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Tech Edge: Is Geolocation the Next Social Empire?

Everyone from Google to HBO thinks 2010 is the year we embrace geolocation and tell friends and marketers our every move. Farhad Manjoo locates the problem with that idea.

Is "checking in" the next tweeting? So say the tech cognoscenti, adherents of a new breed of online social service called "geolocation." When members visit their favorite restaurant, bar, or laundromat, they use their smartphone (in most instances) and a site such as Foursquare or Gowalla to tell their friends where they are. Foursquare, which is racking up at least a million check-ins a week, prods its users to keep coming back by turning ordinary life into a kind of game. Users earn points each time they use the service; the most ardent fans keep checking in at the same locations over and over, eventually winning the prestigious title of "mayor" of, say, Happy Hamburger.

What's the point of telling everyone you're at the dentist? That's a bit like asking why anyone would use Facebook, or, in an earlier time, the telephone. Novel social applications seem useless — until they cross the Rubicon and begin to be indispensable. Foursquare, which launched in March 2009, has been surging, thanks largely to the iPhone and other GPS-enabled mobile devices. Media outfits such as HBO, Zagat, and Bravo TV have joined Foursquare's game, enabling Top Chef fans to win points for going to restaurants that appear in the show and Zagat readers to get tips and unlock a "foodie" badge.

Marketers too are wondering if consumers are finally ready to tell them where they are so they can be offered in-the-moment specials. "Our growth curve no longer looks like a hockey stick," Foursquare recently tweeted. "It looks like a skateboard ramp with 4 feet of vert."

But will Foursquare and other geolocation startups clear the ramp? One hurdle: Every tech heavyweight now has a geo strategy. Google runs at least two services that let people show their friends where they are — Latitude and Buzz, the Twitter-like service that's built into Gmail. Yelp added a check-in function to its latest iPhone app. All eyes are now on Facebook, which has reportedly been working to build check-ins into its mobile site. Adding location awareness to existing social-networking sites makes sense — for most of us, this feature doesn't justify joining a whole new service.

The bigger hurdle — for all geolocation apps — is that even in these carefree, Facebook- and Twitter-addled times, telling people where you are right this minute might be a bridge too far for many. (See pleaserobme.com, a collection of out-of-the-house check-ins.) Indeed, a good analogue here is the age-old dream of the video phone. Because talking on the phone is so popular, chatting with video seemed to be a natural extension. But video turned out to be an intrusion in most situations. Even with the prevalence of Web cams, you'd prefer that the guy on the other end not see you; nobody places a Skype video call or hosts a video conference without making arrangements first.

Checking in has the same problem. It can be fun, useful, even indispensable, but only in certain contexts. Which doesn't mean millions of people won't start posting their locations on a map when Facebook or Twitter join the geolocation game. They probably will. But will the next social empire be built on check-ins? You're more likely to be elected the real mayor of New York.

A version of this article appeared in the April 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.