Exploring the World, Note by Note

Map makers: Messages posted by Pinwheel users in San Francisco.

You’ve probably left plenty of notes for people in the past—on a kitchen counter, slipped through the slots of a locker, or even scrawled on a bathroom wall. But what if you could leave notes anywhere in the world for anyone to discover, and find ones posted by others?

That’s the idea behind Pinwheel, the latest startup from Flickr cofounder Caterina Fake. Though the social site only recently emerged in a private beta testing phase, it’s gaining buzz for its simple premise: letting people annotate a map with notes on any topic that can be shared with others.

Fake, a fan of the GPS treasure-hunting activity known as geocaching, says Pinwheel merges several ideas and inspirations. She first began toying with the idea of leaving virtual notes for others to find back in 1999, but the technology wasn’t there to support it. And after cofounding Flickr in 2004, she was inspired by users of that site who would annotate satellite maps of their hometowns with notes about various locations. Now, as smart phones have become incredibly popular and location-based apps like Foursquare have blossomed, Fake is confident that the timing is right for Pinwheel, too.

The site’s main page—which you need an invitation to see—shows a stream of recently posted notes, and users can browse a map there to check out public notes, leave notes, or search for notes or users.

Navigating the main map is like exploring a visual mash-up of a travel and restaurant guide peppered with memories of first kisses and apartments, event notices, historical facts, and more. There are burger and sushi recommendations, notes about good places to watch the sun set, and tags marking a long-gone movie theater and candy store. One user has been using Pinwheel to log crimes—including the kidnapping and return of Banana Sam, a squirrel monkey belonging to the San Francisco Zoo (now safely returned)—while another is recording historic facts in various cities.

“To me, when you are creating social software, the most exciting part of it is when people start using your tools for things you hadn’t expected,” Fake says.

At the moment, there is no Pinwheel smart-phone app to help you leave notes on the fly, so users simply log on to the Pinwheel website to do so (there is a mobile site, and Fake says an iPhone app is forthcoming).

Read more: http://www.technologyreview.com/web/39841/?mod=chfeatured

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