Square up! Location has arrived

The following article appeared as an Op-Ed in the Daily Toreador on March 25th, 2010.

So you’re in a pretty comfortable place.

You’ve got an iPhone and you’re just starting to get a handle on the mobile scene. You’ve followed in Ashton and Oprah’s footsteps and gotten a Twitter account. You take pictures with your mobile handset and post them to Facebook. Overall, you’re getting used to mobile technology.

Well brace yourself, because there’s a new game in town. Location-based mobile services are storming onto the scene and will soon shake up your mobile lifestyle.

The basic idea behind location is that it takes the social question beyond Twitter’s “What are you doing?” and adds “Where are you doing it?” Services vary, but all of them at their core offer users a means to “check in” to various real-world locations using a smartphone with location awareness (GPS, most commonly).

The services then take this check-in data and allow the user to see where friends are checking, what they’re saying about various places and how many other users are checked in at a particular spot.

At the moment there are two major players in the location services genre. First and foremost is Foursquare, which launched at SXSW Interactive in March of last year. Second is Austin startup Gowalla, a newer service with a different flavor but a similar basic concept.

Both Foursquare and Gowalla integrate gaming elements in order to encourage their users to check in more often and at a greater variety of places. On Foursquare these take the form of virtual “badges,” awarded for achievements such as checking in to four locations in a night or 20 places in a week.

Gowalla, on the other hand, favors “trips” over individual achievements, encouraging users to, for instance, visit all the historical markers in a given city. It also enables users to pick up virtual items such as guitars or teddy bears and drop them at other places for other users to find and pass on.

Outrageous and pointless as all this might sound, it’s about to hit the mainstream hard. In just a year Foursquare has grown to roughly 500,000 registered users, with 100,000 of them coming in the 10 days during last week’s SXSW Interactive conference in Austin. It now indexes roughly 1.4 million venues nationwide. These numbers are all growing rapidly.

There are dark sides to location-based social networking, of course. Sites like PleaseRobMe.com cull public check-ins to determine when specific users aren’t at home, for instance.

Privacy will always be a key concern in any social networking service. What services and users are starting to realize is that control is key. In her SXSW keynote, social networking sociologist danah boyd identified the ability for users to control how and whether services publicize their information as the primary factor for businesses to consider.

Both Foursquare and Gowalla only publish check-in data to a user’s approved friends by default. Users can then choose whether to also publish that data to Twitter or Facebook. In this way the services assure that their users have full control over telling others where they are.

The inherent benefit for location-based services, as with other social networks like Twitter or Facebook, is that users get a social or economic benefit of some kind from sharing information about their activity. This can be something as simple as meeting up with friends to study.

Businesses are also starting to take notice of the growing location trend. On Foursquare users can become the “mayor” of a location by checking in there more often than anyone else. Some businesses are starting offer discounts, free drinks and other incentives for their Foursquare mayor.

These sorts of practices are part of a growing realization that brand loyalty matters. Repeat customers are key, especially to local businesses. What location-based services offer is a way for these businesses to connect with local users in a fun and potentially lucrative way.

Next generation location-based services like Foursquare and Gowalla are building upon previous services such as geotagged photos and location-aware restaurant recommendations. They are changing how we perceive and interact with the world around us.

So if you are already relatively comfortable with mobile applications and want to do something new and cool with your smartphone, jump on the location wave now.

By checking in early you have the power to lay down the virtual infrastructure that your friends and family will be visiting in the coming years once location services go mainstream.

Welcome to the future.