Coolhunting–There’s an App for that

The coolhunting profession has historically been ruled by exclusivity. A new iPhone app seeks to change that- and may revolutionize the trend spotting industry as well.

iCoolhunt is a location-based, social coolhuntLuing game that allows anyone to try their hand at cool hunting by snapping photos (aka “catching prey”) and categorizing it within the iCoolhunt database under fashion, technology, music, design, or lifestyle. Each new prey is tagged with a location (usually the current location of the player, if not otherwise specified) and everyone has the ability to review other coolhunters’ prey by voting it up or down and leaving comments.

One of the unique aspects of iCoolhunt is it’s Trenditory- a map of the world into which players can zoom in and find either coolhunters or prey tagged all over the world. This gives anyone with the app not only the ability to see what is cool and trending up within the entire network, but also to drill down to a single area and get a feel for the local scene.

Another fascinating aspect of the game is the wealth of intelligence it generates. Traditionally, trend spotting firms have employed scouts to collect information, and the reliability of scouts, and quality of reports, is highly variable. iCoolhunt overcomes this challenge by creating a crowdsourced model that is both self-regulating and inherently fun. The awesome imaging and geolocation are just an added bonus.

We had a chat with Luca Morena, PhD in Philosophy and Co-Founder of iCoolhunt, to gain his insights on the map and get a feel for where he and the team seek to take it. The resulting exchange below touches on everything from No Logo to lolcats.

PSFK: What brought you from Philosophy to iPhone apps?

Luca Morena: I know that it might be surprising that someone who is supposed to study Plato and Aristotle actually spends his time doing more mundane stuff like creating an iPhone app. But I believe that philosophy and application design are less separate worlds than it might seem at a first glance. In fact I’m convinced that most of the technology that surrounds us nowadays has an unmistakable philosophical essence. Our ‘wonder at the world’ – what Aristotle deemed as the ‘beginning of philosophy’ – is a key ingredient of social media: Twitter, for instance, is a superb ‘aggregator of novelties’, to borrow a recent definition by William Gibson. With the advent of social media, wonder has become the default and not the exception. Aristotle would certainly be a fanatic Twitter user. More examples: philosophical ontology – the study of what there is – is unexpectedly revived in semantic web research; social science is increasingly becoming ‘data science’, given the possibility of analyzing the massive amount of digital data that are the product of the countless technology-mediated interactions that we routinely have with the world. In sum, the digital domain is the perfect place to go to practice philosophy.

What initially sparked your interest in coolhunting? Was it a person? A book? An experience?

I’ve always had an interest in discovering new stuff, in particular in music. But my interest in coolhunting as a profession was sparked by a number of readings (classics like ‘No Logo’ by Naomi Klein and ‘The Coolhunt’ by Malcolm Gladwell, among others) I had to do when I was asked to teach a course on the philosophical implications of non conventional marketing. In that occasion, I found out that coolhunting is a subtler and more complex activity than the simple search for unorthodox styles in the streets. It can be considered as a subdomain of social science and can be applied to any realm of human creativity. And from social science coolhunting as a discipline inherits most of its theoretical problems. A general methodological question in social science, for instance, is the following: does the study of social phenomena interfere with/create its objects of study? So one may ask: does the study of ‘coolness’ interfere with/create its objects of study? Another unresolved question is that of the predictive force of coolhunting. I have to admit that I’m more interested in these methodological questions – the ‘philosophy of coolhunting’, to give it a name – than in practicing coolhunting myself.

iCoolhunt combines a lot of interesting trends – crowdsourcing, games, social media, apps, smartphones, and location-based documentation. What made you decide to bring all of these together?

It was some sort of creative insight. I must confess that it was only in the process of designing the app with my brother Alessio that we understood that we were bringing together a number of emerging trends in the digital realm. The starting point was the idea that coolhunting could be turned into a mobile social game. The direct consequence of this idea was that, through the game, we were somehow crowdsourcing trendspotting and taking advantage of a location-aware technology. In other words, we were building an app in the domain of location-based services, just like foursquare or gowalla, but also an instance of what are commonly called ‘Games-With-a-Purpose’ or GWAPs, i.e. online games by means of which people can collectively solve large-scale problems. The large-scale problem in coolhunting is that of tracking innovation on a global scale and we somehow provided a tool to overcome this difficulty. Moreover, we demystified coolhunting as a ‘dream job’ by turning it into a fun game in which anyone with an iPhone can aspire to become a ‘Guru’.

How do you think this app can change the field- both from a professional and civilian standpoint?

I believe iCoolhunt has the potential to become a game changer in the coolhunting industry, not differently from the way collaborative platforms have radically changed the traditional media landscape. If coolhunting is now the essence of social media, as William Gibson contends, I believe we simply unveiled such an essence and gave it back its own name. Coolhunting has been a niche concept for such a long time and one of our more interesting challenges is to see whether it can become – somehow paradoxically – pop and mainstream.

iCoolhunt in effect democratizes the coolhunting process- one which has traditionally been very cliquey, obscure, and secretive. Are you at all concerned that a lack of exclusivity will negatively impact the quality of users’ ‘prey’?

My conviction is that, as an effect of the social media revolution, the concepts of openness and transparency have finally made the notion of ‘exclusivity’ completely obsolete. In a crowdsourced version of coolhunting, what counts are the trends identified by the collective intelligence more than the findings of an individual coolhunter. It is the sum of observations and votes that make possible the recognition of emerging patterns on a global scale within this model. Moreover, given its mobile nature, iCoolhunt implements a form of real-time trendspotting – information is constantly updated and geotagged. As for the quality, we rely on the autoregulatory power of the community as in any social computing project. Our idea, moreover, is that in a game context – where peers can share, judge, follow, and rate each other’s activity – one may even discover – somehow unexpectedly – to have an incredible talent for coolhunting, without necessarily being a pro, and even without knowing anything about coolhunting as a profession.

What new developments can we expect from iCoolhunt in the future?

We are currently discussing some funding opportunities here in Italy, and we have a few nice projects for the near future: in late October we will launch the web version of the app and at the beginning of the next year we will launch the spin-off ‘Trenditory’, a game-driven e-magazine on emerging trends – a Flipboard-like social e-magazine of which iCoolhunt’s players can be editors and contributors as a result of their activity in the game.The e-magazine will be a further opportunity to make the game mechanics in iCoolhunt more engaging and rewarding for the players. We shall implement also teams and one-on-one contests.

The app is still in a very early stage, but have you noticed any interesting trends or recurring themes showing up in users’ prey?

Among the recurring subjects there are pets – but they are not among the most voted – even if the number of people posting pictures of cats is worth considering given that it might explain the success of sites like icanhascheezburger.com. Among the most voted prey, I would say that one interesting pattern is provided by the number of pics that are centered on ecological design, but it’s definitely too early to say something conclusive.

Via: Simone Haruko Smith for PSFK

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