Ok, so I went to SXSW and downloaded the requisite apps to stalk and get stalked: Sonar, Highlight, Banjo, etc. The rationale behind most of these apps is: “I once was tweeting with X and then realized we were in the same airport terminal so we met up, that inspired me to build an app that shows you personal information about everyone in every location you’re ever in.” There’s something wrong with that logic.
This new crop of integrated location apps making a splash at SXSW 2012 alert you when you’re close to a whole range of “people you might know” be it your Facebook or Foursquare friends, Linkedin contacts or people that have similar interests on Twitter. Most of them also go one degree over to “friends of friends” in many of these networks. The problem here is that all of these networks represent different slices of our lives (acquaintances, close friends, work people, etc) and there is a reason we’re connected to different people in each of them. When suddenly all of these networks that we’ve carefully curated cross over each other and bleed into our friends’ networks as well, the creepy or annoying situations far outnumber the few cases where it actually does something useful for us, like telling us that our twitter buddy is also in Terminal B.
That’s not to say exploring our extended social graphs through background location is a bad idea, it just seems more like a feature than a product. There could be thousands of targeted use cases for this technology that would provide more relevant information to us by just adding a bit more context. A travel app could alert you when someone in your extended graph is visiting your city or when you’re traveling to the same place as someone else. An app that helps you search for apartments to rent, could let you know that 3 people you follow on twitter and 10 of your Facebook friends regularly check-in or tweet from the area around the apartment you’re visiting. The LinkedIn and Facebook mobile apps could alert you of people in your area, but just when you ask and only on those networks. Chat apps could tell you when you’re chatting with people in close proximity, because maybe you want to meet up. Groupon could tell you which friends are nearby when you purchase a Groupon Now!, because maybe you want to share it and go together. You get the idea.
There seems to be a much larger opportunity in this space to be the platform that powers all of this by letting users authenticate all their social networks securely and with flexible privacy controls and then letting other apps integrate into their data stream with a frictionless “connect with X” button that users understand is realeasing only relevant location information instead of the full access that we’re expected to give apps now in exchange for them getting a little social. In the meantime, I’ve deleted all of these background location apps from my phone and will happily have a coffee in the same place as a LinkedIn connection without realizing they’re there. And if I really want to know who else is there, maybe I’ll just look around.