Stepped-on toes, sleaze and miscues in the GPS social dance

(avatar photo of Second Life by Sisi Soderstrom)

(avatar photo of Second Life by Sisi Soderstrom)

Mathew Honan, WIRED editor, decided to try publicizing his every movement through GPS as a social guinea pig for a few weeks to see how it altered his life, his ability to find good restaurants or friends, using the latest locational software.  It’s a “good, bad and sleazy” tale of some breakthroughs but also many missed connections and awkward social implications.

“Thanks to the iPhone 3G and, to a lesser extent, Google’s Android phone, millions of people are now walking around with a gizmo in their pocket that not only knows where they are but also plugs into the Internet to share that info, merge it with online databases, and find out what—and who—is in the immediate vicinity.”

He first tried WhosThere (the iPhone application).  Curious what it was used for Honan e-mailed those around him, and one woman (Bridget),  “who, according to her profile, at least, was a 25 year-old woman with a proclivity for scarves,”  responded ” ‘To find sex, a@#hole.’ ”

Honan notes that some warn that GPS threatens to violate your privacy. “Geo-enthusiasts will assure you that these privacy concerns are overplayed: Your cell phone can be used to pinpoint your location anyway, and a skilled hacker could likely get that data from your mobile carrier. Heck, in the UK, tracking mobile phone users is as simple as entering their number on a Web site (as long as they give permission). But the truth is, there just aren’t that many people who want to prey on your location. Still, I can’t help being a little skittish when I start broadcasting my current position and travel plans. I mean, I used to stop newspaper delivery so people wouldn’t realize I was out of town. Now I’ve told everyone on Dopplr that I’m going to DC for five days.”

Honan also notes how locational  information can jump platforms with unexpected results.  He explains how he forgot that the social application Whrrl (like many other social apps), cross posts to Twitter which then prompted postings on Facebook  and FriendFeed before landing on Honan’s blog, where Google indexed it.  He notes that one seemingly innocuous iPhone application  led to a “giant geotagged footprint across the Web.”

“A few days later I had another disturbing realization. It’s a Tuesday and I’m blowing off a work meeting in favor of a bike ride through Golden Gate Park (37.771558 °N, 122.454478 °W). Suddenly it hits me—since I would later post my route online with the date and time, I would be just a Google search (“Mat Honan Tuesday noon”) away from getting busted. I’m a freelancer, and these are trying economic times. I can’t afford to have the Internet ratting me out like that.”  Honan notes that Fire Eagle, a location clearinghouse started by Tom Coates, lets you input that information once and have it broadcast to other geoapps, such as and Bizroof but Fire Eagle also lets you decide how specific to be for each application: you can provide the latitude and longitude, the neighborhood or only the city.  “[A]s Coates also notes:  ‘You have to have the ability to lie about your location.'”  if you input your fake position manually.”  Of  course being more general about your location or lying about it, defeats the purpose of finding friends who are proximate or other points of interest near you.

“I was starting to revel in the benefits of location awareness. …While working downtown one day, it looked like I was going to have to endure a lonely burrito lunch by myself. So I updated my location and asked for company. My friend Mike saw my post on Twitter and dropped by on his way to the office. Later, I met up with a couple of people I had previously known only online: After learning I would be just around the corner from their office, we agreed to get together for coffee. One of them, it turns out, works in a field I cover and gave me a tip on a story.

But then, two weeks into the experiment, I bumped into my friend Mindy at the Dovre Club (37.749008 °N, 122.420547 °W). She mentioned my constant updates, which she’d noticed on Facebook. “It seems sort of odd,” she said with a note of concern. “I’ve been a little worried about you. I thought, ‘Wow, Mat must be really lonely.'”

I explained that I wasn’t actually begging for company; I was just telling people where I was. But it’s an understandable misperception. This is new territory, and there’s no established etiquette or protocol.

This issue came up again while having dinner with a friend at Greens (37.806679 °N, 122.432131 °W), an upscale vegetarian restaurant. Of course, I thought nothing of broadcasting my location. But moments after we were seated, two other friends—Randy and Cameron—showed up, obviously expecting to join us. Randy squatted at the end of the table. Cameron stood. After a while, it became apparent that no more chairs would be coming, so they left awkwardly. I felt bad, but I hadn’t really invited them. Or had I?…

There were also missed connections—lots of missed connections. Apple doesn’t let applications from outside software makers run in the background on the iPhone…. As a result, iPhone location apps can’t send out constant updates….[So] people are often showing up where you were, rather than where you are. On a Friday afternoon, for example, I posted an update looking for nearby friends to share a postwork beer downtown (37.787229 °N, 122.387093 °W). A short time later, I heard back from my friend Lisey, who wanted to meet up. But I had already moved on to Zeitgeist (37.770088 °N, 122.422194 °W), a beer garden in San Francisco’s Mission District. I again updated my location. But the place was packed, so I decided to split and headed to Toronado (37.771920 °N, 122.431213 °W), a bar closer to home. Just after I left, I heard from Lisey again, who was now on her way to the Mission. I had accidentally dodged her twice. I later discovered that two more pals had shown up at Zeitgeist looking for me.”

And Honan’s article doesn’t deal with the social discomfort of other ‘friends’ learning you are nearby and joining you for drinks or a meal when these are people that you don’t really want to hang out with.  For more on the awkwardness of excluding people from your social networks online, see “Anxious about non-friends inviting you to be their Facebook ‘friend’? You’re not alone” or “Amassing Friends: Collect the Whole Set.”

Honan’s article also raises the interesting question of how we change social norms around open-ness to meeting with people.  If Americans have far fewer friends on average than a generation ago, can we start to change that without people worrying about the stigma of appearing socially desperate, trolling for friends by posting their GPS and encouraging people to join them for a beer or lunch.

See the WIRED article:  “I Am Here: One Man’s Experiment With the Location-Aware Lifestyle” by Matt Honan.


One response to “Stepped-on toes, sleaze and miscues in the GPS social dance

  1. That’s pretty interesting. I also heard of people who are always on facebook are thought to be lonely. Once I heard that it kind put me off to the whole thing. Anyway I love the article.

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