Recently, I needed to find a house to rent for my folks. I started out with the usual sources—craigslist, the local newspapers’ classified ads, a local rental agency, my network of friends, and so on. I was somewhat daunted by my success … at first glance. I found at least 50 houses that might be appropriate for my parents. Yet, while the descriptions sounded all right, what I really needed was the ability to check out each house before going over and actually, you know, walking around in it.
So I decided to see what I could do online ahead of time. Using the Street View in Google Maps, I could virtually cruise the neighborhood: I could drive up and down the street, look at the neighboring houses, and get a sense of whether this was a place for my parents or one that was better suited for students or folks who keep their cars up on blocks. Then I headed over to the county property records to find out how old each house was, how many rooms it had, how much of the house is on the main level, how much the house is assessed for, how long the owner has had the house, and so on. And then a quick check at Zillow.com got me an (admittedly flawed) estimate of the value of the house, which helped me figure out if the rental price was reasonable.
What my digital house hunting gave was a new take on the whole idea of merging the real with the virtual when I was following one of my nonwork passions, Disneyland. (I know … grow up!) Head over to Google Maps and search for "Disneyland, Anaheim, Ca." Sadly, the Street View stops at the park entrance, so you can’t virtually cruise down Main Street or gaze longingly at the exterior of the Haunted Mansion. However, if you click on the little balloon on the map, you’ll see information such as hours of operation, links to Disneyland webpages, photos of Disneyland attractions, and hundreds of user reviews. In essence, we now have the ability to annotate the real world with our virtual notes, comments, and photos, and we can preview what a particular part of the real world will look like by viewing photos that people have tagged to a specific longitude and latitude.
Of course, Google Maps isn’t the only company that overlays the virtual world on the physical. Geotagging has been around for at least 4 or 5 years; YellowArrow.net was one of the first sites to allow users to annotate their world. With Yellow Arrow, you stick a yellow arrow with a six-character code to anything of interest. A passerby sees the arrow, texts that code to the phone number on the yellow arrow, and receives a text message on his or her cell phone with what you’ve written about that location. Imagine walking down the street in an unfamiliar city, seeing an arrow, and learning that you are standing in front of the "Brisbane [Australia] Customs House—once the hub of a port that existed in the middle of the city." It’s kind of like having an invisible tour guide nearby.
What is most striking to me about this meshing of the virtual world and meatspace is that everyone is learning that they can contribute content to the infosphere. And we info pros have another challenge in front of us: How to incorporate the valuable user content available on the web and ensure that the information we provide to clients is reliable and at least somewhat authoritative. For example, newspapers are including readers’ photos, videos, and stories on their websites. And how do we handle reporters’ blogs? Sometimes they include spot-on coverage of a breaking event, and sometimes they are more like a place for personal musings and less-objective writing. Should we pass that information along to our clients with our other research? What about allowing user tagging of library catalogs and other internal content? While Wikipedia is one of the top destinations on the web, how much should we rely on it? And how much should we contribute to it?
For that matter, value-added online vendors are struggling to figure out what user-generated content we subscribers will value enough to want comingled with their other content. Do we want to see links to Wikipedia or HowStuffWorks.com in our search results? What about blogs that are covering a late-breaking event? Should we expect to rely more on resources, such as ZoomInfo, that scrape the web for content and automatically compile the results in a report? I find that I am doing a lot more summarizing of user-generated content for my clients; info pros can embrace Web 2.0 content and show that they offer added value to it.