Sunday, December 27, 2009

Dawn of The Realtime Location Based Social Network

I've been dipping a toe with trepidation into the world of location-aware social networking. I say "with trepidation" because I have had many primal concerns about broadcasting my location to the world...and I am questioning that trepidation. The immediate fear is about a loss of privacy, yet I am a staunch proponent that privacy is an illusion: with the advance of Google, the growth of social networking, and the ubiquitous presence of smartphones, the reality is that privacy has long been gone.

Think those text messages you send are private? Wrong. How about those pictures and videos you publish to Flickr and YouTube? Please. Watching cable or renting a Netflix disc? Yup, those companies know just what you like and can be compelled to share that info. Your GPS and cell phone can't be tracked, surely? Are you kidding me? Every single device we use to make our lives easier with increased communication has a dark side: those same communication paths can be followed back, if one is so inclined and has the legal authority. Heck, I even publish my bike rides when I ride to work, and helpfully include a link to a Google Map. So privacy truly is an illusion, and one we have traded for innovation and good effect. So, with those moral quandaries shunt aside, I decided to see what location-based social networking has to offer

Foursquare is the leader in this, with a cleverly disguised "game" that allows you to publish your location on its service, as well as Twitter and Facebook. What intrigued me about it was this fascinating article from Om Malik on the rumors of Google buying Yelp. He posits that Yelp is actually past its half-life, as the combination of location-aware services and social networking make it too slow and too much of a "pull" model to grow much further. Now, as a dedicated Yelper, I found this troubling: I have loved Yelp's grassroots approach at using the masses to provide true unbiased recommendations, but Om's use case is right: how much better would it be to have a simple check-in that instantly taps the social network to provide real-time recommendations?

I tried Foursquare with the iPhone app and dinner last night. I sat down at the table, fired up the app, and it instantly showed me the businesses around me, with the restaurant I was at as the first result. In less than a second, I was able to click, and instantly publish to my social networks where I was. Seamless. What would have been ideal is the next step: a response back in similar speed with recommendations on what to order (the use case Om spoke of). While that works for him, it would require a massive social network that not many of us non-celebrities have, but there are possibilities!

The cleverness of this is it is concealed within the framework of a "game," making it far more approachable. Now, combine this with a augmented reality application like Layar, and a next generation of display technologies for smartphones, and you have transformed the world into a game that you get to play. Brilliant.

I still struggle with privacy concerns, but the game approach, combined with a completely controlled mechanism to expose my location, allays many. Think of it less as Big Brother, and more of an easy way to publish to your social network: many folks like Twitter, for instance, but feel they have nothing interesting to say; Foursquare automates that for you.

Oh, and check out Tavern at Lark Creek's catfish dish: it's amazing. :-)

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