Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Locating Overlooked Histories: An Interview with Queerstory Founder

As part of my doctoral research on locative media and its role in our relationship to our places, I interviewed the founders of the locative media app, Queerstory.  Queerstory is Toronto's first LGBTQ geolocative history app and I would argue of the most effective geolocative history apps anywhere.

The Queerstory mobile app points users to nearby points of interest in a map or list based view. How Queerstory differs, however, that rather than just having text descriptions the app includes video oral histories, interviews, and artistic interpretations. Users can also refine the content based on various themes, such as activism, culture, and culture. The app is free and available on Apple, Android, or the mobile web.

I interviewed both of the Queerstory's founders, Michael Alstad and Janet Hethrington on their work with Queerstory and their ideas on the role generally of locative media. As a sneak peek from my research, here are some Q&As from my interview with Michael.

Glen: What motivated you to develop this application?
Michael: Year Zero One (YZO), a media arts organization that curates digital art projects both online and in public space,  has been producing locative media projects since 2003 beginning with the pioneering Teletaxi project. We produced a locative history app in 2012 in affiliation with the Textile Museum of Canada called TXTilecity. TXTilecity is a mobile app that leads users on a self-directed tour through sites relevant to Toronto’s garment and fashion industry history through a series of site-specific short video docs and a commissioned media artwork.

With the success of TXTilecity, I was keen of adapting the locative history concept to produce Queerstory – an app and website exploring over a century of Toronto’s LGBT history that was launched to coincide with World Pride in 2014. Toronto is a world leader in progressive LGBT policy and has a rich and diverse queer political, social, and cultural history that is somewhat understated and hidden in comparison to other international centres like New York City where sites like the Stonewall Inn are marked with plaques.

I see the Queerstory app as a digital placemarker that commemorates and preserves queer history. It allows for a more multidimensional and sensory-based experience of lived history as it relates to the urban environment.

Glen: What has the response been from users?
The response to Queerstory overall has been positive. App users have been impressed by scope and diversity of stories and histories. Some users were intrigued to discover several sites and neigbourhoods not traditionally associated with the gay community and its history.

It was noted the number of overall sites might be too ambitious for one continuous tour and also the amount of video content consumes a lot of data for limited cell plans.

With my personal user experience with Queerstory, I felt the media artworks by Keith Cole and Caitlin Fisher – where the artists led you on their unique individualized tours and interpretations of queer history – I explored and engaged with the physical surroundings and places more.

Glen: How is experiencing a place with your app different than without it?
Michael: I think the process of walking through the city and exploring these sites is an experiential and fun way of discovering and learning about queer history.

Most of the mapped sites in Queerstory could easily be overlooked. For example, the site of the Barracks Bathhouse, a heritage house on Widmer, a narrow street in the entertainment district lined with old Victorian row houses, is a key historic queer space linked to one of the most important events of Canada’s gay liberation movement - the 1981 Toronto bathhouse raids and riots. The mass arrests and ensuing riot are considered to be the Canadian equivalent of the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City.

Also an important place related aspect of Queerstory is the in-situ interviews. We noticed a pattern with our interviewees - that being situated in the sites where the histories occurred triggered their memory with renewed insights and reflection on the events.

I believe that the layering of hidden stories, rare archival material and on-site interviews creates a unique sensory experience of place.

Glen: Mobile media is criticized for distancing people from places. Can you comment on this?
Michael: On one hand, I see mobile media as physically distancing people from one another in public spaces and cafes where individuals are cloistered with their mobile devices, headphones, and laptops. On the other hand, I personally see the value in information layers, alternate narratives, and digital annotations on places are useful and beneficial as long as you’re objective and can filter the info to enhance your personal experience of place.


Queerstory was recently recognized for their innovative use of media to document and share Toronto's history by winning an award from Heritage Toronto.

Visit the Queerstory website for more information on the app and their content.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Top Posts of 2015

Every year I recount my favourite posts to this blog. I've done it as my favourite post by month or a top ten. This year I'll try something new and do the top ten posts as determined by you readers. I reviewed my site usage records to determine most viewed blog posts that I wrote in 2015.

