Screenshots of Untapped Cities as displayed on the new SPUN app
Untapped Cities is excited to announce a partnership with the new mobile phone app, SPUN, created by the team from Broadcastr. They’ve built upon their impressive list of relationships with institutions like the 9/11 Memorial, Lincoln Center and NYC Parks, and created this geo-targeted news app that curates content from hundreds of local sources like Untapped Cities, Gothamist, Eater, Racked, ScoutingNY, Humans of New York, and many more. They’re currently in 11 cities, including many of those Untapped Cities covers, like New York, San Francisco, Austin and LA.
We think it turns the app Foursquare on its head, banking on the fact that people are interested in stories first and foremost, then by location. The articles pulled by the SPUN editorial team are chosen based on uniqueness of content first and then cross-referenced for popularity. Fittingly, when Scott Lindenbaum, President and COO of SPUN showed me the new app, we didn’t meet in an office. I took him to one of my favorite hidden spots in New York: the freight entrance restaurants of the Garment District. Urban curiosity drives the SPUN team.
Our picks for the top 10 Bookstores in Manhattan, as mapped out on SPUN
The best part though is how the app navigates through an article. Take our piece on the “Top 10 Bookstores in Manhattan.” The map at the top of the screen moves as you scroll down the article past the different bookstores. You can save articles and locations, which will pop-up the next time you’re nearby, and share the content through your social media platforms. The app, developed in partnership with Apple, is driven by great imagery, and is the first we’ve seen to eliminate the pesky topbar on the iPhone.
Who knows what the future holds for the generation of aspiring writers coming of age in New York City today? Long before the internet, writers got together over drinks to share their passions and ideas. Take the circle of expats in Pre-War Paris, for example. Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein hung out with writers like Edmund Wilson. The parties they threw became the inspiration for their novels, like The Great Gatsby. It seems like a fabled time, a moment in history when truly great minds came together and fed off each other. They read each other’s work and offered their criticism. Sometimes I wonder if it’s possible to have that kind of closeness in the age of social media. We can meet hundreds of people online, but it seems somehow artificial. An online encounter will never be the same as a face to face one.
Perhaps the team behind Writer’s Bloq, feels that way too. They could have focused exclusively on building and promoting the website online, hiding behind their laptop screens. But they knew that wasn’t enough. On May 3, about a hundred people packed into the rare book room at The Strand for Unsolicited: an MFA Mingle. Writers and their fans (including some publishing professionals) sampled Argo tea and imbibed beer from the Brooklyn Brewery or flavored Voli vodka, Writer’s Bloq’s sponsors. Prizes including gift certificates to the Strand, Joe Coffee and one special prize of a one night stay at the Library Hotel were raffled off at the end of the evening. Every reader received a framed drawing of herself (all the readers were female) and a book.
The strength of Unsolicited lies in taking the online community, which could exist purely in the semi-anonymous realm of the internet, and bringing people together. “As someone who loves both literature and technology, it’s refreshing to see someone working hard to make a tool that writers can use to stay connected and discover new work,” says Yanyi Luo, an undergraduate at Columbia and one of the readers at Unsolicited. “I’ve found that it’s easy for the literary scene to stay within itself, and so I hope to see Writer’s Bloq expand to many more programs or even completely open access with reasonable methods to continue finding interesting new work, and for publishers and other stakeholders in the literary industry to benefit from the service as well.”
Halle Murcek, an MFA candidate in fiction at The New School who was among the readers at Unsolicited, appreciates the feedback she receives from other writers on the site. “We as writers love it when anyone reads our work but receiving feedback from someone who is doing what you are doing (is in the same boat, so to speak) the outcome, for me, is extremely gratifying and helpful. There is a difference between reading as a reader and reading as a writer and a writer should be able to do both when critiquing other writers’ work.” As for suggestions for the future, she says, “I think, once the bloq continues to grow, it would be great to offer a workshop outside of the online atmosphere. Writers are always looking to get together to drink and read and talk about their work and I think most people on the blog would be up for this idea.”
Halle Murcek reads a selection of fiction.
