This weekend, we cowered to think that major cities on the American east coast would be pummeled by Hurricane Irene. We watched CNN and Twitter to see how things were going.
Geolocation tools like Foursquare could have been amazing during a natural disaster like Irene. Imagine if any check-in tagged with #Irene were pulled onto a map, and then you could see what sort of damage was done to millions of places in real time? How useful would something like that be?
Geolocation picked up as a meme in early 2010 and then slowed down significantly for the following reasons:
1.) Let’s face it: geolocation can be creepy. OK, so let me get this straight. You are going to give me rewards for letting the entire world know where I hang out on a regular basis? I see the benefits, but I’m not sure they outweigh the risks. This is especially true for public accounts.
2.) Many geolocation networks got numbers, but failed to capture critical mass…anywhere. I won’t get into naming names, but I’ve seen social networks with gobs of features fail. Why? Features do help you sell a social network. However, unless our friends are using it, we don’t care. Facebook had a lot of features from the beginning. What really helped it take off was the fact that they targeted schools hard and heavy before expanding. They didn’t rush to get 10 million users all over the world. They got 30,000 of heavily concentrated users, and then got 30,000 more concentrated users. It became so popular at the “it” places (Harvard, Yale, Stanford, etc.), everyone wanted an account.
It’s not just important that people sign up for your site. It’s important that they use it. To Foursquare’s credit, it helped them tremendously to lock down New York City and San Francisco.
3.) Geolocation desperately needs context that can be defined through APIs. The Hurricane Irene example above is a fantastic example of a useful app that could be built quickly on geolocation APIs. What if someone wanted to build organicfoodfinder.com, which would allow users to check into and find spots that served organic meals? What if we wanted to call out restaurants who had bad service by checking in and leaving comments, or crowd source bike routes by checking in to spots along the way? It’s hard to add functionality to geolocation applications that will make everyone happy, but it’s relatively easy through services like Apigee or Mashery to build robust APIs that support any kind of functionality through third party applications.
If an application like Foursquare can provide the current data and basic functionality a geolocation service would want to use, they could theoretically be the Facebook of the real world. Instead of sharing links, we would share places. We could play games in the real world the same way people play Facebook games like FarmVille and Mafia Wars. Foursquare has some action around their API and could grow significantly towards this vision in the near future.
I’ve said this before and will say it again: the money in a social network is often in the lurkers. Make something valuable for them and things will get interesting in geolocation again very quickly.