Tom Webster, writing and speaking

Antisocial Location Apps

Added on by Tom Webster.

Today I watched a demo of Tri-Out's latest feature set for local businesses to manage their social presence and reward users for both their loyalty and providing social proof. I like where they are going with this, and as they are a good bunch of folks based locally here in the Triangle area of North Carolina, I'm pulling for them. With services like Foursquare, Gowalla and Brightkite all competing basically on the same turf as Tri-Out, differentiation helps, and a truly "local" touch helps even more. I think a lot of current location-app users are simply serial early adopters or afraid to miss the "next big thing." I've certainly "checked in" to various places from time to time, and even gotten a few kicks from collecting the various tchotchkes and badges these services throw off for my efforts. However, the day is fast approaching when my desire to check in anywhere publicly will have been sated. The gaming aspects of these early services will continue to attract certain slices of Americana, but let's face it: the number of people who are willing to broadcast their location is a subset of the number of people who participate in social networking sites and services, and it's a really small subset. It's only going to take one ugly episode to scare mainstream adopters away from location-broadcasting, and that episode is both inevitable and likely to happen any day now.

Yet, as I bought a 20-pound bag of dogfood yesterday and was asked for my frequent barker card or whatever the pet store calls it, I pined for the day when my wallet could be cleared of the detritus of these various loyalty card schemes. I've written about the loyalty program aspect of location services before, and I still think there is a there there. But just as I know my appetite for earning badges will soon wane, so too do I know that my wife will never "check in" anywhere publicly, and neither will most of my office mates back at the number factory. I am not an expert on location-based apps and services, but I do know a thing or two about that big ole' middle of the bell curve. Telling the world where you are is simply not an urge shared by average Americans, no matter what the possible benefits. But, I daresay, everyone likes to save a buck or two, or be made to feel special by a favored local haunt. Once you come to grips with these last two facts, then the need for the next generation of location-based services begins to emerge and their functionality clear.

The location apps I hope to see will not be social, but anti-social. I don't want my "friends," or even my actual friends, to know my whereabouts at any given moment (I'm like Dick Cheney that way), but I don't mind it if Nordstrom knows I'm in the store, and that I like Hugo Boss suits, and tells me that I can save an extra 10% by showing a sales rep a code on my phone. That's a service--personal shopper and loyalty program all rolled up in one. If my wife could do this sort of thing today without telling the world where she was, she might do it. I'd do it. And I even think my parents would do it.

Removing the "social" does take an element of social proof advertising out of the equation for businesses, but this isn't about them, is it? They can market through other channels. This is solely about loyalty AND privacy, and I believe the two can mix. True, I can simply sign up for one of these services and simply not add any friends, but I still want to be truly valued by the shops and restaurants I establish. In other words, I might actually want to be the mayor of my local J.P. McBeers so I can get a free pitcher of PBR, but I don't want anyone else to know that. Oops.

So I think there is a great future for both consumers and business to gain value from exchanging location data--but I want that exchange to be between me and my local cheese shop--full stop. What say you? How much longer do you think you'll be checking in with apps like these?