If you’ve been keeping up with app developments lately, you’ll have noticed an influx of ‘map’ apps. Not the Apple VS Google kind, but ones with specific jobs – navigating an area and giving specific information on what to see and do, where and when. They are springing up all over; even cities are developing their own apps to help tourists find their way around.
AirBnB have an interesting model with ‘Neighbourhoods’, which allows users to find experiences they want based on their interests and the particular parts of a city they want to stay in. Currently launched for 21 cities, it can help narrow your choices when finding where the action you’re interested in will be. Sometimes the best part of a trip is the anticipation and planning, pouring over guidebooks and reviews to create your perfect personal itinerary. One of my fondest memories en route to Paris on the Eurostar with a friend, wine opened and brioche in had, was exploring the pages of a Rough Guide with a map spread in front of us marking where our adventures would take us.
But what about when you get there?
Personally, I’m a little wary of whipping out my phone in a strange area - especially abroad, and even more so if roaming charges rear their ugly head. There’s an innate freedom in just leaving your phone, and ultimately your ties with the outside world, behind when you’re on holiday. When you have the choice to get totally lost, exploring somewhere takes on a more authentic, real feeling. That feeling evaporates when you know you can whip out a mobile and Google map your way home. However, this doesn’t seem to happen when you have a real map in your pocket.
I recently came across some local guides in a small London restaurant in the Soho area. It was of Soho itself, with a brief history of the area, a beautiful illustrated map pointing out places of interest, and on the reverse a distilled selection of the local independent shops, bars and restaurants. It was just lovely. It turns out that a number of London areas had these guides by Urban Walkabout, and I thoroughly enjoyed following them and rediscovering the city.
It’s not like I was abroad or couldn’t find my way home – often I knew exactly where I was. It just gave me the same feeling as being on holiday, the feeling of freedom and adventure. Is it because I got to keep something tactile in my pocket, as evidence of the little private excursions I was taking? Is it a sense of reclaimed pride because it was something I knew I didn’t need my phone for – I could follow the streets and detailed landmarks easily from the carefully drawn map? Is it simply the novelty of holding something in my hand, that haptic quality that adds another sense to the experience? Or am I just nostalgic for old family holidays where map reading was a necessary (and wholly unmastered) skill?
I can hold it, keep it, follow it, write on it, and it becomes only mine. It’s a pattern that I’m seeing emerge among friends and colleagues – the reason I still buy print books even if I’ve read the digital version. If I love it, I want to keep it. I can point at it, or show someone, and say, “You see that? That’s mine. Isn’t it lovely?”
The idea of the transient is inherently an alien one to me, although one that is increasingly encroaching into my life. I have accepted it with other media, like films and music. Perhaps they are too much a part of daily life, whereas maps fall into the category of holidays, escapism, and getting away from it all. Regardless, it’s more apparent than ever that physical mementos and keepsakes are becoming more niche. Hence the resurgence of once close-to-death brands like Polaroid, who has twice filed for bankruptcy in the last decade, now the new darlings of the retro loving masses - and of course the phenomenal resurrection of vinyl. The fleeting imagery of apps like Snapchat grow in parallel with this, making it seem that the more digital our lives become, the more we emotionally invest in the material, physical manifestations of it.
Brands understand this more and more, realising that they cannot expect engagement and loyalty from consumers merely through a twitter or Facebook account. Consumers want something valuable, either a feeling or tangible element they can take with them. Where haven’t you seen a photo booth at an activation or event recently? Capturing the moment, the personal nature and the physicality neatly in one package, and building that all-important emotional tie with the consumer - it’s ideal. Of course, they are beginning to get wearisome too, and we’re itching to see what the next big thing is. But unless it hits those passion points, I would definitely have reservations. If it’s in your hand, on your desk, on the side table, you’ll see it without searching through media for it. It’s just there, reminding you gently of an experience or moment without having to dig and filter.
Tangible. Physical. Tactile.
In the end we have to ask - is it a more authentic experience because it’s not a digital one, or is it equally authentic and we’re all just suffering from a little digital fatigue?
Perhaps non-digital is the new novelty.