Foursquare Logo

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been hearing on the online grapevine for quite a while that location based social networks are “the new next big thing” in social media. Because I spend part of my professional existence writing about the emerging opportunities in online marketing (yes, there is another book coming… honest… any time now 😉 ), I figured I’d better have a little look.

So I signed up for a foursquare account, and have been semi-dutifully checking in using my iPhone whenever I’m out and about and can get a signal (still patchy enough here in West Cork… although Vodafone Ireland assure me they’re working on it 😉 ).

Initially checking in on foursquare is a bit of a buzz… you get a curious thrill from signing in somewhere new, building your points tally, becoming mayor of your favourite locations and checking your position on your personalised “leaderboard”.

But that soon wears off, and you’re left wondering… why?

While I can appreciate some of the benefits of location based networks for helping to connect you with friends, colleagues and acquaintances when you’re living in, say, New York, London, Paris… and perhaps even Dublin, outside the large population centres that potential utility wanes quickly.

What’s the use of checking in to places you add yourself, only visit yourself and become mayor of yourself? That pretty much sums up my experience of using FourSquare in West Cork.

Even in Cork City, most of the places I visit I have to add to foursquare myself, and there appear to be relatively few businesses offering any sort of incentives to foursquare users.

Perhaps it’s because things are still very much in the “early-adopter” days for location based social software. We haven’t reached that critical mass – the fabled “tipping point”. You need volume to realise the true utility of social software… it only becomes valuable when enough people you know use it as part of their daily routine.

The other question that quickly rises to the fore is this: do we really want other people knowing exactly where we are every hour of the day? I’m not so sure that we do.

All sorts of privacy concerns are emerging as growing numbers of us choose to broadcast our precise location to the world. Some media commentators even suggest that foursquare could be a stalker’s dream – not to mention a boon to would-be-burglars. Others question the value of the “check-in” as location-based social currency.

At the moment foursquare is little more than a game – a curiosity – outside main urban population centres. I suspect that statement probably holds true for many users even within our larger cities. They’re using foursquare (and the same applies to gowalla, brightkite and other location based services) to check-in, amass points, win badges and earn rewards, rather than to connect in any meaningful way with their network of friends and colleagues.

Will foursquare and it’s ilk become truly useful social, and eventually even commercial tools? I guess that really depends on their ability to fuel continued uptake, keep people engaged beyond an initial fascination with the “game”, and on finding a way to add real value to the process of “checking in”.

Where do you think location based social applications are heading… are they useful or not… would you use them… what are the benefits and/or risks?

Enhanced by Zemanta