How Location Sharing Is Used

Why would you want to do this? Among other reasons, it's fun. It facilitates a kind of engineered social serendipity, by allowing you to see, on a kind of social map, who's wandering around downtown or on campus near you, so you can bump into each other. And while you're connecting with your friends, you'll be meeting their friends, and maybe adding them to your social network.

But it's also a way of using your online social connections to find new places you might not have found on your own, while you're actually out and able to go there. Location sharing can help you to discover restaurants, pubs, parks, and shopping centers. It can help you to learn about nearby events, to explore your city in ways you might not have thought of, and to share your own knowledge and experiences of the places you frequent.

Location sharing makes it possible to discover busy and popular venues, places where lots of your friends are gathering or stopping by right now. Just as Twitter displays “trending” topics — things lots of people are twittering about — location sharing services show trending locations — places where lots of members of the service are gathering.

In early 2010, the microblogging service Twitter added a feature that appends geographical info to your tweets. Twitterers can now add their current location to their 140-word messages.

Local merchants have begun to exploit the great-places-in-your-town aspect of location sharing, offering special deals to patrons who check-in at their places of business regularly and promote to their social circle. And if you're using a service, such as Foursquare, that provides access to your “check-in” history, you have an automatic daily activity diary, map of where you've been, who you met there, and where you've been spending your money.

Oversharing

Critics of location sharing argue that letting everyone know you're out can be dangerous. A prank website launched in 2010, called PleaseRobMe.com, used Twitter and the Foursquare location sharing service to figure out when users of those services weren't home, and then publish the names and addresses of those people. The site's developer, a Dutch citizen named Boy Van Amstel, said at the time that he did it to raise awareness of “the danger in publicly telling people where you are.” The site was actively posting addresses for only a short while, though it's still up as of this writing with the aim of “raising awareness about over-sharing.”

Defenders of location sharing argue that only your social network friends get to learn your whereabouts, and your friends aren't going to rob you. (We sincerely hope.) Tech journalist Mathew Homan also pointed out in a blog posting that if you've got a nine-to-five job, people already know when you're out of the house, so “the Foursquare as robbery accomplice” assertion doesn't hold water.

The effect of location sharing on the national burglary rate has yet to be measured, but location information is sensitive data, and common sense tells us to share it only with people we trust. Location sharing marries “place” with social networking, and some have argued that it's not a marriage made in heaven. It causes users to abandon their privacy at an even deeper level. Be sure to take control of your privacy settings when you sign on to a location-sharing service, and check those settings regularly.

Major Providers

The biggest headline getters in the location-sharing space right now are Foursquare and Gowalla, two start-up companies that made big splashes at recent tech trade shows and are the subjects of intense speculation by the tech press. Their competition for users in this space is being reported variously as a location-based “War,” “Battle,” “Throwdown,” and “Face-off.”

In 2010, PepsiCo entered a partnership with Foursquare. The location sharing service provides the beverage company with live notifications when its users are close to any place that sells soft drinks — grocery store, gas station, restaurant. PepsiCo then has the opportunity to send those Foursquare users an advertisement to entice them to buy.

But there are several other similar services with loyal memberships, some that pre-date the two current superstars. And a number of other social media services — most notably Facebook and Twitter — are adding or have already added location-sharing features of their own. Other social-media services have caught the location sharing bug — or “gone geo,” as the insiders say. Yelp rolled out a check-in feature for its iPhone app in 2010. Google has gotten into the game with its Latitude application. And Yahoo! joined the fray with Fire Eagle. And we're likely to see more.

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