Mapping out the future of popular social networking

 

Your friends know when you are at the end of your mobile – now they can know instantly where you are, writes MARIE BORAN

IT IS OFTEN noted that the great irony of social networking sites is that the more time you spend updating your status and generally being sociable the less likely it is that you are getting any face time with your friends in real life.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons that location-based networking has grown in popularity over the past year or so because it marries the online and offline perfectly. When you buy a coffee you can let your network of friends know, if you discover a great little restaurant you can share it with them instantly. As we increasingly use the mobile for internet access, why shouldn’t we bring some of the GPS benefits on board?

One of the forerunners in location-based social (LBS) networking has been Foursquare. Launched in early 2009, it already has more than four million users who vie for top spots as “mayor” of their favourite haunts. Equipped with the Foursquare app and their smartphone, users can “check in” at the local café or pub and in doing so, earn a place on the leader board, unlock various badges and maybe get that coveted title if they are loyal enough.

It sounds a bit like a game, which is part of the incentive to building up an eager, active and competitive userbase while connecting a digital service to physical locations and events. However, while something like Facebook has obvious appeal for a broad market, it is a worry that the novelty of location – ie winning badges and points – could wear off.

“We’d like to think there is more to it,” says Pieter Oonk, co-founder of Irish location-based service Locle. “Location is an element of all social interaction because where you are is a factor in what you might do next and who you might meet – adding serendipity to your life – and therefore can’t be considered as ‘just a game’.”

Dublin-based Locle actually takes a different approach than the manual check-in: the app runs in the background and detects when you are near someone you know. “We built Locle as something that happens while you’re busy doing something else.”

Another service, Gowalla, is seen as the second strongest pure player in the LBS market and the past 12 months has seen it grow from 2,000 to more than 500,000 users.

Similar to Foursquare, users gather experience points and share their travels with friends but Gowalla chief executive Josh Williams has referred to checking in and badges as fads, claiming that the real incentive lies in social validation.

This, then, will not prove difficult for Facebook who has just launched Places. Although not available yet in Ireland, Places is for mobile users that want to add something different to their status update by – you guessed it – checking in to a real world location.

“I think it is very possible that Facebook Places will reign supreme but there is always room for other players. There will always be people who use location for different reasons and that is why I think there is room for the likes of Foursquare to attract a niche userbase,” says Oonk.

Facebook certainly has got a staggeringly huge potential userbase: there are more than 150 million active users currently accessing Facebook through a mobile devices. Added to this, more than 200 mobile operators in 60 countries are working on Facebook mobile products.

Another recent adopter of location is Twitter and no checking in is involved whatsoever. Depending on your settings, you can automatically include your location in every tweet. Third-party developers such as Tweetdeck can do this too as Twitter has also included “geo-data” in its application programming interface (API).

This leaves Google trailing behind with Latitude, which has been in existence for more than a year and a half. Slightly different to Foursquare and Gowalla, it works by placing your mobile phone location on Google Maps for your friends to see; when it detects friends nearby you receive an alert.

While this sounds easier to use for the Gmail account holder and Google Maps user, one look at the activity of my own Latitude friends confirms that it hasn’t taken off yet – most of them have not used Latitude in more than 200 days. Part of the problem is that Google has not yet created an iPhone app for Latitude, instead relying on users to log in via their mobile web browser.

What is the secret to success in this end of the tech market? A platform to easily update your status and where all of your friends are seems to be the key, but different individuals have different communication and privacy needs, says Niall Fagan, head of business development at social media marketing firm Simply Zesty and early adopter of Foursquare.

“The past two years have shown that, given the right technology, people will tell people what they are up to. Some people share their location by sending an SMS to 10 friends on a Friday night. Others post which pub they are in on Twitter and others use Foursquare. To each their own.”

What does sum up the whole reason behind using location-based services is technology-driven serendipity, as talked about by Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley.

“Walking around the neighbourhood looking for serendipity sounds like an awful idea. Walking around the neighbourhood while your phone constantly pings your GPS, the social graph and a database of people/places/ things nearby that you may be interested in?

“I think that could be pretty powerful.”

However, all of these location-based social networking services have one common thread: they share your physical location with the wider world and this, like other technologies before it, raises new privacy issues.

In order to demonstrate how many people “overshare” a Dutch computer scientist named Frank Groeneveld recently created a site called PleaseRobMe.com, which ran a simple programme that sucked in all public Foursquare updates on Twitter. Using keywords such as “on holidays2 or “headed to” created a rough list of possibly vacant houses and their GPS co-ordinates.

“Of course people should worry about privacy but it is up to the individual. For example, Google sends you alerts to your e-mail every so often to let you know that you are sharing your location with the public and ask you to review this if you are concerned,” explains Fagan.

As with regular social-networking sites, photo-sharing sites and all other forms of user-driven sites on the web, the degree of sharing is often down to the user themselves.

“I think it is up to the individual,” Fagan says. “You have a choice and privacy settings are there for a reason. If you have a Gmail account and use Google, you have already given away a lot more information than you might think.”