Since the advent of participatory, interactive and collaborative tools on the Internet — often referred to as Web 2.0 — two of the most popular kinds of web applications have been mapping and video sharing. Both have facilitated the rise of mashups, from maps overlaid with personal data to contemporary art that treats YouTube as source material or medium. And yet, the seemingly obvious combination of mapping and user-generated video hasn’t produced very many online services that artfully merge geographic awareness with personal expression, location with experience. For Alex Kalman and Alex Rickard, two of the co-founders of MyBlockNYC, what binds mapping and user-generated video is a concept near and dear to the heart of any city lover: urban exploration. MyBlock allows users to take tours of New York’s most basic unit of spatial organization – the block – through the perspectives of its citizens and the videos they create, upload, locate on the map, and share with the world. When it first launched last summer, the site generated a lot of buzz, with its innovative partnership with New York City public schools and its inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Talk To Me, which featured vanguard design projects that facilitate communication between objects and people. Several months later, MyBlock continues to grow as a resource for information, entertainment and exploration. Be sure to upload your own videos of New York to MyBlock, but first, read the interview below. –C.S.
What is MyBlockNYC?
MyBlockNYC is a site that allows users to share videos on a map. It’s an interesting balance between a video sharing website and a new kind of map, and we are still asking ourselves which one is primary. You can explore the videos geographically — through a video’s location on a map of New York City — or thematically — through basic thematic categories like food, or sports, or transportation, or crime.
It started with a very simple idea: we found ourselves excited by the constant capturing and sharing of little moments in people’s daily lives. Yet the platforms for hosting, sharing, organizing and presenting these videos are limited: they don’t put the individual videos together in a way that says something larger or builds them into a cohesive language. The impulse to use MyBlock isn’t just “Oh, I heard about this video; let me find it and watch it.” The impulse is “I’m interested in this idea or this part of town; let me explore that.” The idea of exploration is very important to us.
On most video sharing websites, if you want “A,” you type “A,” and you get “A.” There is no sense of exploration beyond “A.” Those sites are big buckets into which everyone can pour material and then dig through to find videos to watch.
With MyBlock, we wanted to do something more meaningful with user-generated videos. We had the idea that the moments people document on video and share are the building blocks, in a way, of a new city, one that can be explored by anyone in the world.
Users can start to take trips through areas based on their interests. And they can also define their own landscape, they can build their own city that’s an amalgamation of so many different personal visions and interpretations – as opposed to the singular perspective of a Hollywood film about a city. Taken together, these multiple moments create the whole picture of a community.
So, it differs from a narrative film about a city and it differs from the current crop of video-sharing websites. How does it differ from other mapping platforms or sites?
Some people have compared MyBlock to Google Maps. We love Google Maps; we love Street View; these are incredibly powerful tools. One way to characterize the difference is that with Street View, you can see the cars parked on a particular street or the fronts of buildings; you find the closest subway station or which side of the street a restaurant is on. But does it give you a sense of the life or cultures or communities in that neighborhood? On MyBlock, you can go behind the visible surface to get an idea of the life of a certain block: what it sounds like, what people look like, what kind of action is going on. We’d like to add an experiential and explorative dimension to mapping that hasn’t existed before.
It also seems to have an archival sensibility. What makes it distinct from other databases or archives of urban images and storytelling?
We want the site to become a living archive of the city, documenting neighborhood change over time. I think that is going to be an immense resource for future historians and for people curious about how places change.
I’m not sure I’ve come across databases of information that are as visually seductive as MyBlock. The stories contained within it will certainly be of value to, say, a sociologist gathering information, but its value also comes from being fun, engaging entertainment. It’s great for kids; it’s great if you’re bored; and it’s great as a source of a certain kind of data about how we live now. For me, it’s important to mix the high and low. That’s why the fact that MyBlock was included in Talk To Me at the Museum of Modern Art was so exciting for us. For an institution of high art to be displaying videos made by high school students in the Bronx demonstrates the way an interface such as this can create opportunities for distinct communities to intermingle in ways they otherwise might not.
Tell me about your partnerships with the schools.
As we were developing the concept for MyBlock, we started thinking about the teenage journey through New York City and the richness of that experience. We felt it was very important to include teenage voices. And we also felt that in this age of the prevalence of video technology, it was important for teenagers to understand the potentially powerful uses of creating their own media.
So we thought to ourselves, how wonderful would it be if making a MyBlock video – a mini-documentary about your block – were a homework assignment for students? It would be an opportunity for high school students to represent their own identity as part of the community. And so we approached the Department of Education, which advised that we create some relationships with schools and test out our crazy idea. So we did that, and based on what we learned we created a curriculum and lesson plan. The program is designed to be flexible enough to accommodate any school’s preferences or limitations. If they don’t have cameras, we loan them cameras. If they don’t want to spend a whole semester on it, there’s an abbreviated version that takes a couple of weeks. If they don’t have any money, that’s okay because the program is free.
As of now, we’re working strictly with public schools. Most of the students have never picked up a video camera before. One teacher expressed to us that after seeing her students’ videos, she had a far better grasp of what they go through every day.
Give me some examples of students and the kinds of videos they made.
