Location location location

Location-tracking services on the Internet (like Loopt or Foursquare) offer internet users the opportunity to find other friends or would-be friends who are nearby.  They are a technologically more sophisticated version of the Craigslist post that my colleagues Robert Putnam and Lewis Feldstein featured in Better Together (“I’ll be washing clothes shortly at 25th and Clement….[A]nyone like to join me for a game of backgammon while the clothes spin?”).

But one Achilles’ Heel of such efforts is users inadvertently disclosing private information that perhaps they shouldn’t. One site, PleaseRobMe.com trawls live Twitter posts (tweets) to share publicly which users are away from home, in a tongue-in-cheek effort to get users to be more circumspect.  [PleaseRobMe notifies the careless tweeters as well.]

Please Rob Me: The Dangers Of Location Based Services

Analysts expect that use of such mobile social applications will rise. With the ubiquity of smart phones and users’ rising comfort with applications that use location-based awareness, to recommend local restaurants, to automatically purchase an item displayed in a window by pointing one’s phone at it and clicking (application is in development), they will also become more comfortable using their location for social applications.

As the Economist notes: “Foursquare, which celebrates its first birthday on March 13th and now covers most big cities around the world, rewards people who register their presence at (or check in to) a particular café or restaurant most often with the title of Mayor. That, in turn, can sometimes entitle them to, say, a free coffee or pizza. On Gowalla, another start-up, users are encouraged to collect as many digital souvenirs as possible by visiting various venues in a city.

“Corporate behemoths also have designs on the location-based market. Last year Google launched a service called Latitude that allows friends to track one another’s movements. The search giant’s recently unveiled (and much-criticised) social-networking service, Buzz, also allows users to tag messages with information about their location. Nokia has bought online-mapping and mobile-networking businesses in recent years to reinforce its offerings. Many observers think Apple has plans to offer geo-targeted advertising on its iPhone. In January the firm snapped up Quattro Wireless, which specialises in advertising on mobile handsets.”

In many of these applications, the act of “checking in” doesn’t involve much of any social capital.  I can announce that I am at the Starbucks at 95th and Broadway, but unless it spurs other acquaintances or friends to come join me, there is no social capital built from checking in.  If we simply monitor where our friends have been frequenting, but this could spur mere voyeurism.  Foursquare tries to encourage interaction by having users get pings when friends or strangers are nearby; in this sense Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley said it enables one to “see through walls” and “around corners.”  Crowley learned from his Dodgeball effort that “not everyone wants to meet strangers”.  They are now allowing developers to create APIs that use the Foursquare for a dating tool or just to meet their good friends or to create Mashups that map their friends’ social patterns.

Regardless of its social capital promise, there is still lots of potential for mining this private information, not just to advertise new products to consumers.  The Center for Democracy & Technology, a privacy think tank, criticized corporate  privacy policies of many such providers and said that the U.S. government needs to play a role.  Some industry self-regulation is occurring: for example, Loopt reminds users that their location is shared with others, permits posting of fake locations, and trolls its postings for any suspect signs that private information is being abused.  In many cases, the younger generation — the “Net Generation” that Jonathan Palfrey describes in Born Digital — have very different conceptions of privacy and use the Internet much more seamlessly, for example creating a custom video where older generations would have written a note or an essay.

Despite these concerns about privacy, innovation in this area surges ahead.  See for example “Wearable Sensor Connects Would-be Strangers” or “Hyperlocal Communication“.  We’ll keep you notified of interesting developments in this space as they evolve.

See a video interview of Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley (1/27/10) and the genesis of mobile social applications.

Read the Economist’s “Follow Me” (3/4/10) and “The Net Generation, Unplugged” (3/4/10), the latter of which cites a Pew Center report to suggest that the NetGeneration may be as interested in “broadcast[ing] their activism to their peers” as getting involved politically themselves via this digital medium.

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