Mapping and Social Interaction in a Social Justice Context

My concept is a location-based application that would allow users to locate gender-neutral facilities around them, be aware of potentially problematic binary-gendered imagery and language near them, and communicate with other users of the app to help navigate space. The app is intended to be of use for trans* and non-gender conforming individuals in particular, though others may use the app. Understanding how the app aims to further social justice requires an understanding of both how digital maps function in relation to their user/contributors and how social interactions are mediated in a mobile media context.

Maps have begun to reflect what is important to the contributors of the map in addition to geography. In the case of Mapidoo, the map itself is dependent on how much information has been added by users. Places where more information has been added will have more content and that content is “determined by the people contributing to the map’s characteristics” (Gazzard, 2011, p. 416). What is “important” or worthy of inclusion is determined by contributing users rather than a central authority.

John Pickles describes mapping as an “interpretative act”(Pickles, 2004, p. 43). A map “conveys not merely the facts but also and always the author’s intention” (Pickles, 2004, p. 43). In the case of my application concept the intention is to provide trans* and non gender conforming people with a way navigate spaces that, due to the assignment of binary-gender roles in these places, may be difficult.

Marc Augé presents “place” as having the requirements of being “relational, historical, and concerned with identity” (Agué, 1995, p. 77) . Places that do not meet this criteria, “‘airports and railway stations, hotel chains, leisure parks, large retail outlets’ and so on” are then “non-places” (Marc Agué 1995, as cited in Gazzard, 2011, p. 408). Gazzard (2011, p. 408) describes Foursquare as allowing non-places to be made into places by users who give places “an identity” through “recognition”. 

In a similar way, the app would turn seeming non-places such as restrooms and dressing rooms into places by recognizing them as places trans* and gender non-conforming people can more safely move. Though the app is designed to start out with a database of already identified places, users would be able to add locations. The users are then part of the mapping process. In a world that most often erases trans* identities, users of the app are asserting their existence. They are both adding to and using a tool to help navigate potentially problematic spaces and leaving behind a “cultural artefact [sic]” that reveals a number of things (Gazzard, 2011, p. 417). The app’s map would tell us that not only do the users exist, they find it important to locate and map things like gender neutral bathrooms. It tells us that there is a need for this. It becomes evidence of their struggle.

In addition to the function of the app a tool for navigating space the app would also strive to further its goal (positively altering the experience of potentially problematic spaces) by providing the possibility for social interaction. Humphreys (2012, p. 495) states that “mobile interactions with social networks can often occur in public and therefore also shape the one’s experience of public space”. This is in accordance with the social aim of the app. Humphreys (2012, p. 501) describes three ways that communication is practiced: “connecting, coordinating, and cataloging”. These must be taken into account when considering how social interactions in the app could function.

Coordinating deals with “physical distance from others” (Humphreys, 2012, p. 501). In the case of my app the use is determined by physical location, so users having interactions would potentially be somewhat physically close to one and other. Each location in the app would allow users the opportunity to comment in a space designated for that location. Therefore the user must be in the location to comment or have been in the location and commented recently. 

Connecting deals with “social distance from others” (Humphreys, 2012, p. 501). The app aims to allow users to decrease social distance, this is to say, “strengthen and maintain social connections” (p. 502). The app would allow people of varying social distances to connect and form a support network where the ultimate goal is create a supportive community that can positively alter the user’s responses to and experience of potentially problematic places. Users could share both positive and negative experiences with an audience which would be more likely to understand them.

Cataloging deals with “informational distance from others” (Humphreys, 2012, p. 501). Cataloging most commonly involves the way that “social networks catalogue socio-spatial information about the users” (p. 504). The intention of the app is to minimize information collected about users.   

In order to balance allowing social interaction while reducing information gathered the app would allow users to use the map function without logging in, but require a log-in for social interaction.

On social media, users “self-monitor their online actions” in order to control what others know about them (Marwick, 2012, p. 379). This may extend to trans* identities. Users may not be open in other aspects social media use. There should therefore be no required connection between the app and other social media such as “log in through Facebook” type options which have become popular.

Despite my intention to keep the app separated from social networks that directly identify users, it is true that “increased use of Facebook correlates to stronger, more supportive relational ties” (Ellsion, Steinfield, and Lampe, 2011 as cited in Marwick, 2012, p. 391). This is part of the aim of the app, but Facebook’s need for users to identify themselves as real people is contradictory to the goal of protecting privacy. Instead the goal is that the in-app social function could have similar results for itself.

It goes without saying that the app would not “aggregate and collect personal data” in the way Facebook does (Marwick, 2012, p. 379). The app would collect as little data about users as possible and that data would never be used purposes beyond the immediate function of the app.

In terms of accessibility, the app would adhere as strongly as possible to Soederquist’s (2012) guidelines. The color scheme would be chosen with appropriate levels of contrast in mind. All images in the app would have “alt attributes” in order to make the app as compliant as possible with screen readers (Soederquist, 2012). If at all possible the app would be developed using JQuery Mobile as Soederquist (2012) suggests. The app would also be extensively tested to ensure compliance with accessibility features.

All of these functions and considerations are intended to further the goal of app as a tool for social justice.

The map function of the app is intended to function as tool, but also due to its potential to include user-generated locations it becomes a record. Looking at what is tagged and what is written there could tell us about what obstacles trans* and gender non-conforming people face in a specific location. It could tell us where there is a lack of gender-neutral facilities, where people have have had good or bad experiences. It could provide a base of information from which we could draw to make navigating space easier for trans* and gender non-conforming people.

The social aspect of the app connects people who are most likely physically relatively close, but may be of varying social distance. These people could form a localized virtual support system. By being able to exchange experiences users could strengthen social ties and feel that they have an understanding audience with which to share.

The collection of information about users in this process should be minimized to maintain maximum privacy and a sense safety for users. As always the app the should be designed to accommodate accessibility tools to the highest extent possible. If the app is not accessible to everyone then it is by definition in contradiction with its social justice aim. Social justice must include everyone. Equality does not have caveats.

Works Cited

Auge´ M (1995) Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. London: Verso.

Humphreys, Lee. (2012). “Connecting, Coordinating, Cataloguing: Communicative Practices on Mobile Social Networks,” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 56:4, 494-510

Gazzard, Alison. (2011). “Location, location, location: collecting space and place in mobile media.” Convergence. 17(4): p. 405-417

Marwick, Alice. (2012). “Public Domain: Surveillance in everyday life.” Surveillance & Society. 9(4): 378-393

Pickles J (2004) A History of Spaces: Cartographic Reason, Mapping and the Geo-Coded World. London: Routledge.

Soederquist. (2012). “Why mobile Web accessibility matters- best practices to make your mobile site accessible” from mobiForge.


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