Platitudes scroll down the 2in by 3in screen of my phone. "I'm sunbathing with music and a nice cold drink," says baby_pants of Betchworth, a small village in Surrey. "Out for a coffee before my boat gig tonight," chips in mindlobster of Surbiton, equally keen to add to the canon of human knowledge. Both, my iPhone tells me, are just six miles away from where I am sitting, in a village pub. Moving down my screen with a stroke of my index finger, I view comments made earlier in the day. "I have just finished practising my nunchucks," adds baby_pants, worryingly.
A frightening snapshot of human existence to some, the best technology ever to sweep across social networking for others, opening the iPhone application Twinkle is not quite as edifying as leafing through a copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica. But, as one of a burgeoning number of online services that take advantage of GPS technology (operating on phones and satellite positioning devices), it is certainly representative of a new way of going about your daily life. Thanks to the iPhone 3G, along with Google's first Android phone, launched in the UK last November, thousands of people are now walking around with a gadget in their pocket that not only knows where they are, but can share that information, merge it with huge databases of information and also discover who and what is in the immediate vicinity. As someone who can have trouble interacting with members of his species even after several pints, it is an avenue I'm keen to explore.
"It's the future, and reveals how important context is in people's lives," says Michael Gartenberg, a technology strategist, based in New York. "The whole nature of GPS applications has now gone far beyond the idea of giving people directions. They are important to consumers looking for gadgets that do much more than just allow them to make a voice call. People always want to know what others are up to. We often start our conversations with 'Where are you?' and 'What you are doing?'. GPS apps negate that need."
The first thing I do before picking up my phone, however, is a bit of research. Traditionally, the simplest GPS-dependent applications allow users to search for local amenities. Need to get a ride at short notice? Quick Taxi does what its name suggests, presenting the user with a Google Map annotated with red pins, each representing taxi firms close to that person's location. On a road trip and want to know where the hell you are? Vicinity fills in the gaps, giving you information from Wikipedia, as well as lists of nearby banks, bars, cafes, supermarkets, petrol stations and restaurants. Urban Spoon delivers a similar service with a gimmicky twist; simply shake your phone and it will give you the name of a nearby eatery at random. You do, of course, have all the necessary map software alongside this, allowing your phone to operate like a satellite navigation system; Google Maps can plot routes and estimate journey times.
But where GPS technology is really coming into its own is in social networking. Keen to find out what all the fuss was all about, I download Tweetie, one of the most popular Twitter apps on the iPhone. Unlike the conventional online Twitter site (micro-blogs of 140 characters or less), on the iPhone this lets you search for fellow Twitterers located close by, using the device's GPS technology. For security reasons you cannot tell where exactly people are, as users' names are accompanied by the name of their nearest town (rather than, say, their latitude and longitude). I have a quick look for people in my 'hood. Tragically, though, this is not to be the social panacea I had hoped for. It seems as though the Tweetie community consists solely of computer analysts moaning about the weather. I try messaging a couple to see if they wanted to hook up for a frappuccino, but apparently even they had better things to do.
Maybe my fellow Twitterers could come to me. I take a look at GPSTwit, the next location-specific social gizmo to catch my eye. It allows you to Tweet a photo of where you are, along with a link to a pin on a publicly-available Google Map. As I type this I can tell, for example, that close to the Surrey village in which I am now sitting, one Russ Leseberg (a prolific Twitterer who seems to be involved in life-coaching in Augusta, Georgia, judging by his website) is on a train between East Croydon and Selhurst, again in Surrey.
Needless to say, such detailed information might give identity thieves, suspicious bosses or girlfriends unwanted information. It is certainly an issue that seems to be preoccupying technology journalists. "[Do] I really want to tell the world [when I am] out of town?" writes Mathew Honan in the February issue of USWired." Because the card in my camera automatically added location data to my photos, anyone who cared to look at my Flickr page could see my computers, my bicycle, my flatscreen TV all pinpointed on an online photo map. Hell, with a few clicks you could get driving directions right to my place – and with a few more you could get black gloves and a lock pick delivered to your home." Scary stuff.
Certain GPS apps do seem to be a freak magnet. It is hard to see who would use Twinkle apart from desperate singles trying to get laid. I log on to Aka-Aki, a similar app to Twinkle. It shows one user, Laila, dispensing yet another incredibly dull mantra: "Life is fun". Nanou, on the other hand, contributes the typical Tweet of the uninspired: "It's a nice and sunny day". Toulousebloke, who is only a couple of miles away, has a profile picture of three men, the middle one of whom is shirtless (a speech bubble emerged from his chest saying "Looking for fun"). I message MlleDreamer, in the hope of more intelligent conversation. "I'm new to this, what's it all about?" is my opening gambit. I obviously come across like someone hitting on her, though, and am blanked (Twanked?). It saps my soul as much as my battery.
It doesn't look like this kind of social networking will revolutionise the way we behave as animals (all this kind of behaviour happens in bars on Friday and Saturday nights). And just because we're using phones, it doesn't mean we should use different etiquette to that which would be appropriate in person.
"Before you establish criteria for befriending people, you should look closely at the social network you are considering to join and the content that flows through it," says Kirsten Dixson, a reputation management and online identity expert. "Everything has to do with the company you keep. So you really do want to think about who you let in to your network. Etiquette is all about making people feel comfortable, not ignoring them. Especially if it's a colleague or a friend of a friend, if you just ignore them, that's problematic."
Location, location: The best GPS applications
As well as letting you check your Twitter account on your iPhone or iPod Touch, this handy app also lets you handle multiple accounts. Simple to use, and one of the most popular Twitter "clients". You can search for users who are nearby, if they want to be found.
A less simple-to-use Twitter app that gives you a menu, allows you to attach a photo to it, and Tweets your comment, along with a link to a Google Map with your location. A bit like sending a photo-text-message that tells people where you are. Cue lots of tourists Tweeting pictures of the Millennium wheel.
An app that focuses more on the GPS element than Tweetie does. The community, sadly, feels slightly like an internet chat-room circa 1995, and it has its fair share of weirdos. Good for a couple of hours, but probably best to steer clear.
A sexier version of Twinkle that boasts a friendlier interface and a potentially less oddball community of users. Also more forward thinking – it allows you to update your Twitter feed while looking for people with similar interests nearby. You can also classify yourself with certain tags (interested in reading, watching films, the weather etc).
More game-based than some of the other apps, this allows you to "urban tag". It's essentially graffiti art but for technology-savvy wimps. The app uses GPS technology to identify virtual walls close to your current location. You can then leave your mark on them for others to find.Reuse content