Dirt: Poaching Google Maps

Cutting a desire path across Web2.

Dirt is a daily email about entertainment.

Alek Tarkowski on building a layer of meaning on top of Google Maps.

Last year, on a walk into the forest near our summer cottage, we found a rock and a hill. We took the rock back, to add it to the rim of our fire pit. Rocks are not that easy to come by in Masovian Voivodeship, Poland, so each is a pleasant surprise. The hill was a surprise as well, as the area is flat. As an added bonus, we found overgrown trenches from World War II. (A major tank battle took place nearby in 1944.)

Micro-trips have been a trending idea in Poland, especially during the pandemic. With a micro-trip, you can feel a sense of adventure without flying to Greece or Thailand. It’s enough to take a bike to the town nearby, and adjust your mental bearings. If you keep your eyes open enough, mundane things become tourist destinations.

Spur of the moment, I added the location to Google Maps, marking it as “a hill with some trenches.” I gave it five stars, and an opinion: “a nice place to go for a walk.” I’ve been exploring the vicinity of our cottage for years, in the search for these mundane, offbeat spots. A wooden bridge in the middle of the fields and the willow with a chicken of the woods growing on it. The backroad chapel with a folk sculpture or the bend in the river that is hard to reach. It’s a private map that I’ve been populating over the years. 

Google Maps are partially to blame. I have been receiving invitations to become a “local guide.” It’s a gamification scheme, through which the company crowdsources valuable data: actual photos of restaurant dishes or hotel rooms, associated reviews and opinions. Google rewards “guides” through a silly system of points and levels: I’m level 4, with 266 points. 

There are no other rewards, no secret map functions unlocked at level 3, or a cheap, plastic compass shipped to you at level 5. I guess that Google’s growth and nudge teams have this all figured out. In the end, the silly system encouraged me to add a place to the map (+15 points!) and a short comment (+10 more). 

The local guides program is the classic Web2 mechanism, through which companies extract value from user-generated input. Google provides the canvas, and the myriad users bring distributed intelligence. Nothing new here–unless you look more carefully. 

My quirky tourist attraction and the associated photograph are not unique. Millions of people are building a new layer to Google Maps by adding their personal takes on the world. This layer is extremely personal. And also quirky, opinionated, exhibitionist and amateurish, in the best sense of the word.

In 1980, Michel de Certeau wrote in The Practice of Everyday Life that our everyday cultural life is one of poaching on the territories controlled by cultural industries. This was an optimistic response to earlier, bleak visions of mass culture. De Certeau argued that we are cultural guerrillas who can retake corporate culture. We do that by being nimble and creative. Poachers occupy cultural places and turn them into their own spaces, in which they can dwell at least for a moment.

This definitely resonates with me. Obviously! As it ennobles my everyday practice of being a guerrilla Google Maps guide.

This layer of poached places is one where food stores become backdrops for people showing off their dress style. Where Christell gets a pink birthday cake. Where selfies are taken instead of expected photos of buildings and venues. Where an obvious thing, like a historical church, becomes a fuzzy object connecting tourists, random shots of the landscape, a holy swimming pool, roads, birds, cars and flowers. Where places are photographed in ways that are unpolished and confusing. Where a hole in the ground becomes a noteworthy spot (4.7 stars). Where a poker game table sits in a car repair store, and someone is baking camembert cheese. Where there is a dog in the market. Where, most importantly, places on the map are full of life.

Why do people do this? Who is the intended audience of a selfie posted to a map? Do they even know the photos are public, and do they care? Some of the strangest cases are those where a user’s collection of map photos seems to be a dump from their phone. Multiple versions of the same shot, photos of children, random snaps of places that no one could believe deserve the attention. Yet it’s all there, and it’s part of what makes this layer so endearing. (See also: @_restaurant_bot.)

In an age of NFTs, it is hard not to see the similarity. These are attempts to make digital checkpoints into unique objects. A place on a map is meant to be a neutral pointer to a place available to every map user. And suddenly they become marked by someone’s individuality. As if they were saying “I was here!” and “I want you to see things the way I see them!” In Web3 this could be a real layer of crowdsourced meaning on the blockchain, a gamification system with actual rewards. 

So you can get off the beaten trail even when traveling on a virtual map. Jump off the blue line that leads you to that one prescribed destination, like a bead falling down a string. Skip past the sanitized, robotic stare of Google Street View. The thing is, it’s not easy. There are no maps for these Google Map territories. No specialized apps for building and sharing trails or playlists. 

The Google Maps interface options for exploring this layer are convoluted and shifting. In the last month, some obscure update to the interface removed my preferred way of browsing. All is lost, I thought! And all I will be able to write about for Dirt would be a story of imaginary worlds being killed by arbitrary design decisions! 

Thankfully, the layer is still there, just hiding behind a few more clicks. The directions to get there are simple: pick a place near or far. Open the associated photos. Scroll for something that catches your attention, and then travel through the web of places and users, your own micro trip through the collective mapverse. — by Alek Tarkowski

The Dirt: The internet needs more local guides–but we should reward them, too.