Stop Trying To Make Proximity-Based Social Networking Happen

Turn back the dial to 2009, and proximity social networking was buzzing, thanks to the launch of Google Latitude and the hype and oxygen burning around check-in services like Foursquare and Gowalla. Such services promised that we were all going to be broadcasting our location to friends — and even strangers — so that life could be one big serendipitous cool-tastic, gamified hook up.

By 2011 proximity’s potential was powering swathes of startups to jump in and try to ride the hype wave,  spurred on by VC cash flowing into location networks. Such as the $41 million that poured into proximity based photo-sharing network Color. Never mind that user adoption wasn’t exactly overwhelming for any of these location services. Foursquare reported 10 million users in 2011. Compare that to the growth rate of mobile messaging apps — for example China’s WeChat, which has amassed 190 million+ monthly active users in around two years — and there’s no denying that proximity in and of itself is not something that turns the majority on.

Most people need to communicate at regular intervals — which is the driving force behind the rise and rise of mobile messaging apps. Far fewer people feel a similar imperative to regularly broadcast their location. Or tether their communications to a particular location. That’s got ‘niche use-case’ written all over it.

Now, in 2013, it has to be said that the grand location-based vision of Latitude et al hasn’t happened. Not in the form originally envisaged anyway. Earlier this month Google announced plans to retire Latitude (although it should be noted it’s folded check-ins in to Google+). Color, of course, gave up the ghost at the end of 2012. Meanwhile Foursquare has been fielding questions about check-in fatigue for years, and doing what it can to decrease check-in friction. And Facebook, which acquired Foursquare rival Gowalla in 2011, also retired its own check-in service, Places, back in 2011. The social network didn’t ditch location sharing entirely, rather it amalgamated it into general status updates as a tagging option, instead of having a break-out check-in service. Location became a feature, not a focus — and that’s as it should be.

Of course there’s still a hardcore of check-in junkies who use Foursquare, but there’s still a hardcore of Google fans who use Google+ (oh, and, Robert Scoble), just as there’s a core group of people who continue visiting the local library. The wider point here is that you don’t need to require users to manually check-in when you can grab their location data automatically, based on where a user’s cell phone or tablet is accessing your service. For those (pesky) users who block location spiders, there are still embedded options and frequent nagging to share where they are. But for the average ‘click yes to anything’ app user the emphasis has shifted to an assumption that location will be taken at the point of sign up.

Put another way, the fading glory of a manual check-in service like Foursquare doesn’t mean location-based services are going away. Au contraire. More and more location data is being generated automatically by the rise of mobile computing (and location sharing opt-ins), rendering the manual check-in redundant — a quaint throwback to a gentler time when users were asked to volunteer every data point, not asked once to share the lot.

But what about the standalone proximity social network concept itself? I ask because a French startup, Hunear, is preparing to have another go at the space. Here’s how the co-founders describe their nascent bite at the cherry, just launched in London in beta as a mobile app:

Hunear is a social network (a website and a app) enabling users to join others at spontaneous meetings nearby. The concept of the application is simple : you choose what you want to do (eat, drink, visit the town, go to cinema…), the time that you would like to spend (from 30mn until 2 hours or more…), and then you create a “meeting” from these criteria. Then Hunear will instantly show you people who want to join you (or who created the same kind of event as you) that are nearby. Our concept is based on spontaneity and proximity.

Hunear’s concept was actually based on an idea the founders had three years ago while travelling, says co-founder Ivan Gabriele, so in others words at the height of check-in mania. Right now, a week or so post-launch, it’s too early to expect Hunear to work as intended. You can create prospective meetings in the app but the chance of another app user being in your locality, let alone keen to do exactly the activity you fancy, is pretty unlikely. But even if every meeting request was inundated with responses it’s difficult to imagine regularly wanting to meet random people to do random stuff like have a drink or go to the cinema. It’s just a bit, well, awkward, unless you’re looking for dating opportunities. Or genuinely don’t have any friends where you live yet.

