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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, 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.

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  • Chase Fitzgerald

    Being the mayor of just about everything in my city, I feel that there's still not enough competition on Foursquare; but that's only because of it's low user rate in my town (granted, I live in South Florida and not in the middle of no where). There is something to be said about the generation gap when new social devices come out, too. I'm 22 and always up on the latest social networking devices, whereas my father just got a Twitter and is scared to death about who he tells what (and I'm his only follower).

    Chase Fitzgerald
    f: /chaseefitzgerald
    t: @chase_f

  • Dina Meek

    I've been following geolo for the past six months or so and it seems that an easy solution would be to add a feature to the platform that allows you to delay your check-in. In other words, you check-in, but set it to show an hour or two later. Obviously if you're using Foursquare to let your pals know where you are then you wouldn't use this feature. But if your goal is to be mayor of Happy Hamburger without getting robbed, why wouldn't this be a viable solution?

  • Kevin Lenard

    Indeed, Brenda, you speak for most of humanity. As Farhad points out in explaining the failure of always-on video, some things SOUND great, theoretically (online dating is one example that simply cannot work as promised, see my rants on THAT subject at, but once the early adopters try them, they fall by the wayside. Interesting that Farhad, a fellow I assume is deeply involved in the tech business, equates Facebook to the telephone.

    In this current 'surge' of experimentation and instant popularity it's VERY easy (too easy) to assume what we're fooling around with today is going to prove useful forever, like the "Pet Rock". OUCH! What am I suggesting? Farhad says above: "Novel social applications seem useless -- until they cross the Rubicon and begin to be indispensable. Foursquare, which launched in March 2009, has been surging..." How's that Friendster account, or Second Life avatar, been working out for you lately, Farhad?

    Twitter is USELESS as an 'instant fame service', its REAL value is as a free, global, boarderless, instant news service. It will always have value as the latter, not so much for the former. My point being that Facebook has yet to prove its value to adults over time -- the phone has been with us since the 1870's. To assume that Foursquare, in its current infancy, is going to prove permanently useful is presumptuous, but such is the conceit of the current generation. Those self-back patting geeks who fly from tech conference to tech conference cross-promoting new sites and technologies without having to worry about long-term ROI (it's the late '90's all over again for this current group of "social media" enthusiasts...).

    Social marketing is a distraction from what is really being invented today. Apple just launched "Web 3.0", a new global business model, NOT a new hardware device that will change the world (the iPad is just a big iPhone). What Foursquare and its like (Google being the real owner of the future of marketing) are working toward is marketing's 'holy grail', not instant discount coupons, but fully addressable advertising, the coming phenomena via which no one has to see the same ad in its boring entirety more than once and the only ads they do see are welcomed as they're in the market for those products. Geolocation is an essential element in making this happen, as is the collapse of the Boomer generations' "privacy paranoids" -- the new Millennial generation have already told us they don't care about privacy if abandoning it means getting stuff they want.

    Curious? More at: http://AdvertisingBusinessMode...

  • Brenda Brown-Paul

    I use UberTwitter on my Blackberry to add new postings to my account (@AvonBP). One of the last setup screens asks you if you want to send your location with your posts. I wish they had "Hell No!" as a choice. I turned it off, and will never turn it on. Even if the discounts offered by local merchants are 90% off, free parking and a foot massage, I don't want or need to share my exact location with anyone. In an emergency, the police in this area have shown that they can find you via your phone's GPS service. That is enough for me.

    Brenda Brown-Paul