You Are Here: Site-Specific Storytelling Using Offline Networks
Unlike their twentieth-century counterparts, today’s media organizations rely almost entirely on the centralized distribution infrastructure of the internet to disseminate news. Yet the internet is, in many ways, a fragile system, as illustrated by disruptive events like 2012’s Hurricane Sandy and 2016’s Mirai botnet attack on East Coast DNS servers.1
Over the last decade, however, the evolution of microcomputers has made it possible to build small, independent web servers that can host substantial amounts of material accessible via their own, standalone Wi-Fi signal. Such offline wireless projects have been used in classrooms2 protest sites,3 libraries,4 and even for news.5
The goal of the You Are Here project was to develop and document a fully open-source, offline wireless system and explore how it could be used to engage audiences with community-oriented news content. Over the course of one year, our team designed, built, and tested You Are Here at two New York City locations using originally reported podcast stories to prompt users to share their own reflections and experiences about the sites. While our project suffered from some the same challenges as previous systems, we believe that offline wireless systems hold substantial promise for safe, resilient, independent digital news distribution.
- The internet as we know is both relatively centralized and relatively fragile. Political actions, technical disruptions, and natural disasters are all a significant threat to news organizations without an alternative distribution method. Inexpensive, independent wireless content stations like You Are Here can act as a resilient backup network for everyone from ordinary citizens to first responders.
- Designing for engagement with a broad audience means making tough decisions about functionality. The sheer range of mobile devices and available features may mean compromise about how “offline” a particular wireless distribution point can be.
- Offline wireless is an unfamiliar paradigm: Most You Are Here users seemed to conflate “Wi-Fi” with “World Wide Web.” News organizations, however, can leverage their existing reach to provide messaging to readers about the functionality and purpose of offline wireless nodes, as well as use them to offer exclusive content.
- Location, location, location: Installing nodes in semi-public places increases interference from surrounding networks and devices. Keeping the You Are Here node small puts limits on antenna size, which in turn affects how far the wireless signal can reach. Physical obstacles (e.g., walls, trees) around the node can also moderate the range.
- Visibility is crucial: Our project was limited by how visibly we could advertise around our sites. Branding needs to go beyond promotional events and postcards; just like apps and online platforms, news organizations will need to cross-promote their offline network locations and content.
- The You Are Here hardware and software is entirely open-source. You can find all the instructions (including hardware recommendations and software downloads) on GitHub at: https://github.com/TowCenter/YouAreHere.