There’s an interesting article in Wired about geolocation. As you probably know geolocation is an idea that’s burnt through a fair pile of VC cash in the last decade or so, and there are those who still think that ‘telling everyone where you are’ is something that will never become a mainstream activity.
However, recently it seems that Foursquare and to a lesser extent Gowalla have changed sentiment about geolocation. Introducing a competitive element to the service seems to have moved the discussion away from privacy issues, to the more positive applications of geolocation.
Having said that, Foursquare and Gowalla are definitely in the early adopter stage, and while their sudden growth in popularity is probably in part a function of the fact that the social media community needs something new to talk about now that Twitter’s a bit ‘old hat’, it does seem that geolocation applications are coming of age.
Personally speaking, I’m still not convinced by either Foursquare or Gowalla as they currently stand – and I know that these services are still in the experimental stage, as Justin Hall rightly points out in the Wired article, however, I don’t really know what the badges are for, I certainly don’t want to bore people with constant messages about where I am, and I don’t currently see a lot of social activity on these services – they don’t seem to encourage conversations in the same way as Twitter or Facebook do.
However, despite not being entirely sold on the mechanics of either of the two most popular geolocation applications, I am convinced that geolocation is going to move into the mainstream in the next couple of years, mainly because location-based gaming and applications have such a long and venerable history.
Here are a few examples.
In his book, The Bright Young People DJ Taylor recounts how the 1920s social scene coalesced around series of increasingly elaborate ‘scavenger parties’ set across London. These started as something to amuse a group of mainly young society women who had nothing to do, Lady Eleanor Smith, cousins Elizabeth and Loelia Ponsonby and sisters Zita and Baby Jungman. The games started as simple paper trails laid across London’s transport network, growing in complexity as a social scene developed around, culminating in a series of elaborate events for which Lord Beaverbrook printed a special edition of the Evening Standard. Taylor credits these scavenger hunts as being the catalyst which brought together the disparate groups the went on to make up the Bright Young People.
And treasure hunts haven’t just been the pastime of small social elites, The London Treasure Hunt Riots recount the story of Thomas Wright, a barrister living in Westbourne Terrace who returned home from chambers one evening to find a large mob digging up his front garden. When he tried to stop them, they attacked him. It transpired that:
Wright’s attackers were looking for one of 177 prize medallions which a Sunday newspaper called the Weekly Dispatch had planted around the UK. The paper used its first issue of the New Year to announce it had concealed a fortune in treasure medallions, the most valuable of which were worth £50 apiece. Each issue would carry a series of clues pointing to the prizes’ locations. That meant, of course, that anyone hoping to find one of the medallions had to buy a copy of the Dispatch first – and perhaps its special supplements too.
Soon the Weekly dispatch treasure hunt was causing mayhem across the country.
Wherever the Dispatch’s promotion touched down, hysterical treasure hunters began tearing up the public highways with knives, shovels, sticks and any other implement that came to hand. If they took it into their head to dig up a private garden or vandalise the local park, they went right ahead and did so. Anyone who protested was bullied into submission, just as Wright had been. The promotion was less than three weeks old, and already causing chaos.
More recently Kit Williams’ Masquerade caused a similar sensation, selling millions of copies and generating huge amounts of the publicity as the public tried to solve the puzzles in Williams’ book and track down the location of the Golden Hare he had buried.
And Foursquare has made some moves in this direction, working recently with Marc Jacobs to offer prizes for bloggers who checked into certain locations. Having said that, I think that relying on users to check in to places for small, uncertain or untargeted rewards isn’t a very strong model. (I’m not sure that the mainstream will spend a huge amount of time checking into places, unless there is a very direct, well-known and tangible gain. As with most things tech God, or indeed the devil, will be in the detail.)
And the applications of geolocation don’t stop at public treasure hunts and location-based marketing, there are other long-term applications. When I was young I was, for some time, mildly obsessed with the I-Spy books, a series which rewarded the reader points for spotting various sights, e.g. the I-Spy History book rewarded the reader points for spotting a Norman Church or standing stones. Sometimes this was frustrating, coming from the north of Scotland it was hard to find thatched lychgates or Saxon ship burials, however, there were a wide range of books on Cars and Birds and the like, and while there was no social element, or independent means of verification the series did extremely well for some time, and indeed the I-Spy Wikipedia page suggests they have recently been republished by Michelin Books.
To my mind it doesn’t take much imagination to see how you could apply the I-Spy model to a platform like Foursquare. Make the competition social with national leader boards. Perhaps combine it with Google Goggles for verification purposes. Think of the competition that would develop around the Trainspotter app, or the National Trust one, or the Hillwalking one.
These are just a few examples of how and why geolocation might move to the mainstream. Timing is everything in tech, and it seems to me that geolocation is coming of age, and if Gowalla and Foursquare focus their efforts on added-value partnerships to make more interesting applications whilst stabilising and expanding their APIs to allow third parties to do so, then they have the potential to become immensely powerful platforms which will make geolocation a mass market application.