Why I quit Foursquare

Over the weekend, I deleted the Foursquare app from my phone. I joined the service in 2011 and used it pretty consistently up until Saturday when I quit the app. It was actually my last check-in, to the Corvallis Farmers Market, that prompted me to give up.

My geographer’s curiosity prompted me to try the service. I wanted to experience this way of relating to place (and, in fact, became aware of Foursquare by seeing check-ins from other geographers in my Twitter feed). I was also interested in the potential of the app for discovering new places, particularly when visiting new cities.

Over time, what kept me using Foursquare was habit, sharing with Anne-Marie when one of us would be traveling, and the game aspects of the app.

When I first started with the service, I didn’t really give the gaming function much thought, but as a base of users in Corvallis and the mid-Willamette Valley began to develop, I found myself getting caught up in competitions for mayorships of my most frequently visited places. That was, as it turned out, kind of fun. The Corvallis Farmers Market was one of the locations where I competed for mayor, and the lack of mayoral updates for that place is what made me decide to let go of this habit.

Of course, starting a few months ago when Foursquare announced “Swarm”, competition for mayorships ended. The folks at Foursquare have reconfigured mayorships and badges for the new app. I haven’t adopted Swarm for a number of reasons, but the main one is that the new app, and the way that mayorships work, looks effective for larger urban areas where you will have a critical mass of both general participants and friends using the app in your immediate vicinity. Mayorships are allocated within circles of friends instead of from the entire user base. On Foursquare, most of the other people I traded mayorships with weren’t “friends”; we were all just local participants on the service. Swarm does not appear as it if offers much fun or incentive for people like me who live in a smaller city and where other users are going to be dispersed and probably not “friends”, in whatever sense.

I don’t fully understand the thinking behind splitting the service into a Yelp-like app, still called Foursquare, and the more social, Swarm, or why the functionality of the latter is so geared for users in larger metropolitan areas, but maybe I am a case in point for these changes.

Even before the gaming parts of Foursquare were shut down, I had reduced my use. I had stopped regularly cross-posting my check-ins on Twitter, and based on my Twitter timeline, I clearly was not alone in that. I was gradually making less of a point about checking in and right before I quit, had reduced my use of the service to a few places where I regularly had comments or photos to share. In some cases, I stopped doing even that (turns out that shooting pictures of dinosaurs trying to drink your beer at Laughing Planet will, in fact, stop being fun past a certain point).

I don’t know how many other people are also quitting Foursquare and taking a pass on Swarm, and I am sure that the new app will attract its own user base independent of original Foursquare adopters, but I think that it’s notable that the service is being reconfigured in a way that loses value for most of us who live outside of a small number of major metropolitan areas, and is likely now mostly appealing for (some) young adults (honestly, I don’t think even when I was a twenty-something living in Portland that I would have been too thrilled by the locational tracking aspects of Swarm).

At the end, this episode is a small reminder that our digital networks are neither spaceless nor placeless.

Maybe the people aren’t the problem: an alternate take on Portland-area wages

Betsy Hammond has a story up on OregonLive today reporting on a study released by a Portland-area business group, the “Value of Jobs Coalition“, which concludes, in part, that Portland metro area wages are being depressed by an overabundance of college graduates who are either, or both, working in lower paying jobs or for fewer hours than their compatriots in other cities. As reported in the article, the authors of the study frame these findings as signs of a broken or underperforming economy. While acknowledging that there is a question to be asked as to whether this “problem” is largely the result of economic conditions or merely the aggregation of individual choices, what is also clear is that, for the authors and the quoted economists and business figures, there is something inherently aberrant about Portland’s relatively lower wages and fewer people in higher paying jobs (read: STEM and finance).

Not surprisingly, given the current context for discussions of this nature, the study emphasizes that Portland is home to “an extra-large population of humanities [and social science] majors”, and that workers in the city disproportionately hold jobs or have careers in fields like art, design and media, at least in comparison to other places, where there are higher numbers of people in higher paying professions and occupations such as those in business and health.

To me, there is one substantive effect of this pattern of employment and the associated lower wages identified in the article, and that is a reduced ability to pay for services from lower income tax revenues.

However, not only does this contention elide the fundamental problems we have with the tax system in Oregon, the most salient being state-wide property tax limitations that already make funding local services difficult, but there is also the larger question, unasked in the OregonLive report, of whether the problem here isn’t so much with individuals choosing to major in the humanities and social sciences and taking relatively lower paying jobs to live in Portland, but with a political and economic system that is tied to an assumption that wages should go up, or that the point of getting a college education is to maximize one’s personal income (by way of illustration, the article concludes with a quote from Sandra McDonough, president of the Portland Business Alliance, exhorting the city to, “get strategic to get more people with finance, management, science, technology, engineering and math. We are short in these key areas that are moneymaking areas”).

