When Google’s Latitude location service launched, one of the main problems users experienced was that the service only located users’ Google contacts — it didn’t include access to the most popular social networks, through which many users connect with friends. Therefore, it was only natural that someone would use Google’s Maps API and build a location service around social networks.
In Real Life (IRL) Connect, based in Amsterdam, opened a private beta this month that allows people to locate their Facebook and Twitter contacts on a map and interact with them on the social network from the map interface. I checked out the service, and my early verdict is that it has potential but maintains the same limitations as other location-based services — mainly, people need to opt-in in order to maximize its usefulness.
IRL Connect features an interesting location UI: Icons showing a user’s location aren’t defined by an avatar, but by their network first. If you have a friend on Twitter, her name will appear in an area above a Twitter icon on a map. When you click on the icon, a balloon-style app will pop out, and that’s where you’ll find her avatar, most recent Tweet, and can message her directly. Because Twitter is an active community, you’re constantly seeing Tweets ‘pop.’
But there’s a problem here. Since most Twitterers haven’t signed on to IRL, the majority of my Twitter friends in San Francisco were sadly trapped in a single icon in one location — the center of San Francisco, as defined by Google (see right). Only by signing on to the service can they release their icon to show an actual location.
Once they’re signed in, the problem isn’t necessarily corrected, either. That’s because IRL Connect doesn’t currently offer real-time Wi-Fi, GPS, or cell ID positioning. Instead, it forces a user to actively enforce locations. Where Google Latitude publicizes and plots your location from your phone (or PC) using signals from nearby cell-phone towers, IRL first locates a user’s position through his IP address. Once logged-in, he can manually position himself by dragging a crosshair icon to his correct location throughout the day. This will turn off some people immediately. But I think think this passive way of keeping location isn’t bad; you don’t have to worry about stalking, and running into your friends is always opt-in.
There are other interesting features, including a left-hand column beside the map that serves as a Tweetdeck of sorts. You can also post different status updates to different social networks and track your friends’ location moves via an “Event” history.
I think attaching itself to big social networks is both a good and bad idea for IRL. For example, the fact it makes good use of Facebook’s existing data means it doesn’t have to deal with privacy settings; you can already limit your contacts there. But it indicates future competition from the social network behemoth — there’s no question it will make larger companies realize that a map addition to their network is a good idea. In the meantime, we look forward to seeing future updates to this data map-hack.