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Geocaching: From Online to Outdoors

I cache because I enjoy it. It gets me out of the house to interesting places. It makes me exercise even when I don’t want to. It provides an activity that my wife and I both enjoy that we can do together…can be done almost anywhere, anytime and anyplace. It brought me here to the forums where I waste much too much time. But really.. I cache because I love the hunt. The idea of finding stuff that has been there for a long time but nobody realizes is there.”

Group of people geocaching

There are many different reasons why people get involved in geocaching (for anyone who needs some background information on geocaching, check out my video; here’s another video on how to geocache). One common reason that I found throughout my research, though, is that geocaching facilitates social interaction. This social interaction goes further than that of the traditional social media website, though. Rather, this social website not only facilitates virtual social interaction, but also physical social interaction. This integration of the two forms of social interaction is becoming more and more important in an age where the Internet has become the norm.

There are many different physical social aspects to geocaching, which helps connect users both on and off the www.geocaching.com website. Some motivations include:

  1. Social walking
  2. Exploring new places
  3. The challenge
  4. Collecting caches

While geocaching begins on the Internet, it branches off into a multi-dimensional activity of social interaction and geographical, goal-directed exploration. A term used to describe this interpersonal element of the treasure hunt is social walking. Essentially what this means is that it creates an opportunity to “get out and walk.” It’s important to note that the activity is not defined by the destination (aka actually finding the geocache). Rather, the physical experience of getting to this destination is an integral part of the activity. As such, geocachers tend to not do this alone.

This prospect of exploration often entices friends and outsiders to caching to join in on the hunt. Even if an individual is not a cacher, by participating, they can still see and experience things that they might not otherwise have. This is because often times, the location of the cache (chosen by the creator) has some sort of significance, whether it be the historical value or aesthetic appeal of the setting. Thus, for the non-cachers in the group, the actual journey is still appreciated, creating an incentive to tag along. This is a basis on which geocaching becomes a social group activity.

A geocache that looks like an acorn

A cache that looks like an pine-cone

Geocaching also presents the player with an intellectual challenge. Though the GPS can easily bring the player to the vicinity of where the cache has been placed, it is their responsibility to locate the specific hiding place of the cache through the deciphering of the hints/puzzles and creative searching. This aids in uniting the group towards a specific goal.

You had to solve the anagrams before working out the coordinates and I had the whole family over Christmas doing anagrams trying to work out these damns things-so you can get people to help you.”

Another important aspect of this physical socilization is that geocaching is an ongoing activity, where the cacher can keep a running total of how many caches they have found over time (there is even a website that keeps track of cacher statistics). The website creates a sense of purpose by keeping a record of one’s progress. This call to action pushes the cacher out to find more caches in order to build their collection/profile. For instance, this past summer, one of my friends who geocaches was determined to hit 300 caches found by the end of the season. There were a few times where I was out biking with him, when I’d find myself stopping at specific locations to help search for these geocaches. With 250 caches at the time and only a few weeks left in summer, he saw it as a difficult, yet achievable goal.

#1 ranked geocacher in terms of caches found

Through research on the topic and actually going out and geocaching myself, I can see that the physical socialization aspects of geocaching are just as important as the virtual socialization aspects of it. Because of this hybrid of the two, the culture of geocaching is a very unique environment. It’s not just a game and website that’s experienced, but rather something that’s lived, as well. For instance, within the community, a body of geocaching-specific terminology has emerged.

Accordingly, I wonder how friendships are maintained and cultivated through the website. Do users find other people on the website with similar interests, and then proceed to cultivate a physical friendship from that, rather than just keeping a virtual friendship? Or, do users mainly gain other geocaching friends just through outsiders (that they already knew from physical relationships) that they bring into the culture? The present research available on the topic is unfortunately too limited, and I could not find the answer to this question. I know with my experience talking to others that geocache, it has involved a little of both (but mainly leaning towards bringing outsiders in). One person I’ve talked to noted that he’s made  friends on the website that he’s gone geocaching with. But, also noted that this friendship has been limited to the activity of geocaching. So, with this in mind, is there still a stigma surrounding meeting people in physical space that one first met on the Internet?

