All the rage at SxSW this year happens to be mobile-location oriented services. The divide between digital and real world is quickly vanishing. Social-networking is on an upward spiral of acceptance. Services that connect your physical whereabouts with virtual friends is gaining ground and companies like FourSquare, Gowalla, BrightKite and Whrrl are making it all happen. Where are you? What are you doing? Who will know where you are? Those are the questions that will be asked by the next-generation of social-networking applications, are you prepared to give out the answer and send your location to the clouds?
First lets look at privacy. Assuming we trust these companies with the best of intentions, we shouldn’t feel uncomfortable about our whereabouts being tracked by a group of marketing wolves now should we? They sell our information to private research firms – big fortune 500 companies – who are able to target you exactly the way need to maximize their ROI’s. It’s not like Ronald McDonald is going to jump out from behind an alley because McDonalds knows you bought 15 cheeseburgers the last month but none in the last 3 weeks. You could expect something more along the lines of an SMS from a local retailer with a 20% off special on D&G belts, but only because they know you bought a D&G sweater last week at Holt’s and you just happen to be within 30′ of their store.
Facebook already has libraries of information on its users and we have a pretty good idea of who is behind them. So why would giving out your exact whereabouts be any less of a privacy concern to these new companies? University of Georgia researchers have found that they can determine how personality traits are expressed online, even to the point of identifying narcissists. So how much more could they determine about you by adding a phsyical location to the mix? Do you work too much, drink too much? Perhaps you are compulsive shopper? You eat too much fast food! Whatever your hitch may be they will surely know it.
The big brother scare gets old, and it’s not really the companies you should be worried about but your so called “virtual friends,” that you have never met. How well do you know your friends within your social network, are you prepared to let them all know where you are throughout the day? This is something you should consider before getting into mobile location-sharing. Go through your friends and be sure you know them all, any unsuspecting new friendsters, ones you perhaps met at a bar and havent seen since could be that psycho stalker the University of Georgia has yet to profile, regardless, these are some safe-list practices that should be considered.
The big question on my mind is, how can these mobile location-oriented services benefit us? Is a virtual “check-in” really an important thing in our lives? Does it matter to my Facebook friends if I’m picking up a donut at Tim Hortons? Or @ Ace Bar enjoying happy hour! Do I care to be the mayor of McDonalds on the corner of 12th and 10th? It is a great way to keep in touch and stay connected with real friends, especially in dense communities where your paths may cross frequently, but when is too much too much and why does anyone even care if I’m mayor of BBQ town?