Maps are tools for finding your way; if you want to learn about a place, you turn to a book. That's the conventional wisdom, anyway. But a recent trend in smartphone apps looks like it might be turning that old binary on its head. With this week's introduction of Hi, a service that lets users pin their photos, thoughts and descriptions to their location, maps, it seems, are now a way to tell stories.
Sticklers might say that maps have always been used to weave narratives. The difference now, however, seems to be found in the unique properties of digital maps. Rather than only telling us what is located where, new services like Hi (currently available by invitation only) provide a wealth of other information – personal anecdotes, tips, and so on – layered atop the geography. In effect, it turns that map into a new hybrid that mixes guidebook, history book and memoir.
Hi wants to focus on what it calls moments. At a specific location, users can create a moment by opening up Hi and leave a short note and, if they wish, an optional photo. The initial point is akin to services like Findery, which lets users pin notes to a map in order to provide a location-based record of memories. As "moments" and memories build up around specific areas, other users of these services can access a geographically based record of not only what people have been doing in specific areas, but also how they are connected to those spaces through stories.
What is perhaps most interesting about Hi is that its emphasis on moments is a way to tackle some of the problems of online glut, not to mention the overflow of low quality or poorly thought out ideas. A Hi user can be encouraged by others to expand upon the short sketch and turn the brief note into an essay (Hi recommends they be 500 words). Using the service, moments that are extended get priority in search and the editor's picks, meaning the more fleshed out, popular stories get upvoted to the top.
In the introductory post for the service, founder Craig Mod sees this as a way to make a space in online publishing that combines the kind of quick, disposable experimentation of Twitter or Instagram, with the emphasis on longer, more polished writing we associate with essays or articles. What we are left with, in theory, is a map of essays and stories around places and events that people feel are important.
It's a novel approach to organizing information. Instead of sorting things by topic or date, data-rich maps organize the world's information by geography, framing our relationship to knowledge in terms of space. Furthermore, its attempt to solve the problem of promoting quality content is, if nothing else, commendable.
What now remains to be seen is whether the service's high-minded rhetoric actually turns into reality. After all, Facebook was supposed to be about connecting people around the world rather than invading privacy and selling ads – and we all know how that turned out. When it comes to the "next big thing" from Silicon Valley some skepticism is always warranted. Nonetheless, there is certainly promise in the idea of what Hi's Mr. Mod calls "narrative mapping," both for informing people and telling stories. And if Hi and similar services take off, learning about the world and its people, places and history may soon be less a question of opening a book, than poring over a map.