Whenever I want to avoid work, Google Maps is my go-to. The point is not to hunt for a bite to eat or plan a trip—it’s pure entertainment. I glide over a digital rendering of the Earth, spin it like a globe, and zoom in. Cities and rivers and streets and businesses begin to come into focus, colored with millions of user-uploaded images and reviews. It’s a bit like Where’s Waldo?, but at the world’s scale. Among the treasures to discover are blurry photographs of late nights in dive bars, ratings of obscure colonial-American-life museums, and selfies on a mountain I’ll never visit. There are the juiciest one-star restaurant reviews, such as this one from a café in my neighborhood: “totally unwarranted douche energy from ownership, expired motor oil passed off as coffee, and price-gouged food that is prepared and sourced as terribly as their coffee.” Brutal. In Ecuador, I found half a dozen businesses that appear to be Simpsons-themed.
Google Maps’ main purpose is to enable people to get directions and look up businesses. But along the way, it has become a social space too. Sort of. To fill out the world map it created, Google invited people to add snippets to all the digital places. You upload your photos; you leave your reviews; you look at the artifacts others have left behind. The pictures of a restaurant on Google Maps are often a mismatched succession of interior-design shots, flash photos of messy plates, and outdated menus. There’s plenty of detritus too: irrelevant photos, businesses that don’t exist, three-star reviews without an explanation.