badges 260x215 The Internet Brings Back the Tangible  Judging from all the excitement about Amazon selling more e-books than hardcovers for the first time you might believe that we are finally closing in on the dreams of the paperless world.  iPads, smartphones and cloud storage are allowing users access to their data at the push of a button or tough screen.

Pictures?  Digital.  Video?  Digital.  Magazines?  Created individually with Flipboard and Paper.li.  With the help of Facebook and Zynga, our fantasies about the good old days on the farm are now virtual realities.

A lot of time is spent collecting virtual flair for our Internet corkboards.  Xbox Live and Apple’s new Game Center reward gamers with badges in icon form for their play.  Just when it looks like future generations may have fewer items that end up in yard sales or eBay lots of curiosities, a few companies are taking us back to the world of tangible goods and knickknacks to quench the thirst for rewards we can hold in our hands.

Foursquare has become more than just the second act for Dennis Crowley’s vision of Dodgeball, an early geolocation service Crowley developed and sold to Google way back in 2005.  As you check in to locations and collect points you earn Foursquare badges.  Badges are available for multiple check-ins or unique locations or a certain number of airports, Starbucks shops, or checking in with a crowd.  Some badges are rare enough that the Internet community chronicles their discovery and existence.  Nerd Merit Badges understands that a badge in an iPhone app isn’t the same as one you can put on your laptop or backpack.  Have you unlocked the Gym Rat badge on Foursquare?  Why not order a physical badge and show off your dedication to Foursquare users and non-users alike?

Media check in service GetGlue has a similar reward-based system.  As you decide what books, movies, TV shows, music, people, or things you like you earn different sticker.  With a lot of social networking sites this is where it stops – configuring a profile.  But GetGlue offers users a second helping: free tangible, real-life stickers.  This makes GetGlue more than just a website for sharing and learning about new media, it makes a physical impact on users’ worlds by giving them something to show off.  And with a new iPad app, GetGlue check-ins can become almost second nature while watching TV and browsing the web.

These kinds of services are adding a unique experience to the online world.  As newspapers, magazines and disc-based media go out of fashion something will need to fill the void on our shelves.  Libraries of the past were designed to be grand, impressive structures housing works of knowledge that were held in the same esteem.  We continue this practice today with book and DVD libraries proudly displayed in our common rooms, studies and man caves.  At some point though, while a few books will continue to be printed for collection value and the novelty of physical reading most will only be available in a digital form.  Most humans, as creatures of collection, will find this shift difficult.

The music industry, stuck in the past on digital distribution, has actually been leading the way in preserving our need for tangible goods.  Vinyl records are being produced again as limited edition and collector’s items.  As well as having a sound all their own, a large record comes with 12 inches of art on a sleeve that can be just as important as the music.  The physical form completes the experience, and the online worlds that provide tangible products to compliment their digital ones maybe possess the secret sauce in making online trends more than fads.

And if you still have urge to pursue that scouting passion that was never fulfilled as a child, enlist in the Science Scouts or Fanboy Scouts and start earning merit badges.