My friend, Chris Brogan, wrote an interesting post about the future of geo-location apps and mobile. Chris is flooded with information every day, and I understand why he wants Yelp to automatically narrow selections to his favorites or preferred categories- it makes making decisions about where to go in strange places easier, and it means taking less risks, on the whole.
However, I’m from the school that says the whole point of going to new and exciting places is to go outside our comfort zone and explore a little. If apps are only going to dish up what they think I like best based on historical behavior, I’m never going to know about that fun little boutique or museum that’s only five minutes from my hotel and worth an hour of my time to check out. I’d never end up wandering into a new restaurant because the menu on the outside looked interesting and the decor was funky and cool. I’d start to “not bother” the nice folks behind the desk at hotels to ask them what they like best in the local area- I’d never get an insider’s view of a city.
Now I know these apps would probably have a feature allowing you to toggle on or off preferences, and perhaps even one that allowed you to toggle on and off “What Locals Say” and “What Visitors Say”. (That would be brilliant, BTW, so Zagat and all those online travel guides, take note…) But I worry the more and more we leave our choices up to those delivered to us by our tech, the less and less we’re going to be willing to step outside our comfort zones.
When I’m in a city, like San Francisco, I don’t need my iphone to tell me that because I occasionally like kitsch all I really need to see is the touristy stuff at Pier 39. I want it to say things like “Get off your butt, go get a Zipcar and head over to Alice Waters place, because you need to do this while you have the opportunity.” I want it to say “It’s a great day, the weather is awesome, go do the Muir Woods tour you keep thinking about but never do, or go take the Caltrain and hang around Berkeley for the afternoon, because it will remind you of college and maybe one of the kids will want to go there when they go off to school.”
I don’t expect that my tech will ever be able to do this, because the web is all about trying to get you to the most relevant information possible. This information is also metered in importance, in part, by what other people think is important, or have paid to look important when you do a search. The web gets me to what I want when I know what I want, but it sucks at what I call the library effect- when what you think you’re looking for is not nearly as interesting as the books available on the next shelf or two over- things you didn’t know existed, things you never knew you wanted to know.
It concerns me on some level that the more we put tech, decision trees and data in charge of narrowing our decisions and choices, the less we’re actually going to try, experiment and learn from the sheer serendipity of it all. Yes, I find the fact that there are 45 spaghetti sauces on the shelf, all at different price points, and this is why I revert to my “favorite” brands and just grab the usual. But every once in a while, I grab the new and unusual thing, to give it a whirl and spice up my life, like the bottle of Tyler Florence’s puttenesca sauce I picked up at the San Francisco airport. It may not be available locally, but it is something novel, and if I love it, I may just go out and buy another Tyler Florence cookbook, learn to make it, and even visit his restaurants the next time I’m in town.
I need the new and novel. But I also understand the overwhelming number of choices with often little information behind them makes each transaction a bit more risky. I’m more concerned with making too safe choices at this point in my life rather than making a few “unwise” ones, or ones that don’t come with 5 stars attached. I want that odd experience like taking the kids to the hole in the wall fortune cookie factory in Chinatown, or the Musee Mecanique, showing the kids what the history of the Arcade is really about while letting them play with the games themselves. These won’t necessarily make the Best Of lists for everyone, but our lives would be a little less fun and quirky without them.
I understand wanting smart filters. I understand wanting to sit down and have someone just give you food, like at your mom’s house, rather than picking and choosing and defaulting to yet another burger or reuben or chicken ceasar salad, or whatever your particular favorite safe food might be. But for me, I need less gerimandered filtering by what retailers and marketers think I want to see, and more “stumble upon” versions of tourist guides. I ned to discover more local and unusual stuff , the “if you lived here, I’d take you to” stuff, and less of the “here’s what we think you can afford and we’ll max out your per meal dollar allotment”. I don’t want to be treated as a walking bag of fungible dollars available for marketers at their whim. I want to experience a place and do something different- otherwise, I might as well eat at the hotel or the local TGI Fridays or McDonalds and avoid travel all together.
I get mobile being a whole new level of information, and the apps where you can leave secret notes to your friends about what you like best. I try to “curate” my area when I can, but often, I don’t bother, because unless it’s outstandingly good or horribly bad, it seems to not be worth the trouble. And this means folks coming to town may miss my regular hangouts and local dives that are fun, because I’m not always advertising my presence there, for a number of reasons.
I also worry that mobile marketing may further put the squeeze on small businesses who depend on the odd passerby like me to maintain their business. If these places don’t know how or can’t find the budget to spend money on trying to wave an electronic hand at passersby, will they get lost in the data shuffle? Can they reliably depend on their regulars to do all of their mobile review and marketing for them?
Here’s a recent example. My husband and I have been meaning to check out a new local restaurant, Harvest Seasonal Grille. It sits on the border between two small areas- people call it “Chadds Ford” or “Glen Mills” or “Glen Eagle”. The same restaurant has Google reviews at each of these “tagged” locations, which is one physical address. See below:
Depending on who you believe, the reviews for the same place range from one and a half stars to five. What’s the truth? What’s reliable here? I don’t know, but I can tell you it’s made us think twice before making it a priority to try out this new place which may want or need our business. While the larger volume of 436 reviews on Open Table seem to indicate four stars, 30 reviews on Yelp say about two and a half. Are you willing to risk it? Who is more reliable?
I agree with Chris. Location aware is in the early days. But I hope I never lose the urge to toss the tech and just stop by that little unremarkable place that turns out to have an amazing experience, even if the ambience isn’t perfect. It’s worth the risk.