Mapnaut, Connecting Twitter to Places
The original goal of this story was to put down my experience about the design and the development process behind Mapnaut.
Lines that I brushed aside for a while until I realized that the Mapnaut spaceline was, and probably still is, a meaningful complementary view to the old Twitter timeline and the new algorithmic one.
One day Damiano contacted me asking if I was willing to give him a hand to develop his master thesis project further. I had previously attended his early stage presentations from MIT during his internship at SENSEable City Lab. At that time we were attending the same university program directed by Gillian Crampton Smith and Philip Tabor.
I was very impressed by Terrarium, it was ingenious and ambitious. Damiano proposed a very personal experience — uncommon for a mapping service — by giving people the opportunity to collect “unsharable” places allowing at the same time the discovery of new places avoiding the so-called filter bubble.
So, I accepted to join him in the TechPeaks program. I reached Damiano in Trento, Vladimir joined us as well, and after several discussions and pitches, we were able to get the resources we needed for the initial design and development of our app.
The main goal of Terrarium was to collect and visualize personal points of interest with a graphic and immersive experience. The Processing prototype developed by Damiano showed a map where the personal points of interest were represented as a mental map and the distance between those points was based on the personal perception of people (see isochronic maps).
Terrarium was a futuristic concept, but we had to simplify everything to pull off an MVP in a short time. But in what way? Digital maps — at that time — were “heavy” and difficult to manage without a decent GPS or internet connection. If we had continued thinking of Mapnaut as a map-centric app, we would have encountered performance and usability issues. In the end, we decided to remove the map from the main view, but we had to preserve the idea of “spatiality” and affordability (in terms of cognitive load) with a more flexible visualization.
The first alternative to the map visualization that came to our mind was something very similar to a timeline with the only difference that the collected points of interest were not ordered temporally, but spatially. From the aesthetic point of view, the solution was neither original, nor attractive as the Terrarium map but, at least simple, easy to understand, and easy to develop. The spaceline word was the easiest way to sum it up.
In the meantime, we had lost sight of content: the points of interest. In the Terrarium original idea, people could collect some personal points of interest, visible only to friends. A personal and private map in which saving a space into a personal place was the main action that we had to preserve.
We are all used to saving bookmarks: it is a metaphor — fairly forced — that helps books and browsers users save a recallable page. The idea that came into our minds was to re-use that metaphor to save places. The word placemark — albeit not very original — perfectly summed up the concept. At that point, we just had to figure out in which form to save the contents.
The “Spine” and the Spime
I’m an early Twitter user, and I have always been fascinated by its simplicity and by its elegant microsyntax. By analyzing the structure of a tweet, we realized that it had everything we needed to save a place. In a single placemark of 140 characters, you could write a micro review, categorize it, attach a picture of it, and share it on Twitter.
The affinity and the conformity of placemarks and tweets, would have turned Mapnaut into a small focused app gravitating around its social spine. An extension that would have made Twitter a Spime system sensible to both time and space.