Asked why a proximity social network should work now, when it’s proved so difficult to get the concept to stick before, Gabriele concedes the startup does not have “a perfect answer”, and says it is very much experimenting and hoping to be steered and shaped by its beta users. One idea it has is to try to build traction by targeting the service at existing communities of people who may be more actively looking for ways to meet than the average city dweller — such as expatriate communities, or conference attendees hoping to network.

“I had many friends who went to Le Web in London and they said even though they were there to meet new people it was really complicated to know where to go — which party to go to, which thing to do, with who to go. And everybody was trying to get information from Twitter and Facebook to try to organise where to go and it wasn’t really working,” he says. “We are thinking about maybe for the next Le Web trying to create a system or make a tool to help people to know where to go.”

All of which sounds very niche use-case again. Plus the problem of any such proximity tool — even for niche uses — is traction. Unless all of the users are using it — or at least, the sub-group of users you want to interact with — then its usefulness is circumscribed. And people will resort to using Twitter or Facebook where they can be sure others already are. Which is why a successful event discovery app doesn’t exist. The closest you get is under-utilised secondary functions within ticketing apps like Eventbrite.

Who does proximity really appeal to? Niche communities with a very specific use case. Take the gay hook-up app Grindr. Proximity is an essential component of that network since it’s a lot more hassle to hook up with someone if they’re not nearby. Or, in another example, what if you have something large/heavy to sell and ideally want to find a nearby buyer? There are a fair few proximity retail apps cropping up, such as Shpock. Local buying and selling can be attractive for multiple reasons, with increased trust in a local transaction and reduced hassle since delivery is taken out of the loop. It’s still no guarantee these apps can become social networks in their own right but they at least have a shot at leveraging location to oil the wheels of local commerce.

Now you might think proximity would also appeal to networks of friends. But that’s a fallacy that the demise of Facebook Places and the fatigue around Foursquare check-ins underlines. Friends first and foremost talk to each other. They don’t wait to pop up on a nearness radar before deciding to meet. They arrange meetings via the continued communication that underpins the friendship. This is why mobile messaging apps can easily build social networks but proximity apps can’t easily build communities. Meeting places are moveable; it’s who you meet — not where or when you meet — that’s important to the majority.

Thing is: proximity, in and of itself, just isn’t that interesting — when you consider that people are in regular enough contact with their friends to be able to find out if or know if they’re nearby without checking a location database. And also that urban geography rarely favours the kind of serendipitous encounters proximity social networks were supposed to deliver. Big cities are too sprawling to easily engineer chance meetings between friends, while smaller locations likely mean friend groups coalesce on the same hang-outs anyway so don’t need an app for that.

Meeting people is also a state of mind: which is why friends arrange to meet, so they are in the mood to hang out. Bumping into your buddy in the supermarket isn’t the same as arranging to go for drinks at the weekend. The long and short of it is the most interesting kind of proximity is the digital proximity that allows people to keep in touch virtually without having to be co-located most of the time. Location is a feature of friendship, communication is the focus.

In one of the most bizarre — and in my view misguided — recent instances of proximity/location technology applications, mobile maker Nokia has made an app called Job Lens that mashes up augmented reality with job hunting. The app lets the user view jobs relative to their location by holding the phone and pointing its camera around them. Now sure, everyone needs to know where a job is based before they decide whether they want to apply for it. But needing to know a job is 0.3 miles from your current location on a random street corner seems a very niche requirement indeed. Really it’s nearly impossible to imagine Job Lens being genuinely useful to anyone, unless you’re just curious about who’s hiring in your neighbourhood. If that’s how your startup is thinking of proximity and location it’s definitely time for a rethink.

And lest anyone think it’s just Europeans indulging in less than sparkling location-based thinking, Apple implementing an ‘apps near me’ feature in iOS 7, to replace its previous app discovery and recommendation feature. Again, that may have some niche interest — to see what your fellow university students are downloading say, or the apps your workmates like, but it’s a pretty gimmicky approach to app discovery, and one which leaves plenty of room for third-party app discovery services to tailor their suggestions to users’ preferences, not the vagaries of where a person happens to be at one particular moment in time.

[Image via Flickr by Category5 TV]