So here in order of most viewed, are the Top 15 Posts of 2015
  1. Playing and Learning with Digital Media and Technology at digiPlaySpace - for the past couple years my daughter and I play hooky and visit TIFF's digital media playground, here's her review
  2. Digital Help for Visitors to Toronto - Toronto hosted the PanAm Games this summer, so to help out visitors to our city I comprised a list of apps (including LBS) and websites to help them find their way and our sites
  3. No App Required - a post on the virtues of the Mobile Web over mobile apps and how one company gets it
  4. List of Location Based Services - years in the making, an updated list of the top apps with geolocative functionality
  5. Digital Advent Calendar for Canadians - I was impressed by an interactive holiday present from Harrowsmith, so I talked to the maker on how he put it together
  6. Email Etiquette: Things We All Should Know by Now - after receiving some rude and annoying emails this summer, I retaliated by publishing a list of how to use email correctly
  7. Learning Appreciation for Graphic Literature - I delivered a workshop for kids at my local library on the elements on graphic literature and how kids can make it themselves
  8. Careers in Corporate Digital Media - a presentation for university graduates on possible careers and skills needed for jobs involving digital media
  9. Tracking the Trackers - exploring my Android smartphone's location tracking feature
  10. Reading Into the So-Called Decline of eBooks - will digital media replace print, it's not as simple as people originally thought as some predict print books will replace eBooks
  11. Building a Solid Information Architecture for a Website - an overview and tips on how to organize the content of a website for users
  12. The Hardest Thing About Social Media - angry at a local company with shoddy service, I resisted the urge to post a negative review online and instead I posted some advice on why not posting is sometimes the best decision
  13. You Can Locate Me at the Canadian Wireless Trade Show - this past October I spoke at this tradeshow on user issues mobile, locative applications
  14. Accessibility of Information Systems - my presentation on accessibility as related to digital media and Ontario's accessibility law
  15. Motive to Make Locative Media Better - my interview with a Canadian company, Motive, who have launched a DIY platform to make it easy to launch locative media apps

Some of my favouite posts didn't make it to the top 15, so here are my missing favourites:
  • e-Postards Archives - my attempt to help preserve a communication form, e-Postcards, as it seems to be dying out
  • Images of Canada - for Canada Day 2015, I put together a slideshow of my favourite photos of Canada
  • Kids Doodle App - my kid just got her first smartphone in the summer and some apps, including a digital doodle app that she made an awesome image for me
  • National Girls Learning Code Day - November 7 was Girls Learning Code Day and my daughter and I spent the day at Telus headquarters building her first website
Judging from my posts for 2015, it was an eclectic year as I explored and wrote about a bunch of digital media topics. Plus, my usual posts on locative media (including a still active request for research participants on this topic). Hopefully, 2016 will be a similarly inspiring.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Art of Complaining - Or Try Some Sugar Instead of Just Vinegar

I know life is unfair and people can be miserable ass hats such that the injustice of life does make one want to complain. Believe me, I am a complainer. My complaining has gotten me some benefits such as rebates and various forms of compensation. So I can appreciate the desire in others to complain about their perceived injustices.

Lately, I've noticed people have no sense of the art and skill of how to complain effectively.

This is even more important as you consider that much of complaining, of a non-personal nature, is done via email.  Email is a thin medium, that doesn't have all the features of face-to-face interactions. Thanks to email, it's easier than ever to complain to companies, agencies, institutions, and governments.

Too many people, however, go in with their first message with all guns blaring and throwing vinegar in the eye of their intended target. Their emails are full of accusations blaming the receiver in the harshest terms of malevolent wrongdoing and instantly brandish threats that the sender will seek reprisal to the highest levels. This tactic is a form of intimidation. But when dealing with authority figure or a distant and unresponsive customer service agent, this tactic doesn't tend to get them on your side. Vinegar begets more vinegar. And your offending email can easily disappear or be given a low priority.

You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar is an age-old adage because it states a universal truth. Humans like sweetness. We like to feel appreciated and to be treated well. Threats and rants may work some time, but they cause damage to one's reputation (not to mention psyche) and may result in long-lasting damage. Once you go dark, it is next to impossible to reverse that.

Instead, the first tactic in complaining is to offer sugar.  It is surprising how effective a polite inquiry can go towards getting you what you want. So here are my steps to complaining effectively via email or other digital media.

#1 Cool off 
We all make mistakes. Most people don't intend to harm others. Don't assume that everyone is out to get you. Give people the benefit of the doubt. So the first step in an email complaint is to thank the person for their time and/or effort. You may not feel very thankful depending on the circumstances of your situation, but give it a try for your first communication. Give people decent human respect until they have proven conclusively that they don't deserve it - and even then sometimes its advantageous to ape respect for undeserving "superiors". Never insult people, directly or indirectly, as this will never help. Keep your communications non-personal and level-headed.