Perhaps geocaching is an indicator of how the Internet is beginning to stabilize between both the physical and virtual world. Some of the first social networking websites that cropped up, such as Facebook and MySpace, were purely a form of virtual socialization. While these sites have proven to connect people from all around the world and all sections of society in ways that could not have been done previously, it has also been argued that these sites are physically disconnecting people from each other. Social networking sites like geocaching.com, though, are beginning to yet again shift how people are interacting with one another.

As the Internet has progressed and grown, so have these social networking websites. Mobile technology has been a large facilitator in this, allowing users to log onto the virtual world from anywhere, any time, rather than being stuck in front of a computer at home. Geocaching, much like FourSquare and the iPhone app Mob Zombies, looks to integrate the virtual with the physical. With the constant advancement of easily mobile Internet devices, such as most recently the iPad, and the continued migration of social networking sites towards the physical realm, it will be interesting to see what new mediums and contexts social networking and GPS are used for in the future.

iPhone Geocaching App

Handheld GPS

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  1. ElzbthMllr 15:30, Feb 15th, 10

    This is a great summary as I haven’t been following this topic as much as I should have. I’ve never heard of geocaching before your posts. Some of the key things that stand out to me from your research you discuss pretty in depth, for example, the way that geocaching bridges the virtual aspects of game playing with the offline aspects, and how this in turn leads to more social action. I think it’s similar in a lot of ways to MeetUp in briding that social isolation gap that people will often accuse the internet of furthering. Except that this is even cooler because of the influence of technology on the success of the game.

    As someone interested in the relationship of social change to technology, I’d be curious to learn a bit more about the social value of this kind of gaming, and what lessons can be learned. For example, understanding the motivations of people who geocache (you did a great job of doing that), and figuring out how to take some of these lessons and perhaps bringing them into more serious conversations about how technology can affect everything from politics to education, etc.

    I think I’ll have to explore geocaching myself one of these days. Whose with me??

  2. HoniehLayla 16:11, Feb 15th, 10

    As I have mentioned in my past comments – I really like this idea and I am glad you reported on because I never knew it existed. The concept of integrating physical and virtual social interaction is great.

    I definitely would like to try to this once with the class.

    Using technology to engage minds, and promote health through exercise is a great use for new media – and GEO tagging.

  3. Ryan 17:41, Feb 15th, 10

    I definitely agree- Great Job. The most interesting thing to this is the synthesizing between virtual and physical world by an online site like geocaching or meetup for example. I wonder if the commercial forces will recognize the power behind something like this and try to exploit such a thing and capitalize off of it.

    Also, has anyone had any criticism of geocaching?

    What I’m seeing here is an counterpoint being the GPS. Things like Foursquare, Gawker Stalker, Geotagging, Ushahidi, etc. all use GPS and the internet but in very different ways. I think some have found it to be invasive of privacy and others to be a tool for a great search or even an instrument to help find people in emergency situations. Whatever its used for locating technology and the internet to bring people together has definitely changed the way we connect with one another and how we use technology and social media networks to create new possibilities for further communication and interaction.

  4. Leslie 14:54, Feb 16th, 10

    @Elizabeth- I agree, Geocaching is a lot like MeetUp in the sense that it gets people together under a common cause. There is a lot concerning social value to be learned from websites like these. And, I think it could have a lot of implications towards where social media goes in terms of value to the individual and the community in the future.

    @Honeih- Yea, the idea of using technology to get people exercising, rather than just sitting in front of the TV is a great thing. In this sense, it’s like the Wii Fit, although I’ve never tried it and am skeptical to how much “exercise” you really get out of it…

    @Ryan- I have not come across any criticism of geocaching. Although, I feel that if marketing does take too much of a hold on the game, there could be a backlash, since it involves such a tightly-knit community of people. There has been some instances where marketers used geocaching to help advertise a product, but it has all be in the fun of geocaching. It was used to help promote the movie Planet of the Apes through having people go out and search for caches that held special memorabilia prizes from the movie: http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,169005,00.html

    I could also see some criticism form if geocaching suddenly becomes unsafe in some way.

    I’ve tried to search for any negativity towards geocaching, and so far, no real problems. The game’s been around for about 10 years now, too.

    It would definitely be fun to go out geocaching as a class!