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Summary:

My inbox is littered with friend requests on Gowalla, a check-in service that I can use to show my location. But when I get these emails from strangers I have never met, talked to, tweeted with or emailed, I don’t really know what to do.

Leading up to South by Southwest my inbox has been littered with friend requests on Gowalla, a check-in service that I can use to show those friends where I am at any point in time. Underneath each request is a line that reads: “We recommend you accept friend requests only from people you know and want to share your travels with.” I confess, I read these friend requests from folks I have never met, talked to, tweeted with or emailed, and I don’t really know what to do. Accept them? Ignore them? Bemoan them on Twitter?

I have included a poll below asking when and with whom you guys share your location, because as a shy and privacy-focused person I tend to err on keeping my digital presence online and my real-world presence, not…anonymous, exactly, but I certainly don’t broadcast it to the world. And I think that will eventually mean I lose out on those serendipitous connections that location services can provide. For example, I might miss out on meeting the stranger sitting next to me in a coffee shop who reads the site and could offer a great conversation on the future of semiconductors.

With more than 400,000 users of Foursquare and Gowalla already, there are plenty of interesting connections I or anyone else could make. But there are also plenty of people who, like me, are clearly waiting to see how this check-in concept — and by extension, always-on location services like Google’s Latitude or Loopt — plays out. I’m hoping that at SXSW we’ll start seeing tools that use the check-in concept, not to award points or badges, but to facilitate useful interactions among relative strangers, such as, if you see a neighbor checking in at your kid’s school every afternoon, then maybe you can meet them and set up a carpool.

Much like it took time for people to see use cases and value in Twitter, which was an entirely new means of communicating, it will take time and a display of beneficial results before folks will see the value in displaying their location rather than focusing on the loss of anonymity. Until that happens, many people, when faced with an unfamiliar friend request, will likely hit delete. And without that large network of strangers, then the idea of machine-mediated serendipity remains just that — an idea.

Related research from GigaOM Pro:

  1. I like your blog but you folks have to quite trying to find something in these services that do not exist. These “broadcast your life” services are ok for certain people, you know? We ALL know who they are. Do you really want to be one of those people?

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    1. People said the same thing about Twitter, but I know several of my non fame-seeking friends use it as their news feed. Sharing location does provide great information, so I really believe that figuring out how to use it has value beyond games and self-promotion.

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      1. Really? While that may be true for the tech-focused, the recent news is that most users have inactive accounts, and that Facebook is eating Twitter’s lunch.

        Watch the timing of Twitter’s monetization efforts and that will show where they see themselves on the growth curve. If monetization suddenly moves to the forefront, it shows its harvesting time.

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      2. No offense but one normally shouldn’t have to think too hard to find true value in a great product. It should be quickly obvious or forget it.

        You are trying to hop on the bandwagon it seems. It’s a bit clumsy and unappealing. For those of us that are early adopters, we must have some pride and stop being lemmings.

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  2. You might miss out on the conversation in the coffee shop, but are you in the coffee shop on work time or personal time? I don’t want to work all of the time, and I struggle hard to keep coworkers and true friends and family separate on various social media sites. It’s an important question that most social media simply ignores. If you want the coffee shop to be your personal space, then you should not allow that location to be broadcast in a work related context.
    The other thing that might make it easier to determine who to accept would be if social media sites forced people to acknowledge WHY they sent a friend request. In writing with a minimum of 100 and maximum of 140 characters, not from a predefined list. You could then determine based on the content whether or not to accept the friend request, plus it may help weed out spam requests.

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  3. I think these app companies are exploring their own understanding of geography and location-based information. As a GIS mapping professional, I find the rise of LBS very interesting. Most of these apps are pretty boring to use because the concepts are in their infancy. We have a built-in “Use Case” at my company: Users of our system have to find stuff in the field to do their jobs. So, there’s the built-in benefit and it’s totally obvious and useful. Even then, they don’t use it all the time, just enough to do their actual tasks at hand.

    Now, for the average consumer (not at work) how am I supposed to consume some ‘location’ info? Random requests from strangers are pointless. I don’t know about 6 billion people in the world. Context is everything here. Facebook is probably the most obvious filter for people I know. Don’t give me an ad for a coffee shop nearby. If I want Starbucks I’ll find one, trust me.

    In fact, context is where this starts. The user has to indicate what context they are in – shopping, socializing, working, etc, and the Location Based Services will filter everything for that user. If I’m going clubbing, then turn on the friend finder.

    If these apps want to scale up, then you have to kill the noise factor. There is a whole planet earth of location information, and only about 12 pieces of it are relevant at any one point in time. Just like in real maps, keeping the information simple means more people will consume it. Noise will kill your casual users so quickly, and context is the king of noise filters.

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  4. As with many social media tools, there are good things that come from using them and less savory ones that creep people out. While I’m not sure I’d want a service that could facilitate stalking, I see advantages that pique my curiosity. I’ll stay on the sidelines for a little while longer, I think.

    Thanks for the post, Stacey! I’m a fellow Austinite (and long-time ABJ reader) so I could be in that cafe reading up on semiconductors. Here’s to privacy and personal time!!

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  5. Once location based gains a wider audience and accpetance beyond check in, users will find their own way of leveraging location based services which I think is an excellent tool as an extention of social media. Twitter started off as simply a microblog on what you are doing right now but has now gone beyond that so I agree with your comment that in time to come and very soon, users will find their own niche on location based services

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