#2 Ask for clarification
Often things can be a misunderstanding or error that can be quickly rectified. A few weeks ago, I  purchased something online and when I received it was very poor quality. My first email was polite and expressed how disappointed I was. I was preparing in successive emails to mount an extensive case for why they should accept a return of the item, but upon receiving my first reply I received a full refund and they said for me to keep the item. This has happened to me before.

#3 Provide evidence
Facts sway opinion and get intended results. Your subjective opinion can backfire and come across as a scam or someone trying to get something they don't deserve. (There are people out there trying to pull things so distinguish yourself from them with evidence and logic). Photographs or screen-captures are great sources of evidence.

#4 Declare the stakes for you
The goal is to generate sympathy not come across as a self-righteous ass hat. In a brief and somewhat emotional manner, state why this is an issue for you - what you lost as a result or are not able to do now.

Advanced tactic, if appropriate play the victim card and let them know how you have suffered. When a flight was cancelled at the airport for our trip to Disney World and none to be reschedule my wife was resigned to acceptance. I went up to the company agent without any anger or attitude (as it was most definitely not her fault) and explained how we had booked a special event at Disney World and we would now miss it. I told my daughter to come with me. In the end, the agent was incredibly helpful and really wanted to help us, she spent an hour of her time made numerous calls but got us on another carrier there (we were only 2 people to get a flight).

#5 Declare your desired recourse
At some point (and not too early), you will need to state what form of redress or action you woud like. Don't come across as too demanding or asking for things you aren't really entitled to (e.g full refund or completed overturning a decision as this isn't likely to ever happen). I like to begin by implying what I want. If the idea comes from them, there is a much better chance it will be implemented.

If these initial tactics don't work then try...

#6 state the stakes for the company or organization
Declare what a valuable customer you are, for example. Be careful to not threaten as no one likes to be threatened. Always be polite. But sometimes you have to be very clear at what you will do if the your problem is not addressed.

#7 Escalate with caution
Don't instantly go over someone's head or cc their boss. At some point and times, escalation is the only way to go, so don't be afraid to do this if and when it is necessary. Exhaust the previous tactics first though!

Be transparent when escalating to the people you were previously communicating with. Don't try to vilify the person to their boss as that person still works there and creating an enemy which is never helpful for your immediate or future needs.

Assuming some responsibility for the situation and being contrite can go a long way to avoid making the problem worse and can help you come across as a reasonable person with a just issue. At this point, ask to take your discussions offline (and instead proceed in-person or via telephone) is recommended.

Email has made complaining so much easier and effective than before. But it can definitely backfire if one sends out emotional and hasty emails.  I have followed these above steps for years, and I'm still surprised how frequently everything works out very well for me and surprisingly early and without emotional turmoil.  For the sake of everyone, give sugar a try!

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Digital Advent Calendar for Canadians

Over the past three days on Facebook, I've noticed friends posting about Harrowsmith Now's online Advent Calendar. I finally had a moment to check it out today and was delighted!

I love the idea of taking the concept of an advent calendar, putting it online, and making it enjoyable for adults. For each day in December, one can click the date to see a new interactive experience with a focus on Canada's winters and the holidays. The online advent calendar is much better than waxy chocolate and is guilt-free and made in Canada.

I won't give away the digital treats that await you, but they are fun and reflect the Canadian pastoral culture that Harrowsmith has famously chronicled since the magazine began in 1976. Harrowsmith closed in 2011, but reformed in 2013 as quarterly magazine and website, Harrowsmith Now.

I wanted to share the calendar as I feel we all could use some holiday cheer right now. As a Canadian digital media aficionado, I wanted to find out more about this project, so I contacted the magazine.

Wayne MacPhail, the magazine's digital brand strategist, agreed to answer my questions. I asked him about their new website, Harrowsmith Now which launched last month. He noted that it "is aimed at millennials who share the same concerns we do about sustainability, a love of the country and an appreciation of handmadegoods." The website includes features, blog posts, and, of course, the advent calendar.

MacPhail says his team was motivated to launch the calendar as a way "to give folks a little taste of the season and the holidays (not just Christian ones) during the month. There's enough bad in the world right now, we need something a bit more uplifting and fun".

He describes the development process:
"I started with a rough mockup in Tumult Hype using an existing advent
calendar as a backdrop. I then shared it with Michelle Lydon, a graphic designer I work with. Michelle developed the circular number motif in Illustrator to match the dimensions of a landscape retina iPad Air 2. I brought those graphic elements into Affinity Designer and broke them into the constituent elements and then built the interactive piece in Tumult Hype (HTML 5). I sourced the content partly from Harrowsmith staff and partly from a call I made to my pals on Facebook."
I've seen the first 3 days of the calendar (December 2nd is particularly wonderful). I asked MacPhail what other types of digital treats await us. He notes, "We've created some little interactive amusements, more video links, recipes, and a few other easter eggs and surprises."

