By Amelia Marzec
At a time when the accuracy of news sources is in question, and politicians want to restrict access to information, hyperlocal communications have more potential than ever. You Are Here is a project that essentially consists of a Wifi signal that broadcasts a single website. Users can connect to it on their cell phones to leave comments on a curated topic. The project was designed by a team of Tow Fellows including Sarah Grant, Susan McGregor, Benjamen Walker, Dan Phiffer, and Amelia Marzec. Two installations of the project occurred in Tompkins Square Park and the High Line. These are some observations on the challenges of attracting users to a hyperlocal project.
The public expectation of an open Wifi signal is simply that there is potential to connect to the Internet for free. If they find they aren’t able to complete their specific task, which may be to post to Instagram in the park, they will drop off and look for another option. This is the biggest hurdle for any Wifi-based project. You Are Here relies on messaging through posters at the sites of installation to instruct users on how to encounter the project. The audiences and needs in those locations — a barber and a restaurant — are different than the audiences that appear in the interviews for the curated content, which are parkgoers to Tompkins Square Park and the High Line.
The design of the system must fit the needs of the community. One of the requirements for success is to go into an existing community and find out what their specific needs are, rather than designing a system and then trying to build a community around it. This was a challenge with You Are Here. Hyperlocal communications would be most beneficial when there is a driving need for us to rely on our neighbors.
Designing the systems that carry information must be considered from every angle. A couple of the previous projects by the team members of You Are Here were designed as systems of protest: Occupy.here by Dan Phiffer, and Signal Strength by Amelia Marzec. Inherent in their design is the expectation for their use in a democratic setting, where users would set the tone of the conversations. These methods focus on the decentralization of information, and are less effective when used in a setting that requires top-down information.
Recently considered for the purposes of advertising, You Are Here and similar systems lack significant traffic that would validate them for use in a corporate setting. The failures of these systems as money-making machines contain the potential for them to be used for their original purposes — to give rise to citizen journalism and peer-to-peer communications.
For the long term, users need to care about the content and their interactions with each other. Within commenting systems, users will return when they are emotionally invested — even if that means they are having an argument online. Would an old-fashioned bulletin board be more effective? One benefit of that would be that people without access to smartphones would be able to participate.
In the event of a true emergency, with no connection to the internet, You Are Here could be a valuable addition to a specific local community, possibly if it were able to operate as a forum. Residents would be able to share how they got access to medical care and ATMs, or to discuss rumors from the outside. As we move into uncertain times regarding the use and delivery of information, we will need to be vigilant in finding the truth tellers in our communities that are focused on the greater good.
Amelia Marzec is a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and a Brooklyn-based artist focused on enabling activist communities through innovative uses of technology.