The research that I did with my subjects and informants for Comic Book City offers some insight into how this study appears to miss, or ignore, certain nuances to the Portland economy and why the city attracts the kind of college graduates and professionals it does, while perhaps being less attractive to people looking to “make it big”, where that primarily means lots of money, but also fame and advancement.

As implied by Amy Vilet, the Oregon Employment Department Economist quoted at OregonLive, Portland is a relatively low cost of living location. Not only does the comparative data cited in the study include substantially higher cost locations like New York, thereby skewing the wage comparison, but the underlying point is that you don’t need to make as much money to live decently in Portland as you do in many other cities.

Among the writers and artists I surveyed and interviewed, most made mention of being able to do things like buy a house or go out to eat regularly while still working in a modestly paying field like comics, or in a “day job” that affords them time and energy for writing and drawing, or that is fulfilling in its own right.

Furthermore, it also seems clear that among those individuals choosing to stay in the city, material reward and advancement are not primary values. While no one expressed a desire to live an ascetic life, being able to have satisfying work and time and opportunity to participate in community and non-work related interests are values that the people I spoke with seem to hold over and above standard measures of “success”. These findings are consistent with what researchers at the Portland-based Artisan Economy Initiative have also found in their investigations of the cultural and economic lives of the city’s “extra-large population of humanities majors”. Indeed, I would recommend Charles Heying’s book, Brew to Bikes: Portland’s Artisan Economy (Ooligan Press, 2010) for a different view of how Portland’s economy works to the one underlying the OregonLive report. I’ve embedded an excerpt from Comic Book City below that features Heying and co-researcher Shanna Eller addressing this question of “values” for Portland’s community of artisan producers.

While Hammond’s article includes recognition that, for many in the city’s multitudes of humanities and social science majors, job and career satisfaction is just as or more important than earning potential (though, to be sure, this is viewed as part of the problem with the city’s economy, if not seen as being outright perverse), my research suggests that, for some at least, this kind of thinking also extends to the “luxuries” they want from where they live.

Repeatedly, the individuals I surveyed and spoke with indicated that being able to live well without relying on, or even owning, a car is a primary reason for choosing to be in Portland. While in one sense this is a reflection of the values noted above, in another sense, for someone on a career path unlikely to result in higher average wages, not owning a car is also an economically rational choice, as is living in a place that makes that choice possible. According to AAA, in 2012, the average cost of owning a car in the U.S. was $8946/year, which roughly translates to $745.50/month. For anyone looking to work in a field with modest average pay or that entails working freelance, that is a significant expense to be spared or mitigated.

That Portland affords individuals alternate forms of compensation, some material, some not, and that’s why many who choose to live there are attracted to the city, suggests that seeing a dichotomy between a) an economy that forces individuals to accept lower hours and pay and b) an economy that simply reflects individual choices may be an overly simplistic framing of the city’s workforce.

As cited on OregonLive, I have no doubt that there are individuals who are frustrated by what they see as too low hours and pay, but it also appears to be the case that many of these same individuals nonetheless choose to remain in the city. Some are likely tied by circumstance, health, family, but for others, quality of life considerations probably offset, or trump, such frustrations. In other words, it is possible that some people are both “forced” into lower paying jobs and also willing to accept such jobs in order to stay in Portland. None of the comics creators I spoke with were purely concerned with the income potentials of their jobs or careers or with their personal finances. I have a hard time imagining any of the individuals featured in the film moving away simply because they thought they could earn higher wages someplace else.

The puzzle for growth-advocates, and I think you see this reflected in Hammond’s article, is that the structure of Portland’s economy seems to be largely the product of market forces, but with results that contradict the assumptions of mainstream economic development models that place a priority on rising wages, both for urban economies and for individuals. What the Value of Jobs Coalition seems to represent is an organized effort to pushback against an actually existing economy where many individuals simply don’t care about the usual metrics of economic vitality or success.

I don’t want to overstate the significance of Portland’s difference or uniqueness in this regard, the city is still part of the global capitalist economy and the base fundamentals of the local economy are little different from anywhere else in the U.S., but at the same time the city does appear to be filling a niche, and successfully, for people who want at least marginally different things from the typical American dream of big job, big house, and big car. What or why you would want to see that as a problem to be fixed is beyond me.

My tumblr: small city graffiti and street art

I’ve been meaning to mention here that I’ve started a blog on tumblr, Small City Bomb Report, dedicated to documenting graffiti and street art in smaller cities and towns. Most of the images are from Corvallis, but I’ve also reblogged some pictures from other tumblrs, notably snappingthewalls’ blog, and streets.

