Location Is The Missing Link Between Social Networks And The Real World

Screen shot 2009-11-18 at 2.57.10 AMImagine a world where you sit at your computer and you never go outside. Where you never see another human being. This is the world that sites like Google and Facebook want you to live in.

Though they’d never admit to such a thing, the reasoning should be obvious: The longer you’re at your computer, the more time you’re spending on their sites. The more time your spending on their sites, the more ads you’re being served. The more ads being served, the more money they are earning. No matter why these sites originally started, or what features they add, that is, quite literally, the bottom line. They’d have us strapped to a chair with our eyes taped open like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, if they could. The only difference is that we’d have a contraption on our arms to allow us to click on the ads being shown every so often.

Thankfully, we don’t quite live in that world yet. And there are a couple factors pushing us the opposite way from that. Mobile devices are the biggest one. But even that is still just a screen. You may not be chained to a desk using it, but as plenty of people with an iPhone will tell you, you may end staring at this screen even more than you do a desktop or laptop monitor throughout a day. But there’s another up and coming factor working against our screen slavery: Location.

Social networking has been perhaps the most popular trend on the Internet over the past several years. At first the term was ironic. “Social networking” was anything but social in the traditional sense. But over time, we’ve grown accustomed to the idea that you can do social activities such as play games, collaborate on work, and talk, online. And in fact, many times it’s even more convenient than doing it in person. It’s social, but it’s a different kind of social.

Ever since the term was born, countless people have debated the implications of taking social interactions virtual. At one point or another I’m sure that it has been said that it would be both the downfall of mankind, and the thing that would bring the planet together. The truth is that social networking, while great in many respects, does not fulfill a fundamental human desire: To be in the actual presence of other people.

orange3If you’ll allow me to be embarrassingly obvious for a second: Sitting in a chat room all day, even if all of your friends are in it as well, is not the same as being in the same physical room with them. Even if you all are having great discussions in the chat room, and not saying a word when you’re hanging out with one another, there is just something that’s different. Something that social networking will never be able to replace.

That’s where location comes in. It has the power to be the bridge between social networking and actual social interaction. We’re already seeing the very early signs of this with services like Foursquare, Gowalla, Loopt, Brightkite, and Google Latitude, to varying degrees.

To the masses, most of these services still either don’t make sense, or are way too creepy. Social networks used to be thought of in the same way. This will change.

The people who do use these services likely have at least one story about a situation where a friend saw where they were, or where they planned to be, and showed up to meet up. Some have many of these stories. And for some of us in cities where these services are popular, this happens just about everyday. And it’s really quite amazing.

Is it annoying if a friend shows up if you want to be alone or don’t want to see them? Of course. But that’s why it’s important that you’re in control of what location information you are sending out. Is it creepy if a stranger shows up to meet you somewhere? Of course, but that’s why privacy settings are so important.

Screen shot 2009-11-18 at 2.59.18 AMMake no mistake, there are hurdles to location-based services gaining widespread acceptance. But the upside of it far outweighs the downside. And with that the case, these types of services are ripe to take off.

At the core level, using a social network to facilitate actual social interaction just seems to make sense. Though I poked fun at them in the intro of this post, don’t think that Facebook doesn’t recognize this. In some ways they already do this through their popular events offering. But anything they do with location — which it should be no surprise, they are working on — will go far beyond this. When you have a social graph with over 300 million users and you add a realtime location component into the mix, it’s going to change things.

I remember the first time I used sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Friendster (back in the day) to find people that I went to high school with who I hadn’t talked to in years. It was a little weird, but also in some ways exciting. Imagine that transfered into the real world. Maybe you’re in a city with a person you went to high school with, but hadn’t talked to in years. It’s unlikely that the two of you were ever run into each other randomly, but maybe you can get pinged by Facebook location when they’re nearby. Maybe neither of you want to meet, and that’s fine. But maybe you do.

The word we keep hearing over and over again for such situations is “serendipity,” but really it’s not. None of this needs to be left up to chance. It’s simply an extension of social networking into the real world.

Another social network, Twitter, is already in hot pursuit of such functionality. Any day now, the service will turn on its geolocation service which will both allow you to send tweets with your location tacked on, and allow you to pass in location information from other services, like Foursquare. As a service with tens of millions of users, Twitter will be the first massive test of location as an extension of social networking.

Screen shot 2009-11-18 at 3.03.11 AMIt may be a while before users start truly taking advantage of it since it is an opt-in feature. But eventually, I believe we’ll see more and more users opt-in to be able to use third-party clients like Birdfeed which let them choose which tweets to attach their location to and let people know where they are.

And beyond individual user data, this location data will be very interesting as an aggregate. Undoubtedly people will use things like Twitter’s geolocation APIs to make services that can show where people are flocking to in realtime. This is the next step for what services like SocialGreat are doing with location data, showing hot spots in towns. And we already know that Twitter is planning to use the data to tailor its trending topics to show the hot things being tweeted about in specific places.

Social networking up until this point has been great. But it’s also really a bit odd. The core concept is still to gather your friends in a virtual construct, while the companies behind these constructs convince you to hang out in them as much as possible. Instead, they should be using the interesting social data they have to help you connect in other places as well. That’s what makes Facebook Connect is so powerful. But that doesn’t extend to the real world yet. But with location, it could. And that’s exciting.

We’ll be discussing this and other topics at our Realtime CrunchUp this Friday in San Francisco.

[images: MGM and Warner Brothers]