Give it the calendar a try. I can't wait to see what Harrowsmith has in store for the 25th!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

I Need Your Help To Understand New Mobile Medium

  • Do you upload photos of your location?
  • Do you share your whereabouts online with friends?
  • Do you use your mobile device for reviews and directions where to shop or eat?
  • Do you use an app to uncover history and culture when in a new area?
  • Can you imagine navigating through the world without your mobile device?

Content on mobile devices targeted to our location (often by GPS) is changing the way we navigate and experience the world. These locative media apps (also known as location-based services) can draw upon our personal experience, histories or cultural associations of physical spaces. It is now easy to share this content and access it in the places where it is relevant.

Such locative media apps are still so new that the ways in which they contribute to our experiences of places is not well understood.

I’m seeking people who use locative media to help learn more about this exciting topic for a researching study I'm conducting at the University of Toronto.

Participation is open to people over 18 years old and who can communicate fluently in English. I’m looking for people using mobile media to engage with their places. This can be writing reviews or geotagging photos, but it can also be people looking up recommendations or history of places near them using their mobile device.

Participants will be interviewed on their usage. Participation can be conducted online, by telephone, or in-person at the University of Toronto.

Participants who complete the study will be given a $25 (Canadian currency) Visa gift card.

Please email me, Glen Farrelly at glen.farrelly @ utoronto.ca if you are interested

*** For more details about the study, please visit my research website:

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Dear Facebook Diary

Earlier this year in March, Facebook launched the On This Day feature that shows a user his or her Facebook content from that same day from years past. Status updates, tagged photos, wall posts from friends, funny drawings, meme videos you commented on, etc. all from years gone by are presented in reverse chronological order for your nostalgic perusal.

You might have noticed this feature via the notifications Facebooks provides to the memories you have waiting to see. If not, you can find the feature is found on your Facebook homepage under the Apps section on the left or by going directly to your On This Day page after logging in.

Facebook only enables one to view the One This Day content one day at a time. I can see the business reasoning behind this decision, as it keeps people (like me) clicking back daily. Also it is more powerful to view past content on the anniversary of its posting than during a binge reminiscence. Still, if one really wants this to take a LONG trip down memory lane they could just pour through their activity log.

The content on one's On This Day page is only available to the user in this format (friends could still access any content you've given them access to via it's original historic placement. But Facebook has a Share button that enables one to repost with or without new commentary. I know I'm not the only one who is using this feature, as I'm seeing this content appearing in my feed with increasing frequency.

Lest we be reminded of anything too painful, Facebook provides settings for us to exclude posts from specific days or people. As always, Facebook also make sit easy to delete any old items one deems too painful or too boring to linger on. (If only Facebook could excise unpleasant memories and people so deftly and dispassionately.)

I was one of the first Facebook users when they opened up to non-students, so I've used it for many years. As an addicted user for most of this time, I consequently have a LOT of prior posts.

Prior to the launch of this feature, however, other than looking at my past photos (as this is how I do my family photo albums now), I have almost never reviewed any of my prior Facebook content. As with my daily conversations offline and on, my words and images passed into the ether never really to be heard from again.

That is until Facebook launched this feature. Since they launched it, I have checked it every day. In a way that I never conceived of before this, it provides a chronicle of my life and times. Posted are my accomplishments and losses, my thoughts on politics and pop culture, new friendships (but not unfriendings), and funny things and family memories. There are photos, videos, links, notes, and rantings by me or others that I reposted. At no time during these years did I think I was saving something for prosperity or archiving my lifestreaming.

Over the years, I have thought of keeping a journal (man's term for diary) and had a few haphazard efforts using Word docs, emails and even a diary mobile app. In the end, these efforts were all quickly abandoned as I ultimately found that I didn't want to rehash my daily events and feelings. I found writing such autobiographical accounts to not only be a chore, but more importantly it dredged up stuff that I was probably best moving past quickly. I have never wanted to reread any of my past journal entries for similar reasons.

Perhaps it was my format and approach to diarying that I felt was de rigueur that provided an uninspiring and restrictive structure. I probably got my sense of what a diary should contain from movies and TV, as in "Dear Diary: Today, I did the following...".

