Recently, a lot of hype has surrounded mobile focused services known as online location-based social networks (SNs) (i.e., foursquare.com, centrl.com, gowalla.com, and Google latitude). These are largely mobile internet-based apps that let you track and share location-based information with a network of contacts (or with the general user base). This information can include recommendations (i.e. for activities or restaurants), instructions on what to do at a specific location, or even photos related to a specific location. Many of these services also “mash” together data from other location-based informational sites, such as travel websites, to provide rich location-based information for users.
Lots of interesting features have emerged from the early competitors in this area. Most of the SNs allow you to update your location at any time by pressing some type of button. Many of the companies in this area have realized that automatic location updates are a huge privacy concern, and so most of them do not update a user’s location without the user choosing to do so. However, once a user chooses to update their location, this update is usually done automatically (using GPS and cellular signal locating). Some of the SNs let the user choose where they are (i.e. Foursquare.com). This eliminates many of the privacy concerns, but it also allows people abuse the system (and claim to be where they are not).
Another useful feature is real-time location-based chat (such as that found on Centrl.com). This allows people to chat with people that they identify on a map (all within the SN application). This is a fast way to communicate with multiple people in targeted areas, and it allows users to use a single system, and not have to use SMS (text-messaging) or another system
outside of the SN system.
Two of the early location-based SN frontrunners have also integrated “game” features into their networks (Gowalla and Foursquare). In these networks, businesses and individuals can create challenges and virtual awards that others can obtain from “checking-in” on the SN while at a certain location / establishment (or a series of locations). Some companies are even offering customers discounts once they receive these awards, or using the awards to keep track of “frequent shopper” promotions.
While these new networks have gotten significant press, and it seems that they are being adopted quickly by the “techie” crowd, the question remains if most mobile internet users are ready for another social networking system, or if these features will needed to be integrated into existing social networks to be widely accepted.