web culture: November 2009 Archives

Foursquare.pngSo what's hot in social media today? Location, location, location! That's right, location-based services appear to be gaining critical mass. This trend is driven by the proliferation of handsets with built-in GPS receivers, including the iPhone, Android devices such as the Droid, and the BlackBerry, as well as the proliferation of social networks.

I often marvel that my iPhone is smarter than my computer. This is because the phone knows where it is. On the iPhone, a Google search turns up local options at the top of the list. The iPhone knows which buses go by this street, and when they arrive. When I'm traveling, I can pull off at exit 275, and the phone knows which hotels are nearby, making it easy to find the best deal for the night.

Marketers are licking their chops over this. It's one thing to have a thousand friends on Facebook. But businesses want customers. They want to drive transactions. Location-based services close the gap between relationships online and IRL ("in real life").

Any discussion of location-based services must include Twitter, even though Twitter is not directly a player in the location-based services marketplace. What Twitter does bring to the party is the largest mobile social network, real-time data and the open API that breeds third-party invention and reinvention. Most location-based services seamlessly integrate with Twitter.

Twitter has added geolocation to its database (to turn it on, log in to your account, and go to settings > account). While Twitter does not post your location, third-party applications can now access it. Twitter is essential for the growth of location-based services because it is by far the largest mobile social network as well as the also the largest real-time network.

Today, the hottest location-based service is Foursquare, which Mashable's Pete Cashmore has called "Next Year's Twitter."

Foursquare links to your Twitter account, and broadcasts your location and comments to people in your network. As you visit places, you "check in" and in the process unlock badges. The highest badge, Mayor, entitles you to discounts and other offers. Foursquare was developed by some of the team from Dodgeball, an earlier company that was acquired by Google. While Google has a location-based service (Latitude), the company doesn't appear to have done much with Dodgeball.

Foursquare functions as a "Saturday night leaderboard," for friends across the city. It helps answer the question, "Where is the fun tonight?" Soccer moms use Foursquare to arrange play dates.

While this sounds fun (and also trivial), it's important to think about this important characteristic: on Facebook, we talk, but getting together is an abstract concept. Foursquare drives interaction in real life. Think about your last visit to a coffee shop, with all those autonomous individuals in their own little bubbles, typing away on their netbooks. Foursquare has the potential to link those people together. Definitely a good thing.

Foursquare has just published its API, which means that programmers will be taking the code, mashing it up and creating new applications. This is exactly the same sort of innovation that has driven the success of Twitter, so give it some time and pay attention to how the service changes. The next killer app could be in here somewhere. 

Foursquare has also just expanded to new cities. To see a complete list, visit Foursquare's home page and look on the bottom right of the screen.

Foursquare and Latitude are but two of many emerging services that wrap up social features with real-time data and geolocation. Also in the mix are Loopt, Gowalla, Layar, Whrrl, Brightkite and Buzzd. Can you say shakeout?

While these emerging services may seem like silly uses of such powerful technology, I urge you to try one or two, and think about how they might evolve given the right mix of people, hardware and imagination.

We'll revisit location-based services and discuss some of the players in future posts.
Wiffiti is a tool for capturing a feed and displaying it in a dynamic screen, which can be published in a variety of places.

The National Communication Association is currently meeting in Chicago. Attendees are using the Twitter hashtag #NCA09. A screen based on this tag could be pushed to flat panels throughout the venue as a way to publish distributed intelligence about the event.

Here's a sample Wiffiti screen made using the #NCA09 hashtag:

The Russian comic Yakov Smirnoff famously said, "In Soviet Russia, TV watches you." Today, he might say, "on Internet, Google watches you."

Indeed, Google is like Santa Claus: it sees you when you're sleeping. It knows when you're awake. It knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness' sake.

But you don't have to be bad in order to want to protect your privacy. Plenty of good people mistrust Google. An entire culture has grown up around being skeptical of Google's informal motto, "Don't be evil." To catch a glimpse of that culture, check out the paranoia - and hilarious cartoons - at Google Watch.

This context is helpful in understanding Google's latest privacy product, Google Dashboard.

Here's what Google says about it:

In an effort to provide you with greater transparency and control over their own data, we've built the Google Dashboard. Designed to be simple and useful, the Dashboard summarizes data for each product that you use (when signed in to your account) and provides you direct links to control your personal settings.


The Dashboard covers more than 20 Google products, including Reader, Gmail, web history, YouTube and Blogger. Over time, Google will add other products, such as Analytics, that are not yet included.

But a close look shows no new features, no new control for the end user. Dashboard just puts all of Google's existing privacy settings in one place. A convenience, yes, but not a breakthrough.

What could Google have done? Plenty, according to critics:

According to John Simpson at Consumer Watchdog:

If Google really wanted to give users control over their privacy it would give consumers the ability to be anonymous from the company and its advertisers in crucial areas such as search data and online behavior," said John M. Simpson, consumer advocate with Consumer Watchdog. "The Dashboard gives the appearance of control without the actual ability to prevent Google from tracking you and delivering you to its marketers.

"What the Dashboard does is list all the information linked directly to your name, but what it doesn't do is let you know and control the data directly tied to your computer's IP address, which is Google's black box and data mine," said Simpson "Google isn't truly protecting privacy until it lets you control that information."


And here's David Sarno, information technology reporter at the LA Times:

... and though much of the concern about Google's data storage revolves around precisely how and what the company does to analyze and profit from user information, the Dashboard offers little insight into those domains. It does not specify which services keep user data, or for how long. Neither does it alert users that, for instance, their Web search histories and e-mails are constantly scanned for the purposes of selling products to them and others.


While you're waiting for a more open approach to privacy, there are some easy things you can do:

  • Don't rely exclusively on Google products. Today, you often have a choice; you can use WordPress instead of Blogger, for example. A healthy diet includes a variety of foods; use this pluralistic approach when choosing internet services;
  • Log out of your Google account when you're not using Google services;
  • Reset your browser occasionally; this wipes cookies and browsing history. Or use "private browsing" settings.

You can further manage your privacy, but it will require some effort. Here are two articles that provide specific tips.

6 ways to protect your privacy on Google, by Robert L. Mitchell, Computerworld

Online Privacy: How to Hide Your Google Search Trails: Eight steps for keeping your search-engine data private, by Amit Agarwal

Or, you could just move to a "remote mountaintop village," as suggested in this Onion satire:

Google Opt Out Feature Lets Users Protect Privacy By Moving To Remote Village

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the web culture category from November 2009.

web culture: September 2009 is the previous archive.

web culture: December 2009 is the next archive.

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