One powerful example is Jamal’s video. He was one of the high school students in our pilot program who has since become one of our interns. He made a really strong video about a murder that took place in his building. It documents the crime scene, the community’s response, and provides this incredible firsthand access and a deeper level of awareness about our city and its inhabitants’ daily experiences.
The curriculum you developed invokes the “civic possibilities of video.” What does “civic video” mean to you?
Maybe this is overly romantic, but I think of uploading a video to MyBlock as means of participating in the defining and redefining of our city. It’s almost like a way of voting, of taking responsibility for a full and true representation of who is in our city, what our city is like, what we like and don’t like about the way our city is.
I also think that humanizing issues — including personal perspectives on urban challenges like crime — can be a very effective way of addressing problems. Video is a tool that can bear witness to social conditions in powerful ways. When harnessed properly, it can be very powerful.
Why else do you think making videos is an important skill for young people to learn?
Video can travel all around the world within a matter of moments, and the language of moving images is universal. And many, many people have this tool in their pockets that can create video, that can create hard proof of what happened in a given situation – like the documentation of police tactics with Occupy Wall Street, for example.
And beyond bearing witness, there’s video’s potential for citizen journalism. I think the key thing about video is its accessibility – both for creators and consumers. Everyone with a cell phone has the capacity to document his or her life, so let’s give each of them the tools to craft that documentation into whatever it wants to be, whether that’s advocacy-based citizen journalism or a memento of a first date.
MyBlock’s inclusion in Talk to Me seems to put it in a group of technological innovations that foster the communication between people and objects. What does that mean to you?
A lot of the objects in Talk To Me had a very specific application, like here’s a pair of shoes that make you seem taller or here’s a pill that makes your poop different colors in order to diagnose you with various diseases. But MyBlock differs from those projects in that it doesn’t really have a precise and singular goal in mind; it’s very open-ended.
MyBlock is about the city speaking for itself, citizens speaking for the city. Talk To Me took all that communication and re-inscribed it within the museum. The installation was a large touch screen monitor that was positioned like a drafting board. Museum visitors could physically play and drag around the map of New York, then zoom into a particular block and have it come to life within the walls of the museum.
And I liked the ways in which MyBlock knocked down those walls, in a sense. In the context of Talk To Me, MoMA wasn’t just a temple of high design and art for the presentation of artefacts selected by curators. And it wasn’t like a spotlight on this precious design object. Any moment, uploaded by anyone, anywhere in New York City could be found within the museum’s walls. In a way, we flooded the museum with New York City.
When and why did the emphasis on the block as the organizational framework for these place-based videos emerge?
When we started to narrow down our vision, we started to ask ourselves, “what is the tangible unit of New York City?” An entire world exists on a block of New York.
I think the idea was to work with the preexisting organization of the city and not try to pin drop or abstract it, but to facilitate the predefined associations.
Exactly. Integration into the city’s landscape as it is experienced was important for us. Most map services use the concept of the pin drop to denote location, but the pin drop is not a tangible aspect of urban experience, it has no preexisting relationship to the architecture or layout of the city.
What do you think the users of MyBlock can learn about New York City from exploring the content on the site?
It’s less about the facts and more about the nuances of place. One example is a Japanese woman who had previously lived in New York and missed it terribly when she returned to Japan. Someone shared the site with her, and she let us know that she started crying when she was checking out the site. Finally, she said, there was a way to reconnect emotionally with a place she loves.
New York is such a diverse place. When you see a video somewhere else on the internet, even if it is labeled as taking place in New York, there is no immediate way to juxtapose it to another view of the same place or some other geographic relationship. But with MyBlock, users can look at one block and see the interplay of all these different worlds within finite locations.
And (as long as its not pornographic or inappropriate) it isn’t controlled or dictated by any editorial voice.
Do you think this way of engaging with images and stories of New York challenges some of our assumptions our iconic city and the ways we are used to imagining it?
I think so far what’s it’s doing is re-affirming the common notion of New York as having this raw energy, this amazing mix of unique strong characters that makes itself known to you as you walk the city’s streets.
I think that we also get really excited with the idea that politicians and policymakers could use this website to get a better sense of what is going on in the city. The statistics and data points that generally guide daily decision-making at City Hall are limited by their lack of faces or tangible personal experiences. Another way it could be used is simply to get a better sense of a neighborhood, whether you’ve lived there your whole life or you’re a visitor preparing to do an apartment swap.
Where is the project going next?
We’re trying to figure out how to take this simple idea and start to focus on what our users want, as well as how this can be actually used beyond entertainment and exploration. So the next steps are to develop ways to help people use the site to improve their understanding of some aspect of New York, lo learn what the city’s like from a first-hand perspective.
It’s at the proof of concept stage right now: we needed to design it, get it out there and see how people use it. Now, we are really excited to optimize what we have launched. I think once we figure how it can work best for New York City, we are excited to bring it to other cities, both in this country and around the world. We want to continue to mature our search engine and how people filter through this content, and to find more practical uses for the site. I think that right now it’s fun, it’s entertaining, it’s leisurely, it’s art. But the next step is to get some practicality out of it for our users without weakening our commitment to art, self-expression and exploration.