For the reading, the team selected the top writers on the site to share their work with a live audience. The popularity of the writers is determined by the number of views their submissions receive. According to Nayia, founder and CEO of Writer’s Bloq, the more often an individual uploads work and comments on other writers’ work, the more popular he/she becomes. And the more views and likes a writer has on his/her pieces, the more likely it is that curious readers will click on his/her work. A problem with this system is that it tends to favor writers who have a large output, perhaps uploading several short pieces in a week, rather than writers who work in long form and post fewer pieces. Additionally, the top writers at Unsolicited all read fiction or poetry. There was no nonfiction represented. When I asked Nayia about this in an interview, she said that in the future she would like to take genre into account when selecting the readers, ensuring a wider variety of material.
The Writer’s Bloq team is planning the next reading for September 13. Based on feedback from members of the Writer’s Bloq community, the team is working on a way to adjust privacy settings on the site in order to give limited access to literary agents and editors. The consensus seems to be that these writers want their voices to be heard. It seems that public readings like Unsolicited combined with online participation is the way to go.
Angela Koh (left) with Emily Thibodeaux
Angela Koh, who’s working on an MFA in poetry at Columbia, adds, “At Unsolicited, I could say I liked the party favors best (Eileen Myle’s recent book, flavored vodka, a framed sketch of the readers), or the venue at the historical Strand Bookstore, or the mind-numbing turnout of writers, agents, and editors. But I can’t forget how the accommodating team hoisted a 60-pound podium for me–so I could read comfortably behind it. And if I could’ve changed anything, maybe I would’ve rigged the lottery to win that one-night stay at The Library Hotel.”
Writer’s Bloq is an online platform for aspiring writers to meet, share their work, and hopefully find inspiration from each other. Since its launch in February, the site has grown from 20 to 500 members hailing from graduate and undergraduate writing programs in New York City from Harlem to the Lower East Side, from Columbia University to The New School. In order to see what this phenomenon is all about, Untapped met up with founder and CEO Nayia Moysidis.
A twenty-three year old with a B.A. from Columbia , Nayia entered Cafe Lalo and immediately apologized to me for wearing tinted glasses. “The lenses will lighten,” she said, “I’m not wearing sunglasses inside.” I could tell from this comment that Nayia has that down-to-earth quality that many true artists have. It’s the type of personality trait that comes from the experience of being torn down, humbled, and picking yourself up again, striving to find your way.
Nayia knows the pain of rejection. Upon completion of her B.A. in creative writing, she finally finished a novel that she had spent years working on. She was so intimately connected with it that she was reluctant to send it out to publishers. Thanks to the insistence of a professor, she did. Out of nearly 100 publishing houses, she got only four responses. All rejections. Nayia told me, “I can live with rejection. What I can’t stand is being ignored.” Anyone who hopes to write professionally knows the agony of waiting in suspense for a response from a publisher. Nayia’s professors told her that it could take three to five years or more to be discovered. But why? Why is it so difficult to break into the publishing world? Why doesn’t it seem to matter how much time and effort writers put into perfecting their writing? When a publisher looks at a manuscript, he/she has no idea how much the writer has thought about it, how many times the writer has gone back and combed through the manuscript, revising every last detail. Nayia interned at Simon & Schuster, and was disheartened to see how many manuscripts were overlooked because the publishing house simply didn’t have the time or the manpower to read them all.
She started talking to other writers about what to do. The problem was clear. The solution was not. Nayia wanted to create a place where writers can workshop each other’s pieces like they do in undergrad and graduate MFA programs. She wanted to create a space for dialogue where Columbia students can meet students from NYU, the New School and other writing programs. She started developing Writer’s Bloq in the summer of 2011 and launched the site in February 2012. Though she had applied to several MFA programs, she decided that now was the time to help writers overcome the struggles of publishing. She gained some investors and has dedicated herself to the site full time. Several times during our conversation, she repeated that her goal is to “enhance every writer on the site.”
Writer’s Bloq contributors must be approved by Nayia and the board. No particular writing style or genre is valued over any other, but every writer must be affiliated with either an undergrad or graduate program in creative writing or literature. This is to ensure the quality and the privacy of every contributor. When I asked Nayia to explain this decision, she said, “You’re not just going to walk into a random room and pass out your story because it’s intimate, it’s like being naked. The value lies in being able to create that kind of community where people feel safe.” She also told me that posting on the site can prevent copyright fraud. If someone ever tries to steal or plagiarize a contributor’s work, he/she has proof of having uploaded it on a certain date. Literary professionals do not have access to the site, but in the future Nayia hopes to find ways to bridge the gap between writers and publishers.
