In the early 90s, I was working as a regional planner for Metro - the regional government in Portland, Oregon. We were creating the Region 2040 plan, which was very exciting work. I recall one day I was working with my boss John Fregonese and I was telling him how I almost got a ticket the previous night for jaywalking. I said, "I think jaywalking is great." He agreed vehemently. And we proceeded to go on a 20 minute mutual rant about why everything we were doing culminated in jaywalking as a public good.
You see, we were trying to do things like reduce street widths, mandate on-street parking and do other things that facilitated cars, but made them part of the environment and not the elements that controlled it. Thinner streets, slower cars, more controlled intersections, less surface parking lots, all made it easier to walk. Easier to walk is easier to cross the street. That's jaywalking.
In the 1960s, William H. Whyte and his band of "hippie" students went out into the New York streets and used time lapse photography to study how people used the urban outdoors. Why were some plazas heavily used while others were not? It often appeared counter-intuitive, some beautiful courtyards were utterly unused while other plain or ugly ones were used heavily.
They found many elements that induced use - but the major one was ... people. People beget people. We are herding animals.
On the plains, you'd see ruts cut in the grasses that showed where others had gone before. In your grade school library you could tell the popular books because they were all beat up. In Whyte's popular gathering places there were people present. These are visual cues to usage.
On a web site or in a computer program, we have few cues as to the popular destinations or usage patterns. We have cues as to how the designers want you to use the software, but we can't see the direction of the swarm. We are all numb bees.
For the consumption of information or culture, we have all sorts of trailblazing or wayfinding tools now. Digg, del.icio.us, and my god it is a long list. But all these tools requires self-reporting which doesn't come naturally to many people. And they don't tell the whole story.
Web site owners have plenty of stats as to where people go on their sites. But we find that we lack some key information (or at least have to really dig to get it). We don't know why they show up, if it was an accident, if they had a good time, if they (the particular they) will come back, what will stop them from coming back, etc.
In my wondering about wayfinding on the net, I also wonder about destinations. How do we record our movements, our trailblazing? How do we provide visual cues to the rest of the swarm when we find something good?
Blogged at my house in Seattle with Live Writer