6th St (NYC)

It's become more interesting to me than any museum or gallery in New York City. 

In our own public displays,  social media feeds featuring similar posts (but from any region) have generated millions of views with very limited distribution.  In our case, every scene becomes a locative art exhibit as well  on location viewable with GPS. 

In the Facebook group, there's an instant reward in seeing a stunning unique photo and then seeing related stories and cool photos augmenting the story.  People who have been a part of New York City photography and local history participate in storytelling.  We learn a lot from each other. The group has attracted some of the most knowledgeable people of New York City and its cultural, visual and social fabric.  

That's key for impressive geo-browsing.  Beyond rich locative stories and visuals experts weave into a community, they also correct long-standing photo caption location mistakes made by libraries, museums, photographers and historians (duplicated many times by people who share them online).  

* * * 
Storytellers  who do locative detective work and gather historical and geographical artifacts are the core of this visual-spatial community.  And their results form the attraction for the growing viewership. A new kind of streetview is being created with rich imagery and storytelling.  One that generates hourly dialogue. 

In higher-caliber curation, we typically assume a viewer doesn't know any history and might not even care about the topic.  A distinctive visual and compelling story are paramount.  A location ID also makes any post interesting.  You can now compare a spot on location with how it once looked. 

For future locative products, we must assume a viewer has absolutely no patience and is frustrated by clutter. A viewer wants speed (convenience) and to retreat into sensual visual experience (inspiration).

As noted in a prior blog post, maps are simply too slow and too static to achieve this goal. Geo-spatial navigation needs rapid media browsing to be competitive and a way for instant communication with other viewers to share locative knowledge.

* * * 
In this era, "pleasant" notifications drive the growth of any digital media community. "Pleasant" being the key word. Each notification must have a reward for it to be gratifying. 

In the Facebook group, photographers and curators get notifications for "likes" from very knowledgeable people. 

It feels almost like winning an Oscar in terms of the caliber of peers who judge posts. Viewers are often notable photographers, historians, bloggers,  curators and locals with a passion for the hood. But the biggest reward is getting a juicy "comment" notification. One that tells you something you never knew. One that adds to your narrative or visual experience.  One that identifies a deeply mysterious location.  

Through collaborative geo-sleuthing, the buildings 
on the left were confirmed as 305 & 310 E 46th St. 

The detective work is impressive among local experts who love the thrill of investigation and discovery. The comments enrich the original post, sometimes even overshadowing the original post. The threads are highly educational for anyone who  considers themselves an expert on New York City, culture or photography. For others, the threads re-live what they love about a place. 

When experts forge a locative photography community, the collaboration yields faster location discoveries and a greater knowledge about a photo or place. Thrilling photo wikis emerge with deep knowledge, new discoveries and exclusive history reports. 

* * * 

This is the skeleton of the experience: 

0. See locations of featured posts in a feed.  Posts go up in the queue if someone comments or likes.

1. Post photo. Group identifies  location if not already known. 

2. See photos and stories related to  location. See nearby angles sometimes. 

3. See how much a photo is "liked" by notable photographers or knowledgeable New Yorkers.

4. View notifications of stories and photos in comments that  augment the narrative or visual experience for a locative post.

5. Share knowledge.  Add your stories and photos about a place in comments.  

6. Share locative post elsewhere. 

It is a regular occurrence that people on Facebook who are not even members of this group are asked to solve mysteries about a post. 

The posts that also offer a personal connection were the most popular. They are posts that crossed paths with your life, your history or ideas you love. 

Crossing paths with what you love - that's where we see the future of geo-browsing. Discovering more info about what you love is the reward you get from a community. 

* * *

Experimenting further...

In our own feeds, we added a daily birthday angle showing astrological connections. A horoscope can surprisingly be expressed in photos and stories that happened. They are the outcomes of the predictions.  Photos related to notable profiles were featured on their birthdays and illustrated clusters of similar outcomes among people born the same day. Profile birthday stories also vary locations and photos to be explored daily. A birthday story is also  topical everyday (trending in social media).  We also showed astrological stories on death anniversaries. 

A surprising number of "Americans" in history are also Closet Canadians. So we also uniquely highlighted that. It almost felt like half of Hollywood's roots were Canadian.   

Quotes of the day are added if a profile is a writer and expressed a personality for a visual horoscope. 

* * * 

Beyond this foundation, we considered tools for exploration. This was more for the pro-active searcher as opposed to an habitual viewer: 

1. Address/profile searches allowed you to see relational posts and surrounding geographical visual artifacts to identify a location. Each pin had a photo and story. 

2. Mutual tags  (geo-tag, profile/topic tag)  allowed you to jump to related posts. We soon discovered posts needed to be ranked when there are dozens of stories at a place. 

* * * 

The habitual street viewer behaves very differently from a typical map viewer or  social media user. There is a greater focus on stories, visual curation  and comparative geographical artifacts to help examine or identify a location. The comments call for others to share stories and photos related to a place. Many of these stories are exclusive.  New history is discovered about a place. 

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