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Games

The Intriguing Potential of 'Cornbread'

An example of the imagery used in Cornbread's marketing campaign.

Cornbread is an app that lets you drop virtual graffiti all over town. The idea is simple, yet full of possibilities.

I moved back to Portland, Oregon from Singapore a few years ago. Much to my delight, I'm learning that this temperately coniferous town is a hothouse of digital creativity. It hosts the well-attended TechFestNW, as well as the XOXO Festival, "an experimental festival celebrating independently produced art and technology", which has proven an underground hit and is currently in its fourth year. Portland is also home to the Portland Code School and PDX Creative Coders, a collective that boasts a membership of over 750 aspiring and established app artists.

At the heart of this growing ecosystem of indie digirati sits a small but influential agency called Neologic, headed by Corey Pressman and Jaime Genarro. Pressman is a former academic with a PhD in cultural anthropology. Genarro is a veteran of the internet marketing world. Part of Neologic's magic is its commitment to serious play.

Neologic recently released an app called Cornbread:

"Cornbread lets users create beautiful messages -- crumbs -- with video, photos audio and text. Then the messages are published wherever in the world you are standing when you "drop" them. Crumbs are discovered and experienced only where they are dropped."

Available for iOS, Cornbread is free to download and use.

I've had a chance to play around with Cornbread, and I'm excited about its potential. A Silicon Valley pitch for the app would sound something like, "geolocated Instagram". But that wouldn't really do it justice. By pinning content you create on your smartphone -- be it a snapshot, video, or text -- to places in the physical world, Cornbread offers a means of dropping virtual graffiti all over town. The idea is simple, yet full of possibilities, possibilities I hope its users will explore to their fullest extent as the Cornbread community grows.

The beauty of Cornbread is in its potential to evoke the carnivalesque delights of a hodgepodge. It promises a raucous jumble as a diverse community of users pepper the Cornbread virtual world with their own peculiar brands of weird.

Pressman told me that the app is named after the pioneering graffiti artist from Philadelphia, Darryl McCray, whose tagging name was Cornbread. It's easy enough to envision early Cornbread adopters using the app to do just that -- to tag their haunts. You could also use it to drop messages to fellow travelers who retrace your steps in far-flung locales. "Crumbs," as the app calls these littered messages, are lodged on the cloud, but bound to earth. They pile up, forming a palimpsest of digital flotsam -- the caked-on layers of an unregulated conversation that lurches across time but that is bound to place. It brings to mind the underground postal system described by Thomas Pynchon in his novel The Crying of Lot 49. Cornbread could be the web incarnation of Trystero.

The app's true potential lies beyond merely tagging locales with random shout-outs. The idea is that you can add an extra, vital layer of relationship to the places you and your partners-in-crime frequent. In effect, Cornbread lets you tie story to place. You can imagine all sorts of interesting installations built using Cornbread as their foundation. For example, you could drop "crumbs" on paintings at the MET, as a kind of underground museum tour, an irreverent running commentary on the stuffy art.

In a recent sitdown that I had with Neologic's founders, Genarro told me of how she saw many bright-eyed tech savants burn out in their careers at more conventional agencies. They begin with an enthusiasm to do ground-breaking work. But they get quickly worn down by what, more often than not, turns out to be the drudgery of marketing to the masses. Pumping out a never-ending stream of click-bait, group thinking user experience and design down to its nub, which reaches the point where every app winds up looking like every other app.

When they launched Neologic, Pressman and Genarro were committed to offering those who worked there an opportunity, for a portion of their workweek, to play. They set up an R&D offshoot, Neologic Labs, where employees are encouraged to make cool stuff for the fun of it. So far, Neologic Labs has produced Cornbread and another intriguing project, Poetry for Robots, which I'll write about another time. Genarro sees this play time as a sound investment. It keeps the troops fresh and fuels innovation in their commercial work.

As they return to the lab to tinker, they should keep in mind that Cornbread has plenty of room to evolve. After the official launch at WebVisions Chicago last week, I was keen to see the black diamond "crumbs" spread across Cornbread's map like a contagion. After an initial surge, mostly in Portland, proliferation of crumbs has stalled. Unfortunately, like many cloud-based social media apps, Cornbread faces a formidable inhibitor, what Paul Graham has called "network effects". Until there's a critical mass of active users, Cornbread runs the risk of remaining a ghost town.

It's worth the risk. This is an exemplar of a truly exciting new form of art, which some have begun to call "internet art". I prefer the term "app art", since, to use an analogy, if the internet is the canvas, the app -- the body of code placed on the internet -- is the paint. No one calls painters "canvassers". This is art that exploits the cloud to spark non-trivial interaction.

I'm not convinced, though, that Cornbread has gone all-in on the most promising aspects of its vision. The branding is inconsistent with its subversive potential. The tagline that graces the app's website smacks of a corporate brochure: "It's a love letter...It's inspired by your life...It's a beautiful message in a bottle...a connection to place...It's a connection to people...A secret waiting for you...in the air, anywhere."

This isn't the gritty streetwise appeal of Cornbread. It's corny Madison Avenue messaging meant to appease all tastes. The images on the site's slideshow -- of millennials gazing ruminatively into twilight landscapes -- likewise draw their inspiration from every other site on the internet these days.

There's an ambivalence at the heart of the branding of the app. On the one hand, the app wants to have street cred, to appropriate the ghetto subversion of graffiti artists. On the other hand, it wants to be a showcase piece that impresses potential clients. To accommodate the latter, it has to sanitize that subversive spirit by making the graffiti not only virtual, but also aspirational.

One of the most powerful aspects of graffiti is that it's an act of aggression, a trespassing on others' property. In America, graffiti has always been associated with angry young men of color, to gangs, to "tagging" or the marking of territory. Graffiti in its most basic form is an affront to the predominantly white, middle class, law-abiding citizenry. It's seen as a scourge, a menace, a blight. It's meant to be cleaned up, stamped out, whitewashed over. Graffiti reminds us uncomfortably that poverty persists in a place of plenty and that marginalization exists in a culture of assimilation. But it also reminds us that resistance to disenfranchisement can be both provincial and transcendent.

This ambivalence plays out in the design of the app itself. I appreciate the allusiveness of the app's name. But, to be honest, I probably would never have guessed the reference if Pressman hadn't told me. The logo for the app is slick, but I don't see what it has to do with Cornbread the graffiti artist or even cornbread the food. Dropping "crumbs" obviously plays off the implications of the latter meaning, but Cornbread the artist didn't drop crumbs. He dropped tags.

I'm also not sure why they chose black and turquoise diamonds as the icons on the map that marks the location of crumbs. Diamonds have nothing to do with crumbs or tags. I suppose if you viewed them three-dimensionally, the diamonds appear as points on the map projecting up into a square sheet. The sheet is thus a two-dimensional expansion of the crumb lodged within the one-dimensional point. But still, I don't see what these icons, however neatly geometrical, have to do with graffiti. All in all, the navigational elements of the app sacrifice a coherent "personality" for ease-of-use, even though the two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive.

But that's a quibble, an ambiguity to be worked out by how the app is used. I highly recommend you check out Cornbread. Get your friends to try it too. Figure out some interesting ways to use it. Then, by all means, show me what you come up with.

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