"Are you a user?" a man asked me as I stepped into an office party in the Pearl District two weeks ago.
"I am," I replied. I was one of the first users to arrive, he said, and pointed me in the direction of the "My username is..." nametags.
It didn't take long after I poured my first plastic cup of free beer to find people who shared my latest (online) addiction: the new Portland-based website www.Platial.com.
Platial, whose nine-person staff hosted this meet-and-greet, calls itself "The People's Atlas." Think of it as Google Maps meets MySpace.com. Platial is one of many recent startups that feature user-generated content—like the omnipresent MySpace and photo-sharing system Flickr.com—that some call the next generation of the Web. The site lets users customize their own maps and tell stories about each entry. You can add anything from the place you were born (anywhere in the world) or a local biodiesel station to where you spotted an unused, discarded tampon on a Portland sidewalk—and, yes, someone has actually mapped that.
Although the site has been live on the Internet only since mid-December, it has already garnered the attention of national media. In late March, Wired News dubbed it "an atlas written by poets." In early April, NPR's All Things Considered called it the equivalent of "visual mix tapes." Last fall, the site scored an important investor, Omidyar Network—a company started by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar—which invested at least $500,000 in Platial, according to Di-Ann Eisnor, one of Platial's co-founders.
But back in its exposed-brick Pearl District office, Platial's team is simply celebrating what they call "user love" and the release of the site's updated and improved version. Eisnor, 33, pops open a $4 bottle of champagne and fills everyone's cups. "It's cheap!" she warns, but no one seems to mind.
"Our mission is to create an atlas that can be a tool for anybody in the entire world," Eisnor tells me later. "[It will always be] free and made by people."
The idea that everyone should have access to cartography is something that mapping aficionados and computer nerds have been developing for several years. With the emergence of technology like the free mapping program Google Maps API, it's now finally possible. But before sites like Platial, you had to be pretty tech-savvy to know how to manipulate those maps. Now, a simple user interface has made this mapping movement accessible to (and fun for) those outside of the geo-geek community.
Anselm Hook, 38, technical director for Platial and self-professed "hardcore geek," has been involved in what he calls the "online social cartography community" since its inception in 2000. "One of the problems with Google Maps," he says, "is that they'll show you where Starbucks is and where advertisers' sponsored places are. I'm not opposed to advertisers, but I also want more of a ground truth"—i.e., something that more accurately reflects the community in which he lives.
Hook begins to tell me about the geomapping movement—the fight to reclaim control of mapmaking, particularly in England, where maps are property of the government. Before long, I'm two beers into a discussion about how bringing mapmaking to the people can change the course of politics, and I realize that this innocent little map website is driven by a group of passionate global visionaries.
And it's that passion that sets Platial apart from other mapping sites, says Eisnor, whose interest in what she calls "psychogeography"—"discovering place through its context," she explains—was the impetus behind the Platial project. Others sites, like the San Francisco-based Wayfaring.com and communitywalk.com, have provided a similar service since last fall. But Platial's focus, Eisnor says, is different. "All the content we've collected are primarily personal stories," she explains. "People are taking a lot of time to make each place have a rich description."
At this point, Platial's promise outstrips its actual usability. The website can be slow, and some features aren't intuitively easy. And with only 6,000 users—4,000 of whom have joined the site in the last month—it isn't yet ready to be a comprehensive social atlas. But even in its infancy, Eisnor says Platial has been popular for people trying to create grassroots maps of things like biodiesel pumps, green buildings and protests. As it grows it has the potential to become an incredible resource as well as a publicly created description of our communities.
As it turned out, only a handful of actual users showed up to this celebration. It was, perhaps, what the famed MySpace parties looked like before anyone had ever heard of MySpace—a bunch of technogeeks and computer-savvy entrepreneurs sharing cheap champagne with a small group of online junkies. But as conversations buzzed about everything from the coolest maps to the beauty of Wikipedia, this party became more than a schmooze fest. It was a celebration of making the Internet more meaningful—by giving it a more physical place.