Aug 28

Why Geolocation Isn’t Quite “There Yet”

Hurricane Irene Captured August 26, 2011This 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.

Oct 04

Dear Gowalla, It’s Not You, It’s Me

Dear Gowalla,

When I first met you at South by Southwest Interactive, I thought you looked pretty cute in your Mini Clubman. It was nice to crush out on a local social network instead of one from San Francisco or New York. As time goes by though, I am not sure I have it in me anymore. Your super hot interface just doesn’t do it for me.

I’m sorry. I went to TechCrunch Disrupt and noticed all the boys were trying to get into the geolocation game with me. I also noticed that although Foursquare is just not as attractive as you are, all the cool kids use it. I missed out on many cool serendipitous meetings because I was loyal to you and don’t use Foursquare. That’s not fair to me. I gave you an award at South by Southwest that I could have given to anybody–I should at least expect some features that compel people to use your service over Foursquare.

I want to come back. Really, I do. I made a list of what it would take:

1.) Talk to people and women in particular, and ask them how many silly rewards or loyalty cards they have in their wallet.
2.) Allow local businesses to upload a rewards card users can redeem once they hit a certain number of checkins. Let the business owners choose the terms, e.g. certain dollars off a purchase or buy 12, get 1 free. This is cooler than Groupon because it rewards current customers rather than generating new ones, who can end up being overwhelming and detrimental to a business.
3.) Tell users this is what they get for checking in. Tell them to meet up with your other users and burn their points cards in effigy.
4.) Kill the badges. I’m not an eight-year-old girl scout and I think at this point, I’ve earned a Sweet Leaf Tea. It’s too much of a hassle to trek somewhere to redeem this, Gowalla. Just make your application useful to me, and then build a network of developers who build useful apps on your platform. You have so much potential.
5.) Make your default profile setting private so that only our friends can see it, because you respect that our locations and personal safety are dear to us. We shouldn’t have to be savvy to the ways of social networks to realize that EVERYONE’s default setting should be private. Let me buy you a cup of coffee and tell you what it’s like to have someone stalk you by stalking your friends’ public profiles. It sucks. This is a side note, but if you do #1-4, you can get users and advertisers a lot easier and don’t have to rely on public profiles.
5.) Please don’t get mad at me for writing this post. I love supporting local, but not if it’s damaging to my abilities to network with people who can alter the course of my career and can help me help Austin.

I believe in you, Gowalla. You can do this better than FourSquare because unlike FourSquare, Michael Arrington can’t check in from Geneva or some other fake random location with your service. Points card systems could actually be somewhat fair with Gowalla. You just have to prioritize this and keep getting more users, because it looks like you are tapering off significantly from the graph above.

It seems that from what I’ve read, you are going this direction. But baby, even the Yelp app crushes you guys. It’s just so much more useful. I don’t need fancy or cool looking. I just need you to be there, providing support, when I need you. That’s all.

Kindest Regards,
Michelle