Yet Facebook posts don't have any such constraints and can flow more organically. My posts arise spontaneously based on my responses to events in my life and content I encounter daily. So I might post about a big event - getting an award or milestone anniversary - but also about a new movie or cool website. I tend not to post about the deeply negative and personal parts of my life as I'm private that way. This probably explains why my experience of the On This Day feature is much more positive than others have written about. (See such accounts in The Debrief, TechCrunch, and Globe and Mail. My deeply personal thoughts and internal life are not represented on Facebook as they were in when I did proper diarying, but it was this type of content that was too painful - and dull - to document and relive, so I'm okay with it not be present in my Facebook history.

In the end, what I have are vast and eclectic reflections on almost all the substrate of my life.  The diversity of topics of these posting provide a good reflection of the diversity of things in my life. I want to see and be reminded of these things.

So for me Facebook is an easy to keep journal (diary) kept in a less restrictive and more fun manner.

But that's not what makes it really something different. What makes Facebook posts unlike any sort of diary is that posts are read and commented upon by others. Previously diaries only became social media when one's pesky sibling found it and mockingly read aloud the embarrassing bits.

The comments by friends, family, even acquaintances provides the social dimension that is central to almost everyone's life. Hermits aside, we have always shared our experiences and thoughts on our life and times with others, but this was often not documented (especially since letter writing died out). Our old-style diaries might record social interactions - even conversations - with others, but it was always from our own perspective and using our own words. But Facebook in all its seldom editted glory gives people a forum for commentary on our lives. Now these interactions with the many others in our lives are recorded too. (And again, this is a source of contention with some users of this feature.)

Since this feature launched I have rarely missed accessing it, sometimes logging into Facebook just to access this. I have also started posting things mostly for their future historic value to me. My posting volume has gone up considerably as a result. I am worried that I am TMIing my friends.

With this future history posts, I have considered making them private. However, I like the social interactions with friends that my postings solicit, so I have left them open. Still, it is rather sad to post something and then get zero responses or even a minimal-effort required "Like".

I love this feature so much that it leads to a big concern. My prior diaries were completely mine. Even my forays into digital diarying were in non-proprietary formats that could be easily read by other software. But now my diary is owned - at least in part - by a third party. Facebook, I learned in writing this post, does allow one to download the complete records of one's account, but I can't imagine how any other software would be able to present it in a meaningful or usable manner (let me know if there is). 

I'm happy to stay with Facebook as I find it an overall great service with an unbeatable price. But as more and more of my life is comprised within Facebook and archived by them too, I worry about what happens when Facebook is no longer around or still offering this type of service. Companies don't last forever, but I want my memories to.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

National Girls Learning Code Day

Today is National Girls Learning Code Day. My young daughter and over 1200 other girls across Canada spent today learning how to code. The goal of the event is to help show girls that coding is accessible, useful, and even fun.

We participated in an event for 8-13 year old girls hosted by Ladies Learning Code and Google at Telus' Toronto headquarters. Volunteers working in a wide range of jobs in digital media spent the day instructing and mentoring our crowd of 60 girls on how to code their own website.

Before attending this event, I figured they'd show us how to use WYSIWYG editors to build a website - but as the name of this event stated, it's definitely code the girls got their hands dirty with today! The instructors taught the basics of HTML and CSS with the help of Mozilla's free online code editor Thimble.

My daughter does have her own blog and YouTube channel, but hasn't actually done any coding before. She loves frontend digital media, but I was worried that the nitty gritty of writing lines of code (and moreover debugging the inevitable problems) was get wearisome for her.

The instructors lead the girls through the basics to get a website up and progressed fast enough to keep interest up. The instructors also shared some great online resources such as a hexadecimal colour picker and CSS code snippets to make customizing the look and feel of the website easier.

There were volunteer mentors on hand to help us out whenever we got stuck. It was great to see so many accomplished women sharing their knowledge and love for tech with girls - they were really helpful and inspirational for my daughter. I wish there were more events like this to connect girls with women working in technology.

Before we attended the event, I talked to my daughter about what she might want to build a website about. One of her ideas was humourous cat videos. As the Internet is powered by cat videos, I figured this was a perfect topic for her first website. The other girls present made websites on hedgehogs, dolls, cookie stores, germs, pet store, toys, fashion, etc. It was great that girls could focus on their interests in a judgement-free zone (note, yes boys do ruin the fun some times).

The goal of this session was to learn a variety of HTML and CSS codes - so the final website is a hodgepodge of hand-coded techniques. Perfect for a collection of Super Silly Cat Videos!