Technology is a fickle bitch. Memes come and go; they’re like temporary tattoos. Everyone thought netbooks would be the next big thing, a revolution in personal computing … and then came the iPad, netbook sales plummeted, and manufacturers’ focus shifted towards tablets (some of which have already failed big-time).
The latest digital bits blitzkrieg centers on location-based services (LBS), which use the GPS functionality of a mobile device to pinpoint a user’s location and tie into a kind of social network. You’ve probably already seen these “narcissistic” updates—“I’m eating boiled rat at Chili’s!”—plugging your Facebook feed with useless, obsessive crap.
And a lot of it is useless, obsessive crap—but lucrative as hell. The New York Times reported that venture capitalists have poured $115 million into location start-ups since last year, and these check-me-out apps are now holding hands with major companies like Starbucks and Gap. Reports suggest that LBS could make $12.7 billion by 2014, and tons of money is being dropped on advertisements like splashy Times Square billboards.
So, what are these things? Who’s using them? And why should you care?
LBS have been bopping around for a while but found mass popularity with Foursquare. Now3 million users strong, Foursquare utilizes your smartphone’s GPS, lets you “check in” at local businesses, tell the world you’re not at home and are okay with being robbed—and you win badges! Badges, people!
Most of them are meaningless kilobyte icons (being the “mayor” ofShays in Harvard Square, for instance, won’t make the bartender respect you), but that’s shifting. Foursquare partnered with MTV and will distribute badges for getting tested for STDs. While the badge still has no real value, it does promote social awareness for a good cause.
Other than a few twists on an already-tired formula, most LBS apps are the same:
- Check in with Foursquare-rip-off Gowalla
- Tell friends you’re simultaneously reading and watching Mysterious Skin on GetGlue
- Share pictures of your global cheeseburger trek with Foodspotting
- Never again lose your way at the Monroeville Mall with the help of Point Inside
- Cut through the bullshit and admit you’re a stalker with Stalqer
- Hunt for gay NSA hookups on Grindr (which has exclusive badges like sexual assaultand HIV)
Not too interesting. Sure, some of them offer nifty deals like two-for-one Virgin airline tickets to Mexico, or pay homage to their Cambridge roots by featuring incentives at more than 50 Boston locations, but the vast majority are one-note knockoffs that reek of tech meme—here today, gone tomorrow.
But that doesn’t eradicate the boogieman.
Facebook recently got into the LBS game with Facebook Places, an opt-out program that doesn’t automatically track your location, but allows others to do so without your permission. Some douchebag did it to me on my birthday. I then had to go through thesurprisingly complex steps of making it so people couldn’t “tag” me via Places without my consent.
No big deal, right? Just a few minor steps through Facebook’s already convoluted privacy settings. But Facebook has become notorious for fucking with our online security, and it’ll likely happen again.
And there’s already—wait for it—an app for that. A Facebook add-on called Nearby Friendstracks every place your friends have checked into via Places and plots out their course on Google Maps. If that doesn’t reek like stalker, I don’t know what does.
The ACLU has “expressed serious concerns about other privacy protections and controls associated with Places” and released aguide to handling Places. The Center for Digital Democracy has also claimed they’ll be addressing Places with the FTC.
It’s safe to assume that as the LBS battlefield becomes even more crowded, and the media continues to gives them headlines andspecial sections in the iTunes store, the players will want to one-up each other and give the most comprehensive—and perhaps invasive—LBS experience possible.
But, for now, rest easy: not many people are actually using it.
A recent Forrester survey found that only 4 percent of U.S. online adults have ever used LBS apps, and only 1 percent update more than once per week. 84 percent of respondents said they weren’t familiar with these apps at all.
The same survey also discovered a gender and age disparity among current users: 80 percent are male and 70 percent are between the age of 20 and 35.
But this could catch on. The introduction of LBS apps like Shopkick—which has already garnered millions of dollars in funding and the support of retail megastores like Best Buy—could revolutionize the way consumers engage with merchandisers in a positive way, bringing Minority Report into reality. And with app-capable smartphones inching towards 25 percent of the market in the next few years, you best believe our lifestyles will adapt to innovators’ dreams. This tattoo is for real.