A few of the photos you can see with more information at Small City Bomb Report (all graffiti & street art from Corvallis, Oregon, photos by me):

“This is what a house looks like”: contesting the neighborhood

Last week these signs started showing up in our neighborhood, "This is What a House Looks Like"and specifically one block over from where our house is located, across from and adjacent to new housing being built on the site of a tear-down. Since then, the campaign has migrated to other blocks and streets.

Anne-Marie and I have talked on and off about the signs since noticing them last weekend. Lately we have mostly been making jokes about expanding the scope of the effort, putting up signs that say, “This is what a tree looks like”, “This is what a car looks like”, “This is what a dog looks like”; you get the idea.

Those jokes stem from the unease that I, and I think Anne-Marie, have about this campaign. There are a number of possible subtexts to the message on the sign that I am reluctant to support even as I am sympathetic to other purposes embedded in the idea.

As our playing around with alternatives implies, my main concern has to do with the implication that there is only one acceptable way for a house to look, and that look conforms to American white and middle class ideals around the family.

On Corvallis TidBits, an online “community newspaper”, you can view a statement of purpose about the sign campaign. There are two salient points.

One is that the new development contravenes public testimony in opposition to the units, which, according to the statement, takes advantage of a quirk in city law that allows for ‘single attached’ housing to be built across property lines, even where multi-unit housing would be disallowed if built on a single lot.

This is where I am in sympathy with the aims of the campaign. In a city with a reported vacancy rate of less than 1%, and high demand for student housing in particular, developers have substantial leverage to shape development in ways that are expedient for profit-making, but maybe not in the best long-term interests of neighbors, or for the quality of the city’s housing stock. American landscapes are rife with structures built without regard to context, and that can be alienating.

The houses in question appear to be a large in relation to those immediately adjacent, but, as Anne-Marie has observed, the real concern about many of the newest developments in the neighborhood, and nearby, is the layouts, which are maximized for individual living space while minimizing shared living area. The concern here, and as expressed in the TidBits article, is the new housing will only be attractive to students. From a market perspective, that’s where the easy to assess demand lies. Our neighborhood, which today is called “Avery Addition”, is just a few blocks from Oregon State University and a short walk to downtown (from our house we can get to the other side of either campus or downtown in about twenty minutes on foot). As the new 300-unit complex going in behind us suggests, market incentives in this area clearly break in favor of catering to students.

So, yes, the development under dispute does raise questions about democracy and sustainability, and the nature of ownership, or the intersection of private rights and public goods. It is hard for me to argue with the case for a more open and dialogic process where individual, community, city, and developer interests are all given comparable weights and room for articulation.

On the other hand, the statement of purpose for the “This is what a house looks like” signs also claims that Avery Addition is, “a traditional housing neighborhood”.

In one sense, I guess that is another way of making the point about design and layouts, but in another sense that statement encapsulates my uneasiness with the implication of the campaign that only single-family housing is acceptable. Taken in context, I’m not sure that the statement holds up to scrutiny, underscoring my sense that there is a kind of class privilege being exercised through the signs, and underneath the rhetoric and concern for democracy and sustainability.

The neighborhood we live in dates to the 1850s. There is a history here, but the area is not historic in the sense that term is usually used in battles over preservation, which is to signify that a neighborhood has an identifiable and consistent character. There have clearly been distinct periods of development and redevelopment continuing to the present. If you were to take a walk through Avery Addition you would see a variety of house styles – cottages, bungalows, ranches, split-levels – from a variety of eras – nineteenth to twenty-first centuries – and sizes – one, two, and three story. There’s no standard lot size. Some houses have been kept and maintained as single-family structures, while others have been divided into apartments or otherwise adapted for the rental market. Some have been carefully renovated, while others haven’t seen significant work in decades. Even before the new development, the neighborhood was ringed by apartment complexes dating to the 70s, 80s, and 90s (judging by appearances). I think, but have not confirmed, that there are one or two houses near us that are active communes of some kind. Avery Addition is one of the denser and more eclectic neighborhoods in Corvallis in terms of its housing and its residents.

“This is what a house looks like” seems to fly in the face of the area’s history and the neighborhood’s actually existing housing stock. Students are already here in significant numbers, and likely have been for decades. In this light, the sign campaign feels not just conservative but reactionary.

And yet it I also wish that developers would take, or could be compelled to take, a different approach to what is currently being built. The new complex behind us is, essentially, a dorm, even offering individual leases on shared apartments. There is little reason, beyond profiting from the current student-driven housing shortage, for the developments to be so narrowly tailored to one group of market participants.