Features of the site include a profile where writers can upload a photo and keep track of comments made on their work as well as comments they made on other writers’ submissions. Writers can become fans of each other. They can also like and bookmark individual pieces. Recently uploaded work appears on the homepage with an excerpt and a link to the full piece. Additionally, writers receive a weekly email update about recent activity on the site.
In the future, Nayia hopes to encourage more interaction between writers both on and offline. Writer’s Bloq keeps a regularly updated calendar of literary readings and events in New York City. On May 3, they will host their first event, Unsolicited: An MFA Mingle at The Strand. The top rated writers on the Bloq will read in the Rare Book Room and have the opportunity to mingle with fellow writers, fans and literary professionals. Check back soon for Untapped’s review of Unsolicited.
The clean space of Studio X was a neat fit for Tuesday’s panel discussion on the potential of social media in the future of urban research and planning. New York Times journalist, Noam Cohen, moderated the discussion. He started by voicing popular concerns over governments’ usage of our data; the data generated by all the social media we now incorporate into our daily travails. Mr. Cohen remarked that social media has the positive effect of making us a “connected crowd in the city.” The seemingly random chaos of modern life has a “warp and woof to it,” he says, and these patterns can be used.
Brett Martin, of Sonar.me, continued on this theme. He presented where we are now with social media, along with current trends in research. Sonar.me is a mobile application that reveals the hidden connections around you. It is getting so easy to communicate, “we share you for you,” Marin says, all you have to do is download the app. There is an explosion of personal data now that can be leveraged, collected and shared. The trick is to utilize the best data for the best fit, “more data in, better data out.”
Martin relayed that the ad industry has also changed to incorporate social media in its campaigns, up by 40% in the last ten years. One strategy is the analsis of tweets for trends in sadness. For example, if there are a significant amount of negative messages from say, a specific McDonald’s restaurant, this will show as a pattern, and one that can be changed. He posited the thought that people define place. A place is what it is because of the people who go there. “So how do we design a place for us, not just an aggregate?” He considers a future where spaces can interact with and adapt to your identity, a personalization of place.
Fifteen million people have downloaded Foursquare, the mobile application that allows you to ‘check in,’ share your location, discover places, and get tips or deals. It pinpoints your position throughout the day. It is presented as a game with rewards but there are potentials for other uses being uncovered. Blake Shaw gave a presentation of Foursquare’s New York users and their mapped movements. His projections are like thermal images, with the city pulsing in different areas at different times of day; our patterns in behavior tracked and visualized, our daily rhythms dancing on the screen. Shaw says this is useful as it “can make cities easier to use ”¦ with recommendations curated by your peers.” He continued the theme of spaces being defined by people and their use of them, and also how places exist in time, or not, (after all, most of Central Park does not exist after midnight, at least not according to foursquare users) and this needs to be thought about when planning for the future.
“People connect places over time.” The point can be seen clearly with his time-lapse maps. They are like old sheep trails on the hills, well-worn paths from pasture to water. We take the easiest route. The data of these patterns of interaction can be leveraged to help design our cities in the future, he says.
It is time for the last speaker, but not before most of the crowd checks their messages.
Sarah Williams, at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, presented last. She discussed the re-appropriation of the various media tools and applications and stated that they can be used in different ways for future research. Untapped previously covered her department’s work with the BitCity conference and fun visualizations of how Foursquare and Facebook measure voting with your feet in New York. They’ve also used Foursquare to successfully track the Garment District’s ongoing importance to New York’s fashion industry. The movements of designers and workers were mapped in and out of this “accessible agglomeration.” The Garment District is still needed and should be preserved, Ms. Williams argues, as the epicenter of a thriving industry. It is important precisely because of its situation in mid-town and because of its accessibility. This should be a major concern when rezoning is being considered.
Blake Shaw explained that you can only work on the data given, statistics are adjusted, but that there is “something powerful to be built” and that he sees these tools as “democratizing” communities and their businesses. Noam Cohen agrees that at the moment there will be a bias towards Americans of a certain age when collecting data from Foursquare (50% of users live in the U.S) but that these are ‘early adopters’ and are taken into consideration. Brett Martin made the point that the people behind Sonar.me, and other media, are businessmen and that it is in their interest to provide the best products for the public. It is also stated that whilst most of your personal data is only shared with those you want it to be shared with, there has to be some sort of trade off for the freedoms of cyberspace.