Social networking: Too close for comfort

Social networking with built-in GPS was meant to be the next big thing. The possibilities are endless – so why isn't everyone signing up? By Rhodri Marsden
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The Independent Tech

Some people view solitary drinking in a public bar as an indication that either you have a flawed personality, or you're an alcoholic, or that you smell unpleasant, or all three. Personally, I don't mind it; a pint, a book and an armchair can be more therapeutic than waffling on about the minutiae of my working day to yawning friends.

But one evening last week I'd reached a lull in the plotline of my book, my pint glass was empty, and I wondered who else might be around. So I turned to one of a suite of applications on my phone that are supposed to add an exciting geographical element to our social lives. Forget posting mundane messages on Facebook walls; in theory these should prise us away from our phones or computers and help us connect in the real world, by automatically letting each other know exactly where we all are.

Sadly, I only had four acquaintances who had signed up to that particular service. Two of those seem to have got bored with it about two months ago; one was about 80 miles away; and the other was someone with whom I struggle to keep up a conversation at the best of times. In desperation I checked to see if any interesting-looking strangers had "checked-in" in the same pub; apparently someone called Nick had arrived about 45 minutes previously, but I decided that roaming the pub clutching my phone and calling out "Nick?" in a small voice would make me look like even more of a social outcast than I was already. So I ploughed on with the book.

Geosocial networking, as it's called (though it's surely destined to be savagely abbreviated) is now the big growth area for mobile internet applications. The number of startups fighting their way into the sector is staggering, and reminiscent of the dotcom boom; they all claim to be offering a unique and exciting service, but few seem to be financially viable propositions, and they appear to be waiting to be bought up by internet giants with huge user-bases and deep pockets. Brightkite, WhosHere, Zintin, Whrrl, Loopt and Dokiru are just some of the names that have, as yet, failed to resonate much with the general public; however, Gowalla and Foursquare have achieved a little more market penetration, and the latter's front-running has spawned yet more startups offering services that bolt on to Foursquare: Foodspotting, Hot Potato, FourWhere, SocialGreat, Layar and many others.

But despite the seemingly endless selection of methods by which we can locate our pals, we've shown some reluctance to do so. Too many services are chasing too few enthusiasts, and in the words of one observer, "it's like a big room without many people in it." And those of us who are in the room are curious, early-adopter geeks like myself who you probably wouldn't want to hang out with in any case. So will we ever develop a geosocial habit? If you'd performed a quick survey back in March during the SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, you'd have laid substantial bets that we'd all be doing it before summer rolled around.

Twitter famously launched at the same festival in 2007, and since then it has become the place where people almost expect a game-changing offering to emerge. Foursquare and Gowalla certainly made a big splash; throughout the festival attendees were checking-in on their smartphones wherever they went, in a modern reworking of the 1990s mobile phone scenario: "I'm nearly at the office, darling! No, now I'm actually in the office!" The subsequent coverage of SXSW saw the number of Foursquare signups grow to around a million, with interest in Gowalla hovering at around a quarter of that of the market leader. But compared with vibrant online networks such as Twitter (60 million users) and Facebook (half a billion) this is small fry.

The scattering of friends across a number of services leaves users having to check-in several times to keep all their friends updated whenever they change location. And the act of checking-in itself isn't always easy; the apps detect your position using your phone's location data and present you with a list of nearby venues to choose from, but each service's database is frequently inaccurate or misleading, with many duplicates and notable absences. So, for now, they're a drag to use, the benefits are minimal, and with diehard Twitter users turning their noses up at them, they seem destined to languish in a screen of unwanted and barely launched apps.

However, all that could change if industry giants throw their full weight behind them. Yahoo, whose old Fire Eagle location service has barely registered in the public consciousness, has reportedly been in talks to buy Foursquare for some time. Rumours are afoot of an Apple service called "iGroups". Google launched its "Buzz" service in February with geolocation at its core, but inadequate product testing meant that it failed to make much of an impact. Twitter opened up the possibility of geolocation to developers last year, and it now promises that we'll soon have the ability to watch tweets roll in from a specific location – allowing us to see, for example, all the comments, pictures and videos that people might post from a particular concert or public event.

Facebook has been more cagey; at a developer conference a few weeks back a big announcement was expected that Facebook users would finally be permitted to easily share location information among their networks of friends – networks that the smaller services are desperate to tap into. Facebook even teased conference delegates by supplying them with RFID chips allowing them to broadcast their whereabouts within the building. The announcement failed to materialise, but Andrew Scott, CEO of British geosocial network rummble.com, says that it's imminent. "Facebook will definitely do something involving location – but with 500m users it has a lot more to lose if it gets it wrong. If it's implemented well, then people will use it. But whatever happens, the idea of 'who's nearby' will inevitably become a commodity. I've been saying this for four or five years – it's happening a lot slower than we thought."

Clearly these services aren't altruistic operations dedicated purely to improving our social lives, and the fact that Foursquare is rolling out a "dashboard" to allow businesses to access check-in information for their particular location is a clear indication of the eventual goal: enabling high-street businesses to offer rewards and incentives directly to their regular visitors as part of a marketing effort. But if we do decide to embrace the "check-in", will we really be willing to surrender a large chunk of our privacy in order to take advantage of freebies and special offers?

Dr Allison Cavanagh, lecturer in Communications Studies at the University of Leeds and author of a book on the sociology of the internet, believes that the response will be clearly divided along generational lines – not least because Foursquare's and Gowalla's applications for smartphones are constructed as games, where points, virtual gifts or accolades are awarded for regular attendance. (Indeed, Dennis Crowley of Foursquare has said that his business is to "make life more like a video game"). "The people targeted by these services," she says, "are teenagers and 18-25s living in urban areas. And they simply don't worry about privacy in the same way that older people do. Perhaps the bigger question is whether it will outlast the novelty factor, as these services essentially combine all the glamour of orienteering with all the fun of typing."

One website, "Please Rob Me", launched in a blaze of publicity earlier this year to highlight the "oversharing" of location data that we're pushing online, thereby revealing to the world when we're not sitting at home. Now some startups are targeting the privacy issue head-on. Rally Up claims to "emphasise privacy and cut out noise" by dividing your friends and acquaintances into four groups, depending on how likely you are to want to meet each of them in the real world. An even simpler approach comes from an iPhone app called Glympse, with which you can let a specific group of friends observe your movements for a finite period; this is perfect for, say, a pub crawl or a long journey and, crucially, there's no risk of revealing the information to people who either shouldn't know where you are, or couldn't care less.

But our appetite for any of these services, regardless of privacy controls, is still largely unknown. Even Josh Williams, founder of Gowalla, was candid enough to publicly ponder whether "what we're doing today is going to be meaningful in five or ten years." It's not very meaningful now. But there's a collective niggling suspicion that our gregarious nature, coupled with businesses' desperation to market themselves to us, will make the future all about location, location, location.

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