I am not, however, in principle, opposed to multi-unit housing or density; we chose to move here in part because of the close-in location and the density that implies. I expect to be living next to students and other renters, to people sharing housing, as well as to single-family homeowners, not to mention urban farmers, other academics and white collar professionals, writers and artists, retirees – Avery Addition seems like it has a diversity of housing for people of different needs and backgrounds. I think that’s good and all too rare in the U.S. I don’t think this neighborhood actually does have one kind of house and it certainly has more than one kind of home.

Follow-up to “Growing up free in PDX”

After posting my reflection on growing up in Portland and the freedom public transit gave me, I saw this report from The Oregonian about Mayor Sam Adams pushing back on TriMet’s plan to end the free youth pass. In short, Adams is proposing to raise the fees charged to TriMet for use of city property for shelters and benches. The money raised would then be used to cover the costs of maintaining the pass program.

Youth passes weren’t free when I was a kid, but I seem to recall a special rate, if not for youth specifically, then for the monthly pass. I did not mention the monthly pass specifically in the prior post, but I did use one in high school, at least when classes were in session. Regardless of cost, a pass makes using transit even easier than having to find and count out fare for each trip, and while it made Fareless Square less useful to me personally, my friends who did not have passes could ride around the downtown area with me as freely as I could with my pass.

At BlueOregon, Kari Chisholm comments:

For years, I’ve believed that TriMet should just allow any young person under age 18 free access to buses and light rail. After all, what better way is there to produce the next generation of transit riders? Riding the bus can be confusing for newbie riders – so adolescence is exactly the right time to get folks accustomed to it.

That certainly resonates with my experience, even without having enjoyed something like the current youth pass program. In fact, when we visit Portland, or for just about any city, our practice is to park the car (if we have one) and, as much as possible, use foot and transit to get around while we’re there. There’s no better way to get to know or get around a city. I find it much less stressful to take the time to orient myself to a transit system than to drive around, especially, in an unfamiliar city, and even where I do know a place well, I am happy to avoid negotiating parking. Where transit is a viable option, I find that it affords more freedom of action and movement than being shackled to a car (thus the theme of my original post on this topic).

I hope that Adams is successful in his bid to forestall or offset the effect of this particular service cut by TriMet.

Recommended daily reading – 12 May (hey, I still do this edition)

It’s Spring term and I find myself without time and energy to do many rewarding activities, like keeping up-to-date with my news feeds and maintaining this blog, but I have finally collected a few items to share.

Last week, Inside Higher Ed featured a story on the efforts of librarians to archive internet documents so that scholars in the future have the same kind of access to those texts as they do to print materials. The article is a good illustration as to why librarianship needs to be a professional and academic field, no matter what some in college administration might think.

Also last week, at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates has an incisive blog post challenging assertions of “black privilege” and anti-affirmative action politics. The most salient point is that most who see themselves as victims of discrimination as a result of affirmative action also fail to see their own privilege and how being white has historically been a benefit in America.

And here’s another moment of mundane beauty in Spacing Toronto’s “Street Scene” series.

Finally, some cool and fun looking cosplay  (via Comics.Hockey.Boobs) (Update: here’s more).

Recommended daily reading – 2 March (yes, I still do this edition)

I finally compiled enough links to post a new round-up.

In the area of teaching and learning:

  • At Inside Higher Ed, Robert Eisinger writes about the importance of “teaching ambiguity”. This is one of my great challenges. Cultural geographers deal with subjects that are ambiguous in their meaning and significance, and one thing I try to do is to help students develop tools and perspectives that enable them to effectively address topics where answers can be open-ended and much depends on the questions asked and in what context.
  • Curiosity Counts provides this quick hit about teens and geo-location services.

Turning to geography-related matters:

  • Jake Tobin Garrett has a defense of “messiness” in Toronto, and in cities in general. While one way to look at telephone polls plastered with fliers is as eyesores, Garrett points to them as indicators of a city’s creativity and energy.
  • SightLine has an interesting look at traffic volume in the Pacific Northwest, and how it has fallen short of expectations, suggesting that transportation planning need not be as car-oriented as it has been.

Renee French posted this image of a woman with a closed eye that I can’t quite shake. I think there is something compelling in the contract between the enclosed eye and the open one.

This, via ComicsAlliance, is awesome news, even if it is speculative.

Finally, I found The Mary Sue, a new blog devoted to girl geek culture, via GeekGirlCon on Twitter. And at The Mary Sue, Susana Polo has an interesting post arguing for women, and sexual minorities, to strategically gender or “out” themselves online as a way to break down the idea that the internet is a male/masculine space. The discussion in comments is well worth reading, too. While you are there, read Polo’s introduction/mission statement for the site.