Geolocation: where are we now?

07:53, Aug 23 2010

Facebook is to move into familiar territory as it rolls out its location-based service, Facebook Places.

The undisputed juggernaut of social media may smash the current geolocation king - Foursquare - but is there real value in location-based services?

Facebook's move to follow in the steps of Foursquare, which has enjoyed moderate success, shows that it thinks it's going to work in a mainstream arena.

Other players in the geolocation field include Google Latitude and, to a lesser extent, Twitter.

The makers of Foursquare had a similar project a few years back called Dodgeball, which Google bought out and then replaced with Latitude, which shows they must have seen some value in the idea.

Obviously they hadn't quite managed to fine-tune the idea, because Latitude has failed to rise above its JAGA (Just Another Google App) status.

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If anyone can turn a location-based service into something huge (and mainstream), it will be Facebook. They have half a billion potential users to pitch it to, so Foursquare could soon find itself on the endangered species list.

Personally, it still strikes me a fairly useless gimmick, but I'm quietly watching to see where it goes from here.

The thing which sticks out to me is that you can already tell people where you are... you just tell them. Why do we need a separate service to do that?

"I am at home writing a blog" - location-based update done, minus the GPS pinpointing (for all you tinfoil hat-wearers).

The real bait lies in the rewards from businesses, but it's essentially just a new form of advertising.

Foursquare relies on a game-like rewards system consisting of badges, earning rewards from businesses by visiting them and trying to become the "mayor" of a place.

So what do you get as mayor? Well... not much. You get to say you are the mayor and maybe a free coffee or something if you are lucky. Overseas business have really jumped on board, though, finding a number of original ways to use the service.

The most common use I've seen is a sort of digital stamp card which you get with your coffee - check in 10 times and get a free one.

The real winners are the advertisers, who have found a great way to get you in the door, and to keep you coming back.

Every time you check in somewhere you are effectively broadcasting to your contacts a recommendation: "I'm using this service, buying this product or otherwise enjoying this place - here's a map."

The competitive nature of the service also compels users to continue to check in - they want to beat their contacts with the highest number of check-ins or badges. Seems a bit childish to me, but each to their own.

I've tried it out for a few months and I've quickly become bored. There's a lack of participation in New Zealand, so I ended up befriending both local and overseas users to get a feel for the experience.

Even if there were a lot more Kiwis I think it would probably be the same deal.

After a while the novelty faded and I was left watching dozens of people declaring several times per hour that they were at a coffee shop, the gym, the supermarket or the gynaecologist (added for effect).

Some even decided to fill their Twitter stream with their Foursquare feed. Gone.

There's a real danger that geolocation services could ultimately end up the domain of spammy advertising and useless offers, punctuated by a sporadic tidbit of real information.

Plus, I don't want to have to reveal my location to have deals offered to me. Can't I just show up 10 times and smile? Nope - because they want the advertisement.

So why do people use these services?

Well, some people probably see it as fun. They like to collect the badges, which gives a sense of achievement.

I think a certain amount of extroversion can come into it. Some people like to be seen as active, outgoing people-about-town who are savvy to the latest trends in social media.

A prime reason is being privy to offers those on the outside wouldn't get. Some of the offers are OK, but they are few and far between in New Zealand at this stage. Not enough of a drawcard for me, personally.

Perhaps the last reason would be that a user actually has a large base of friends and contacts on the service and they genuinely care about the whereabouts and movements of those people.

Not to sound paranoid, but the security issues of location-based services were prominently raised by sites like pleaserobme.com which, after significant media attention, closed down so as to not actually facilitate burglary.

Of course, it takes a determined and switched-on crim to put the pieces together. No crime wave yet, but there's potential if it goes mainstream. It's not hard to see how it could be done if you think about it.

Maybe I sound a bit negative about it all, but I still think that these services don't offer enough for me to add another login to my online spectrum.

I'll just tell people where I am with words, using my preferred social medium, and take a coffee card for my wallet.

Will you use Facebook Places? Do you use other location-based services like Foursquare? Are you wary of the security issues? Do you think it will go mainstream? Why?

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