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Twitter Wants to Know Where You’re @ With Improved Geo-Location and Privacy Features

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Twitter’s revealed that it will be tweaking its code to improve its geoTweeting system, making it much wordier and less numerical. They say it’s for privacy-conscious users, but is it also the first step toward hyperlocal Tweet streams?

When Twitter’s geo-located Tweets were revealed a while back, I noted it could turn into a killer feature for the life-casting social network. But since then, not much fuss has been made of the system and if you browse through your Twitter follower list you’ll probably find few people who’ve properly enabled it. Part of the reason is that for most users accessing Twitter through a Web site or some desktop or smartphone clients, the location is presented merely as a long incomprehensible string of numbers. It gets more powerful if you’re using a service like TweetAround inside the augmented reality browser Layar, where you can see nearby Tweets located with a visual indication of those near to you…but not everyone’s turned on their location, or uses AR apps yet.

All of which makes Twitter’s news particularly interesting: Rather than letting the system sit and mature as it is, Twitter’s going to improve the geo-Tweets by adding a “rich” data layer into the API. The plan is to replace the current meaningless lat-long numbers with a meaningful text entry, something like “Smith Street, Hackney, London.” The geo-location data will still be present, but it’ll be behind the scenes and now properly encoded in GeoJSON standard, for better compatibility with other systems.

This will make Twitter’s location system immediately more friendly, but Twitter’s also noting in its blog post that there’s another upshot regarding user privacy. Some people may not have used geo-Tweeting because of the same sort of security worries facing all location-based systems like Foursquare, Gowalla and such. But Twitter’s new rich-text layer lets you add in a more limited, text-driven location that’s compatible with its broader code, which will be handy for people who “aren’t comfortable annotating their tweets with their exact coordinates” but who may be happy to “say what city, or even neighborhood, they are in.”

And this reveals what Twitter’s really trying to do: It’s gently, subtly trying to coax people to share their geolocation more (in a more user-friendly way than the typical Facebook tactic, used when it wants to modify its user’s habits.) And the reason behind this is actually intriguing…Twitter may be trying to push for boosted local, or even hyperlocal, powers for its Tweet stream. The idea would be that you could use Twitter to discover the news that’s really going on nearby to you, or find out events, businesses or even people–turning Twitter into a seriously powerful hyperlocal news and advertising tool. And once Twitter’s got this data flowing in from its users, it can then sell it to Google.

[Via TwitterAPIblog]

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To hear more news like this, follow my (geolocated!) Tweets on Twitter, at https://twitter.com/KitEaton

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About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)

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