Road Tripping

I have never lived in a development or suburb, but those I've visited seem to suffer from a confusion of quaint street-naming conventions in which Honeysuckle Lane intersects Honeysuckle Court. The fact that the houses look nearly identical is painfully exacerbated by the streets all bearing cloying and similar names, which has left me winding through speed bump-safe streets only to be frustrated by a surplus of cul-de-sacs. It leaves me with the impression that suburbs are insiders' clubs, where only those who can detect the subtle distinctions between mass-market designs can navigate with confidence.

The places I've lived seem to take one of two tacks when it comes to street naming: charming and/or practical names that arose from the history of the place, or systematic and logical to the extreme, even alpha-numeric. Undoubtedly, the latter of the two makes for more immediate navigability. Think midtown Manhattan—if you know which way is north, you are good to go—oh, except for Broadway; what's it doing bending around all those neatly numbered avenues and streets like that? Maybe Alphabet City is a better example. Or perhaps South of Market in San Francisco—nice tidy numbered streets in an orderly grid.

Even these cities, however, are riddled with neighborhoods whose street signs bear witness to their past: in New York, Bank and Commerce Streets or Bleecker, Christopher, and Macdougal; in San Francisco, Mission and Market or Geary, Moraga, and Haight. These names speak of the one-time function of a street, or of those who once peopled them. Here in rural Connecticut, we suffer a dearth of order and even our highways are directionally challenged. This is made up for by evocative names like Slaughterhouse Road and Skunk Lane, which can make winding through the backroads an entertaining, if not speedy, experience. (And did I mention that in high school I actually lived on Easy Street in Walla Walla, Washington? No, really, I did.)

When I think about these approaches, I can get lost in esoteric historical facts, but ultimately, the point of all this street naming is to help us get from point A to point B. Okay, naming them A and B is certainly clearer, but it isn't terribly intuitive. If I want to pick pumpkins at Angevine farm, I take a right onto Angevine Road off Route 341. Sure, you could argue that if and when the Angevines succumb to the perils of factory farming, the road will lose its meaning as it is overrun with development houses, but somehow I believe that the impact of its populist name will remain for decades after the Angevines host their last hayride.

Such is the appeal of user-generated tagging. Certainly, an orderly top-down taxonomy will be clearer and more accurate, but while it makes navigation neat, it can be imposing and unwelcoming. For those of us who have never, say, studied etymology, a taxonomy is not second nature.

In an interesting twist of what-comes-first in the post-web world, I've been reading A Global Snapshot for the Digital Age. Well, looking more than reading, as the book is a printed record of the site, which began in 2002 as a way for a few friends in NYC to share photos. Today, it is a massive photo-blogging network, boasting 3 million members worldwide and more than 100 million photos. Some of the pictures are amazing, but more so is the way the book illustrates the ability of common interest to build such an extensive global community.

The book is broken into thematic sections that emerged from the pictures themselves: place names like New York, San Francisco, and Rio de Janeiro, as well as such groupings as Party On, Domestica, and Portraits. The book isn't indexed; it isn't about an orderly system of photo-finding. The book, like the site, is about discovery.

Where a site like Flickr claims to be "the best way to store, search, sort, and share photos," with one of the most lauded user-generated tagging systems online, is "an ever-evolving global network where members communicate and connect through photographs." Flickr emphasizes finding pictures, so its use of user-generated tags like New York and cheeserolling is an inherent part of its structure. That said, its homepage centers around good old keyword search, just like

Fotolog's founder Adam Seifer says, "We experimented with a form of tagging back in 2002—before it was called tagging—but took it back off the site because it tended to make members spend more time organizing and tagging their photos and less time exploring other people's Fotologs." However, as the network has expanded, Seifer has realized that the site needs some kind of organization. As a result, he says, is currently overhauling its directories and taking a new look at tagging "in a way that increases community interactions and doesn't just become an organizational tool."

Ultimately, Seifer describes the site as "all about serendipity, but with a social network to steer you through the chaos." City planners and builders may pave the roads and put up the houses, but a community organizes itself, and if we're lucky, good neighbors will be there to point the way.