Social Without Even Trying

Last week, Google brought back its Pac-Man overlay for Google Maps to celebrate April Fools’ Day. The popular stunt prompted a not-so-subtle reminder that Boston has some of the worst and most confusing thoroughfares in the nation – resulting in Boston being the toughest city in America to turn into Pac-Man.

Boston and Google Maps are two very important things in my life. I live in the former and have become incredibly dependent on the later to get me home on a daily basis. I’m one of those so called “reverse commuters” who live in the city but work outside it. As any reverse commuter can tell you, the morning commute out of the city is great, but the return is just as apocalyptic on both sides of I-93 once the sun starts to set. In using the traffic feature of Google Maps, I’m offered the opportunity to avoid emptying my gas tank while going nowhere by assessing my alternatives (safely, I promise – I have a dash stand for my phone and Bluetooth so I can access hands free).

car phone

Who do I have to thank for this ability? Google yes, but also – my fellow drivers.

In class, we’ve talked a lot about the different social media platforms and the potential application behind some of the most popular forums. However, something as basic as Google Maps is arguably social media at its best. When I turn on Google Maps before starting my car I’m sending information that, when combined with contributions from fellow motorists, offers all of us the opportunity to save time and energy in making it back home. That’s time and energy that can be put into Twitter and class blogs.

All of this requires so little effort on anyone’s part yet derives such immense value. There are three points during my commute every day that I have to make a decision about which streets I’m going to take. Radio traffic reports don’t cover many of the routes I need – so being able to harness the data provided by others who are traveling ahead of me is often a lifesaver. There are some rumors that eventually Google would like to be able to open up its Maps app to two-way communication by alerting a certain percentage of drivers that they should alter their route. This would result in less traffic for everyone on all roads, and could solve one of life’s biggest and most consistent headaches.


Of course, traffic is mostly a result of many people being reluctant or unable to use public transportation. Last week I decided to try taking the bus downtown to an event rather than driving and having to hunt for parking. My reward was a 25-minute wait for the next bus to show up at the Fenway depot and a standing room only spot on the long ride back to Brighton. It took me close to an hour to get home for a trip that takes me no more than 20 minutes to drive myself. Much like traffic is improved by social sharing of real-time information, public transportation could also benefit. I’ve waited so long for a reliable app that tracks the T in real-time. In researching for this post, it turns out there’s hope. A group of Canadian developers is gaining steam with Transit App. It tracks subways, buses, and trains across 91 metro areas using shared user data. It even has an integration with Uber or the nearest bike or car share location if public transit can’t go where you want or is running really behind.

The possibilities here are astounding. You can use this not only at home, but on the road. If you’re visiting a major metropolitan city you could possibly avoid costly rental car expenses while still getting where you want to go in a reasonable amount of time. But its best use is at home. If I need to be somewhere in Boston and want to take the T, Transit App now offers me the opportunity to plan my comings and goings based on where the subway or bus is when I’m getting ready to leave. No more waiting out in the rain – and if I do get stuck I don’t have to go far to catch an Uber. The makers of Transit App believe, as I do, that the only way cities will survive and flourish is with reliable and highly utilized public transit. This is one giant positive step toward that goal.

Think of all the other things in life besides driving and transportation that could be aided by social data sharing from smartphones:

  • “I really want to go see ‘Furious 7’ tonight, but it’s opening night. I wonder if there are seats in the theater? Oh, looks like there are still 15 seats still available for the 7 pm showing at the local multiplex – let’s do it!”
  • “It’s a rainy Saturday and I want to go to the mall, but I hate trying to find a parking spot; I wonder if there’s any spots left at the mall? My parking app says there are only three right now, maybe I’ll go later.”
  • “What’s the wait time at Panera right now? Only 5 minutes! Turkey Bacon Bravo here I come!”

We often think of social media in terms of logging on and posting our thoughts, pictures and comments with others, but it’s becoming so much more than that. Our social interactions have the ability to help each other in ways that we hadn’t thought of before and provide huge value. Many of them require very little effort on our part, so why wouldn’t you do it?


  1. Nice post! I am using Maps myself all the time and was always wondering where they get the traffic information from. Another way Google Maps could use social interaction to provide new features (which is hard for a navigation service, I suppose) is not just suggesting the fastest or the shortest route, but also the most interesting. Many people who do a road trip do not only want to get from A to B, but also see “something” on their way. Google could use their own data to provide suggestions (customized to the person’s search history) or they could let other users recommend routes they have already taken and Maps supports it as always with information about traffic, etc. Businesses could use this to make suggestions as well (they suggest a scenic route and “by chance” there is a KFC on the way).

  2. wallacekwan99 · ·

    Very insightful post. I also use Googlemaps as a way to get around the city. It truly has been a treat to see this application grow through all the data it harnesses. The “switching lanes”
    alerting feature has saved me many times when I was driving through areas that I was unfamiliar with. Just as Johanna pointed out, it would be great in the near future, if Google Maps would be able to provide us suggestions based upon our previous requests for directions. Or better yet, the application could possibly offer different “modes.” For instance, when I am traveling for business, the application may highlight restaurant/gym recommendations, and if I were in “Leisure” mode, the application would focus more on historical sites. The possibilities are endless.

  3. I’m one of those weird people that is obsessed with geography and therefore looks at maps for fun. Don’t judge. Anyway, it’s pretty interesting to think that Google Maps is a form of social media that often goes overlooked. I am not a driver, but integrating maps into making driving a more social experience sounds like a great idea. Like you mention, it will make transit much faster and improve people’s overall experience on a daily trek to work or a visit to a new city. Maybe they can implement Google Earth features and allow the viewer to see a 3D virtual city…that would be cool.

  4. I wasn’t a fan of this years April Fool’s prank. I personally liked the Pokemon Master prank from last year. I collected all 151 Pokemon and spend a few hours doing so. In your search did you cross any potential of Maps changing traffic flow and patterns to optimize the city’s traffic as a whole rather than the individuals who used it? It seems sort of iRobot (the scene where Will Smith has his car driven at 200 MPH and all other cars moving at the same speed to get everyone to their destination on time) but I don’t believe this is out of the reach for Google, they already experiment with us on our preferences for pages and search results.

  5. Great post. I too rely heavily on Google Maps (or Waze, I’m torn on whcih is better) for navigating. I also love using it in NYC, where the subways are really difficult to navigate for outsiders. It really does change your freedom of discovering a new city.

  6. Awesome post! It amazes me how much social media actually infiltrates my life in less obvious ways than just posting a status or tweeting. I tend to forget though that the concept of an apps that track traffic flow or movie theater seats are made possible my social sharing and are thus forms of social media. On another note, in admissions we are required to travel A LOT for work and the thought of finding random high schools across America without my GoogleMaps is absurd! I’m thankful that the days of printing out MapQuest directions are gone because it was so limiting in the route you could take and never accounted for real-time things like construction and accidents. Apps that make my job and my life easier are the best kind!

  7. I really enjoyed your post! I think social media is going to have to be the answer to all the traffic problems. Before I got my iPhone, I often find out about traffic delays once it was too late and I was stuck. But having apps like Google helping me navigate around it has made my driving experience so much better. @geraldckane mentioned Waze, which I find to be a little clunky, at least when I used it not too long ago. However, I can imagine with new iterations and software developments, this app (and the others you mentioned in your blog post) will be standard features in every car. Though like the Mini driving goggles blog post this week, I hope that social additions to the driving experience will not serve as a distraction to drivers, but rather as a seamlessly integrated tool for making driving easier and more convenient.

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