Exploring the Commons with Starbucks

After firing up my browser on the free wifi at a Starbucks coffee shop, I was brought to the Starbucks Digital Network Home page. I assumed that this was just Starbucks foray into digital content aggregation and advertising however my assumption that their intentions where narrowly set on corporate profiteering were quickly changed when I noticed the a link titled “My Neighborhood.”

My mind started racing about the marriage of local web content and physical place and how local web content could now be curated not by a search engine but by a physical location. Certainly locative technology has led the way in making us aware of what is near by, but suddenly this marriage of a coffee shop with web content that relates to the location got me thinking of how something like this could change peoples sense of place and awareness of what is around them, not to mention what a place like a coffee shop becomes now that it is a portal to local information.

Searching on Google is still steeped in people knowing to an extent what it is they are looking for. I subscribe to the school of though that often times information seekers don’t know what it is they are looking for and that designers of knowledge management or information retrieval systems should always pay attention to this. Additionally, using a search engine with too many terms to refine your search can result in no results, however if one is simply allowed to browse the options that are defined by their physical location, one can interact with information in a more serendipitous fashion rather than in an intentional one. Sociology, Information Science, and Urban Studies have produced findings and theories around the role of public space and information sharing and how moving through these spaces opens people up to encountering an information source that benefits them without setting out to find it in the first place. Being able to browse ones physical surroundings through the web on terms that limit their visibility to information to what is near by has tremendous implications for boosting the visibility of local resources.

The SDN My Neighborhood experience provides a new pathway to engaging an information environment that is friendly to an information seeker that may simply want to browse what is close by. In the case of SDN MN, one has the opportunity to look through Zagats for food, or browse MyPatch for  hyper local news.

Either one of these services would already need to be on the information seekers mind however in the SDN MN experience, it is the first option presented to them and it thus offers them the option of taking a walk down main street to browse the local businesses or stop by the proverbial “Oldenburgian” “great good place” to hear what the local gossip is. The “first option” aspect of SDN MN is perhaps its most powerful trait. It is like an instant welcoming party to whatever physical location one find themselves in, immediately introducing them to their surroundings, no prior knowledge of search terms or URL’s required, just presence in the physical space. This feature of the local web being brought to the information seeker is also present on the FourSquare mobile app where one can select the “Explore” button and browse such life themes as Food or Nightlife or look at what is popular by selecting the “trending” tab.

Currently both FourSquare and the MyNeighborhood feature of the Starbucks Digital Network are primarily centered on promoting the visibility of commercial enterprises, with Foursquare boasting the greatest variety of local content and SDN MN lagging considerably in content variety. What if both of these platforms began to branch out beyond the commercial realm and into providing links to local conversation spaces and platforms for information about community resources? What impact would this have on boosting the visibility of the commons as well supporting local, sustainable, and autonomous economic activity? Already there is research that shows online neighborhood social networks boosting cooperation between resident, but a portal to local content that is accessed through a physical location is something quite different in that it has the potential to usher in more transient information seekers or people who are new to the community and thus may not be aware of the places where they can find information about local resources. If high profile locations and/or tools like Starbucks and Foursquare would make a commitment to including links to community resources, information seeking and wayfinding through the commons could gain valuable support.

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