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Summer Research Report: Will Payne on Location-Based Services

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Will Payne received a summer research award from the BCNM to support his dissertation research on location based services! Here’s what he discovered with the grant:

In my dissertation research, I am studying how contemporary digital location-based services like Yelp, Foursquare, and Google Local benefit savvy residents, businesses, and property owners through accelerating processes of gentrification and changing the lived experience of urban space. These complex assemblages of user-generated and proprietary data, dependent on gamified and unpaid contributions, are increasingly being used to value and market urban property, as real estate sites like Trulia and Redfin integrate Yelp reviews and Walk Score® values on their listings pages.

Over the course of the summer, I have been using my BCNM grant to explore what I believe to be a key precondition for the rise of digital location-based services: the mass success of the Zagat Survey dining guide starting in early 1980s New York City. Founded by Tim and Nina Zagat, who met at Yale Law School and shared a gastronomic awakening while working in Paris for elite American law firms, the Survey quickly became a vital accessory for a newly ascendant white-collar professional class in a quickly deindustrializing city. New editions of the guide soon sprouted across North America, and eventually other world cities like London, Paris, and Tokyo, with the series selling millions of copies in total to date.

While the Survey remained a print-only product until the late 1990s, its history is entangled with that of its digital successors, and with the rapid spread of computing technology into professional and personal life in the last few decades of the 20th century. Announcing the acquisition of the Zagat Survey in 2011, Google’s Marissa Mayer called the company, “one of the earliest forms of UGC (user-generated content)—gathering restaurant recommendations from friends, computing and distributing ratings before the Internet.” Furthermore, the methodology of aggregating thousands of individual surveys of New York diners into a complicated cross-referenced summary for publication wouldn’t have been possible without computers crunching the numbers on the back end.

The first thing that BCNM support has allowed me to do was to build up a corpus of NYC Zagat Surveys ranging from 1989 to 2016 (see illustration, and note in particular the cover of the 2002 edition, published shortly after the 9/11 attacks), in order to study the shifting geography of elite consumption in New York over almost thirty years. I am also looking at the representation of different cuisines over time (short answer: “Continental” is no more, and Japanese and Italian food have caught up with French in prestige, but the biggest trend is toward more fragmentation and variety), and the kinds of special features indexed for readers, taking a cue from science studies scholars like Susan Leigh Star and Geoffrey Bowker, co-authors of Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences (2000).

Later this month, I’ll be traveling to New York to meet with several researchers who have written extensively on bourgeois consumption trends in American cities and the effect they have had on processes of gentrification, most notably Sharon Zukin, Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, and author of many relevant monographs including Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change (1982) and Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places (2009). I will also be visiting the Fales Library & Special Collections at New York University, which has copies of some of the mid-1980s editions of the Survey that are harder to come across for sale online.

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