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Internet-Guided Offline Recreation (IGOR): Database Rituals

Your finances, medical history, school records, Internet usage - it's all out there. Any type of information can be tracked through a database, with ramifications both highly useful and, these days, profoundly scary. But before you curse the god-like power of database-tracking, consider its lighter side: Internet-Guided Offline Recreation, or IGOR. A growing number of innovative hobbyists have fun with databases (really), and they've established Web sites to track the mostly non-commercial transit of everything from toys to books to money.


High-Tech Kula Ring -- The indigenous peoples of Papua New Guinea, the Trobriands, and other South Pacific islands participate in a complex ritualistic system that interweaves their cultures and enforces economic bonds and social loyalty. Shell necklaces, yams, armbands, and other objects are exchanged, ceremonially and non-competitively, around a large geographic circle of Melanesian islands, forming what anthropologists call the Kula Ring. Each object is passed along with stories of its previous owners, and the more an object is exchanged, the more valuable it becomes.

<http://tyr.ioa.ucla.edu/Northridge/AsiaMisc/ sld017.htm>
<http://www.umanitoba.ca/faculties/arts/ anthropology/courses/122/module5/kula_ ring.html>
<http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/ 1859735185/tidbitselectro00/>

Perhaps it's part of the human condition to crave such deeply meaningful and ancient rituals, even in technology-mediated industrial nations. A number of IGOR sites track the motion of things, encouraging the ongoing exchange of ritual objects that reflect the values of modern society: dollar bills, for instance, and books.

Following the Money -- Where's George, which tracks the serial numbers of paper currency, is like money itself: ugly, utilitarian, green, and very popular. Of all forms of IGOR, tracking currency is the easiest: simply enter the bill's serial number, mark the bill with a short message ("Track this bill at wheresgeorge.com" - use pencil if you don't want to deface public property), and release it into the world (in other words, spend it). Dollar bills are tracked the most, but Where's George tracks all bills up to $100.


Currency from other countries can be tracked, too. Britons track pounds through DoshTracker, Canadians visit Where's Willy (which resembles Where's George) and Canadian Money Tracker, and Japanese trackers use Osatsu ("Bill"). The fastest-growing currency, the Euro, has its own tracking system at Eurobilltracker.


Other Ritual Objects -- Geocaching (see "Internet-Guided Offline Recreation (IGOR): Geocaching" in TidBITS-683 for more details) circulates its own currency: "hitchhikers," or objects transferred from cache to cache. Attached to the objects are instructions ("Take me to another cache") and sometimes small logbooks. A specific type of hitchhiker is a "travel bug," marked by metal ID tags bought from Groundspeak, a supplier of geocaching gear. In addition to finding and hiding caches, geocachers enjoy racking up the number of travel bugs they've carried and released.


Using a similar method, BookCrossing catalogs a giant global library. Registering a book takes a bit more work than tracking a dollar bill. For one thing, the BookCrossing database generates new identification numbers (BCIDs) instead of just using ISBNs. For another, a book can't be spent like a dollar bill, nor carried in a wallet or small pocket. So it takes more planning to register a book, print the BCID and instructions on a label, stick the label on the book, and "release it in the wild" (bus, cafe, classroom, waiting room, wherever). When books are found, readers log journal entries on BCID-associated Web pages. Unlike an actual library, BookCrossing doesn't loan specific books - or even reliably supply them in specific places, because other finders may get to them sooner. But the idea of an organized catalog of free books scattered randomly in public places nevertheless appeals to blithe bibliophiles.


Exquisite Corpse -- The serendipitous result of collective writing or artwork was dubbed cadavre exquis ("exquisite corpse") by the Surrealists. Creative IGOR projects naturally produce cadavre exquis, delighting and inspiring their participants and admirers.


Avid diarists are drawn to The1000JournalProject. As the title suggests, one thousand blank journals were sent to various diarists who added written entries, drawings, and collages, and sent the journals to other diarists. Full journals are sent back to the source, their pages and covers scanned into images, which are posted on the site. Even non-diarists appreciate the colorful images of handwritten entries and artwork.


Letterboxing, an exchange-based IGOR similar to Geocaching but lower-tech, appeals to a narrower audience. It requires old-fashioned hunting methods - compass reading, encrypted clues, resourcefulness - instead of GPS coordinates. Letterboxing uses no identification numbers of any kind. Its purpose is to exchange rubber stamps. When a letterboxer, toting a rubber stamp and logbook, finds the container (which may not be easy), she stamps the container's logbook with her own rubber stamp, and conversely stamps her logbook with the container's stamp. It's like the stamping of a passport, without the presence of obnoxious customs people. Participants are encouraged to use unique, even home-carved, rubber stamps, so letterboxing typically attract artists and craftspeople.


Dude, Where's My Camera? With the advent of digital photography and disposable cameras, taking pictures has become an inexpensive hobby with broad appeal in our image-fascinated culture. This, in turn, has inspired several photography-based IGOR projects. Photo Tag involves passing a disposable camera from one person to another, each taking a single snapshot and mailing the camera to someone else. When the full camera returns to Photo Tag, the film is developed and serial photos are posted. One camera started near the North Pole and was sent to someone in Hawaii, so the film contains pictures of both arctic and tropic scenes.


GeoSnapper catalogs photos by GPS coordinates; more specifically, the photography of the Degree Confluence Project targets coordinates with integers, like 38 degrees N 123 degrees W, which is near the Point Reyes Lighthouse in Marin County, California.

<http://www.confluence.org/confluence.php?lat=38 &lon=-123>

Come Together -- That no one (except me, as far as I know) has yet labeled this genre of online/offline recreation may be related to the fact that IGOR sites are not typically affiliated with each other. Sometimes an IGOR site refers to similar activities in its informational page. The BookCrossing FAQ, for instance, references Where's George, Photo Tag, and Geocaching.com to reveal the source of its inspiration: "[W]e thought to ourselves, 'Okay, what's something else that people would have fun releasing and then tracking?' And we thought of books. Which made perfect sense, since everyone (well, almost everyone) loves books. Twenty-eight mostly sleepless nights later, on April 17, 2001, BookCrossing.com was launched."


The possibilities of IGOR are infinite. (Why not, for example, associate sound or video files with GPS coordinates?) I like to combine different forms of IGOR, such as slipping a Where's George dollar bill inside a BookCrossing book, which in turn is placed inside a geocache. Some geocaches are letterbox hybrids, so rubber-stamp enthusiasts can find letterbox containers via Geocaching.com. A geocache is also a good place to launch Photo Tag cameras and traveling journals. Combining IGOR types is perhaps the best way to invite adventurous and creative people to participate in activities they might not have known about.

Certainly, IGOR junkies can socialize online. But since the purpose of IGOR is to get people outside and interacting with each other, it's fitting that enthusiasts meet each other offline. Meetup.com organizes local gatherings according to interest - languages, hobbies, career, even BookCrossing - and democratically allows participants to vote on where and when to meet.


It's no wonder that IGOR is attractive: it's low-impact, inexpensive, family-friendly, collaborative, and fun, and it elegantly blends real-world activities with the organizing power of cyberspace. Participants probably don't care if IGOR is a modern-day high-tech Kula Ring or cadavre exquis - they just want to get outside and find neat stuff. As long as the Internet is around (but GPS Selective Availability isn't), it's probably here to stay.

[Mariva H. Aviram, author of several books and numerous articles, has a passion for the outdoors, art, books, film, culture, and satire. More information can be found at her Web site.]


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