Patrick May
San Jose Mercury News


The Internet has fallen in love with place.



From wildly popular Instagrammers like the photographer behind Humans of New York, to globetrotters leaving digital travel notes on the story-sharing site Findery, to cloud-based services that help brands pitch themselves through location-based storytelling, the digital masses have discovered the thrill of writing about where they’re at.



With social media applications that let us share real-time stories about places we love, live or linger in, users are adding a new layer of intimacy to their online experience.



“Our increased sense of isolation that technology has helped create is making the physical reality of place that much more important,” said author Andy Smith, who has written about using social media to create good in the world. “This trend of telling and sharing stories from real places is like a counterbalance to the placelessness of our online world.”



The irony is rich: While we increasingly inhabit an online world that seems to be both everywhere and nowhere, we’re using the same technology to celebrate actually being somewhere.



“There’s a new appreciation for the here and now,” said Caterina Fake, the co-founder of Flickr. Her new startup, San Francisco-based Findery, links people around the world by letting them share “notes,” or mini-dispatches, from wherever they are. “What’s more and more important to people is the place they’re actually standing in right now. What is it about this place, versus some other, that’s special? That’s what people are telling stories about.”



Tapping into a basic human instinct to share location-based experiences, whether it’s a meal at a taco joint in California or a Buddhist ceremony at a shrine in Sri Lanka, entrepreneurs have unleashed a steady stream of websites, in-the-cloud mapping services, and mobile apps.



Many are commerce-driven, as retailers and other businesses use crowd-sourced storytelling as a marketing tool to sell us Colombia-grown coffee beans and Colorado ski resorts. Others are products of someone’s passion, like Placing Literature, a crowd-sourced website that maps out scenes from novels in real locations.



The common thread among all of these tools is simple: to harness technology to capture and share the narrative of a place. And it’s a practice that resonates with our mobile society.



One of the more prominent online narrators is Brandon Stanton, a former bond trader-turned-street photographer whose photos and mini-stories of New York City residents on the Instagram site Humans of New York have become a sensation. Roaming the city with his camera, Stanton snaps a photo, then asks a question of the stranger before him, spurring answers that run from whimsical to heartbreaking. In the process, his mini-profiles offer followers a richly textured portrait of Manhattan and the human spirit that fills it to overflowing.