Google’s wrong turn: A local guide on Maps discusses her frustrations

Google Maps encourages individuals to spend their own time, money, and travel money on working for nothing tangible in return, says guide.

Dear Google Maps, You lie. No, I am not “popular”. Useful, certainly – but popular? How can I be admired and liked by people merely by virtue of adding information to the map data, regardless of how many use that data?

That’s not true popularity – not by a long shot.

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But without utilising loads of positive reinforcement coupled with encouragement to go out and do more such work, without cultivating within me and many others a habit of contributing data to your ever-growing mapsets, all of your data, place by place, point by point, would be so much less accurate and, therefore, worth so very much less.

But how was it that Google Maps effectively enrolled me as an entirely unpaid netizen in their grand mapping enterprise?

Blame it on my pedantic tendency as I itch to tidy up spellings, grammar and, indeed, points on the map.

Grumpy at being taken to the wrong place on a map, I corrected it, and the next thing, I was cheerily invited to enrol as a Google local guide.

Once enrolled in the programme, the nudges began: so many points awarded for this activity, and so many for that – with extra bonus points received for a long review in comparison to a short.

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Next thing, badges were assigned with ever-increasing points added to the star around your profile picture as you level up.

The awarding of stars, I realised, doesn’t only work in preschool, but for adults they need to be gussied up as a badge of competence.

Effectively, I and many others have been enrolled in, and are being trained within a learning management system (LMS). Regular e-mails are sent, not which constantly and cheerily exhort and entice us to engage in both more, and more challenging, work.

The e-mails are invariably encouraging, announcing their presence in the inbox with visually appealing bright colours and icons, cheerily informing us, local guides, of our latest scores, constantly reiterating how very, very popular we are, how deeply meaningful our activities are.

Badges are awarded, a leaderboard created and once you have a set of achievements, your Google local guide level is determined, with the first levels exceedingly easy to achieve and the next demanding more and more commitment and heralding far more work.

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All of these manufactured incentives nudge us to do the literal hard yards on Google’s behalf, freely, vir niks and gratis.

Turning map-making into a social media enterprise and effectively embedding an LMS into it has enabled Google to turn the dross of poor, inaccurate or absent data into the gold of a complete, up-to-date, and continuously being updated, accurate mapset.

Welcome to the world of gamification. Gamification is courtesy of university courses that taught members of the burgeoning tech sector how best to hijack our brain’s deepest need for belonging, our craving for validation, the rewards of affirmation, our competitiveness, our enjoyment of games and games-playing to render us unpaid – but hey, at least we get to display badges – labourers in this vast enterprise.

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Does gamification work? There is no doubt about that. Is it illegal? No, of course it is not. Is it unethical? That’s hard to pin down.

From a legalistic perspective, there is transparency in terms of no payment of any kind, volunteer citizenship at its supposedly best.

But when all the volunteer hours are in the service of a vast, profit-making, multinational enterprise – which is entirely transactional in its approach – and which is manipulative with regard to encouraging individuals to spend their own time, money, and travel money on working for nothing tangible in return – it just somehow feels wrong.

But why does it irritate me so very much? I can just disengage and walk away, surely? But like a toxic boyfriend, it’s just so hard to quit.

• Kure is a part-time Google Maps local guide

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