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The Melting Pot

A digital, cultural conversation

Feeling like part of a town is something many strive for. It’s probably the largest sense of identity – feeling like you truly belong – when you know the hotspots of your town and the cool hangouts.

It wouldn’t be long before this piece of identity-shaping fundamentality would get manufactured into an Internet product – namely, MapQuest’s new online service, mqVibe. It claims, using an algorithm, that it will revolutionize your neighborhood and make you feel like part of the town when you travel away with a central database of maps, plus reviews about the place, plus ratings. It’s like a cartographer’s Facebook.

I wanted to see whether this mapping site could really capture the sense of locality that you feel after belonging in a town. After having been a resident of College Park, MD for a month, I am by no means an expert on the town (not even close). But I want to compare the site’s “local hotspots” and places destined to make you feel like one on the town with my own realities. So The Melting Pot is a quasi-travel blog this edition – geared to, as always, evaluating the impact of the Internet on our identities, both individually and as a whole.

2:00 p.m.

Starting out on my trek to evaluate mqVibe's claim to identity!

As I set out on my journey, I remembered all the times that my friends and I wanted to grab something on College Park’s Route 1 (Baltimore Avenue), but had no idea where to start. A few weeks ago, for example, my friends and I were starving and the diner was closed, so we headed to Route 1. No one could agree on what to eat, so we went from door to door at just about every restaurant near the Baltimore Avenue/Knox Road intersection to find dinner, ultimately settling on the Noodles and Co., which, though satisfying, wasn’t really the CP Mom and Pop restaurant we wanted to find in the first place.

The view down the right-hand side of Baltimore Avenue in CP.

In evaluating mqVibe’s effectiveness at making me feel like a local, I wanted to compare its accuracy to the local hotspots I know well – favorites like DP Dough and Panda, as well as Ledo’s Restaurant, Mamma Lucia’s, Jason’s Deli and Krazi Kebob. I checked leading local services site Yelp and was pleasantly surprised. Yelp succeeds in what mqVibe can only attempt – it makes newcomers feel like masters of their respective areas. Yelp compiles user comments to form a ranking of many of the main city categories, and is very popular among travelers and foodies alike. mqVibe claims it will overtake Yelp.

2:10 p.m. – Yelp and mqVibe search

The results couldn’t have been more different. I searched for restaurants in the College Park area – you’d think there would be a substantial overlap. But check out the lists:

Yelp:

1)    Sardi’s Pollo A La Brasa

2)    Marathon Deli

3)    Krazi Kebob

4)    Ledo Restaurant

5)    Shen Yang Chinese Restaurant

mqVibe:

1)    Moose Creek Steakhouse

2)    Harvest Café

3)    Bennigan’s

4)    Harvestime Cafe

5)    Buffalo Wild Wings

What?! There’s absolutely nothing in common with the two databases! In fact, mqVibe doesn’t even back up its rankings – okay, Moose Creek is number 1. But why? If you scroll over the ranking, it will just give you the address. So, I wonder, how did the algorithm even find these hotspots as the top 5 in the first place? Clearly, there’s some kind of mistake. There is no way the BW3’s makes it in the top five, but College Park staples like DP Dough and Krazi Kebob don’t even place!

mqVibe can't even back up its rankings - it seems very sketchy and not credible.

Yelp, on the other hand, has detailed reviews from, at times, hundreds of people for a restaurant. This makes the site both more accurate and lets every person feel like a local, after reading and understanding each hotspot.

Thank goodness for Yelp.

2:15 p.m. – on Route 1

Location seems to be a main factor in figuring out what kind of restaurant will exist – as it is in any town. College Park’s locations seem to determine its successful locations very well. There are two concentric circles: downtown and the outer circle of downtown.

The outer concentric circle. Can you say, "mainstream restaurants"?

Details like these are, in addition, the elements mqVibe needs in order to make newcomers feel like locals. We need real information about real places, not a generalized swooping of details. In the end, mqVibe – though still in a beta stage – seems to be just a site with mainstream locations that don’t unite a town, but end up acting as the conforming parts of the town – not the parts that really showcase a town’s heart.

Will it be able to stand among the plethora of local service sites and really thrive? mqVibe uses the ranking system of Yelp and the “rewards” system of foursquare (you earn points if you check in from places and can trade with friends, a la Facebook’s Farmville), but uses neither well. Just because it has the name of the largest mapping website on the Internet doesn’t mean it will revolutionize society and local identities, by any means. Unlike Yelp, which has mastered the art of locality online, mqVibe will probably just end up being another local services site that leads us in the wrong direction.

(Not going to lie - after walking up and down Route 1, my feet are sort of sore.)

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