The past, present, and future of location-based mobile social networking

I have long believed that location-based mobile social networking is central to how technology will connect us. The advent of next generation phones including the iPhone combined with people’s familiarity and engagement with social networks means that the space is – finally – ready to take off. Here is a very quick review of the past, present, and future of the space.

The Past

The original location-based social networking application was proximity dating, which I wrote about in chapter 2 of my book Living Networks in 2002, in describing some of the many ways that networks bring people together:

In mobile-mad Japan, “proximity dating” has had a big success. As in Internet dating, you complete a profile of both yourself and your desired partner. Instead of suggesting people to exchange e-mails with, the service rings you on your cell phone to let you know that someone with a matching profile is within a few hundred yards of you, and allows you to arrange to meet them. Since high bandwidth mobile technology is now available in Japan, the system can also allow you to see each other on your mobile videophone before you meet.
[Download Chapter 2 of Living Networks]

People were very interested in the idea, and I got a lot of media coverage at the time for my thoughts on where this was going. There were a variety of technologies and platforms available for location-based social networking in the early days, however the major constraint was that very few phones had GPS, so the location of each phone had to be determined by cell tower triangulation, giving an accuracy often not better than one kilometre. One early example of location-based social networking at the time was from Swisscom, in which people could engage in anonymous chat, with indicators of both the numbers of degrees of separation from their counterpart in their phone books, and the approximate distance between them (from low to high).

Japanese platform Imahima was definitely one of the most promising at the time, giving people the ability to see where their friends (or at least those who had chosen to disclose their location) were, to enable serendipitous meetings. There were two major US players in the early days. The first was Dodgeball, which was an SMS based application to find out where friends and friends-of-friends were hanging out. It was bought by Google, which lost interest and canned what was a very interesting platform. Chicago-based Meetro was also very promising, but more based around dating and communities, however it too no longer exists.

Since the early days the rise of social networks and GPS-enabled phones is giving rise to an entirely different world

The Present

There are two main ways that location-based social networking is taking off today: through the development of new location-based social networks, and. the extension of location capabilities to existing social networks.

There are a variety of iPhone mobile social networking applications, notably Loopt, which allows both locating your friends and now proximity dating. Techcrunch has just published a very good review of six iPhone location-based social networking apps, including Loopt, Moximity, Whrrl, uLocate, Limbo, and Zintin.

Other emerging players in the space include Denver-based start-up Brightkite, which doesn’t require a smart phone, and also allows users to tag locations with photos and comments (see great interview with founder Martin May). GyPsii offers a full range of mobile social networking functionality, and has global ambitions, having already signed deals with China Mobile and Samsung, with in fact most of its activity in China at the moment.

Most of the major social networks, including Facebook, LinkedIn, and Bebo have launched mobile platforms, however at this point they do not give any notable additional functionality over accessing the networks from the fixed internet. Each of them are examining introducing location-based functionality. Expect announcements soon, probably first from Facebook, which will give far more prominence to the category, and likely drive demand as social networking behaviors change and start to encompass location-based ways of connecting.

The Future

One of the big questions is who will dominate location-based social networks. The likelihood is that existing social networks will predominate. People are likely to actively maintaining their profiles on just one or two social networks, so it will be difficult for new players to gain traction. Two things could change that. One is increased momentum with Dataportability initiatives, which could allow multiple social network profiles to be integrated – not fully – but at least to the degree that there is not significant additional effort in joining new social networks. The second is that it turns out that people approach mobile social networking from a quite different stance from their fixed social networking, including different people and connecting in different ways. Certainly for many people their social network profiles are largely about keeping connected to people who live a long way away and they don’t see very often – or even at all after having studied or worked together in the past. Location-based social networks is about your local community and friends, and finding opportunities to meet up.

It is interesting that the new swathe of location-based social networks are taking up geo-tagging in a big way. I think it could take a while for this to gain significant momentum, but in the long-term a significant proportion of user-generated content could be location-based, referring to restaurants, shops, activities, tourist sites, and more.

One of the most important issues here is the exchangeability of this data. If geo-tagged data is portable between social networks, this will be an enormous boon to the development of the space. Without it, it could be a long time before this gains traction, given a fair expectation that no dominant player will emerge in the next few years, particularly across different countries.

A couple of years ago I was interviewed about what accelerates – and slows – the development of mobile social networks. The cost of mobile data remains an issue in many countries around the world, even though this is not an issue in the US. It seems as if the quality and value of the applications is definitely getting there.

There are many things we don’t know about how people will respond to location-based social networking, including whether proximity dating or interest-based matching will take off significantly over time. I think they will, but so far they have seemed to be more treated as gimmicks. We are still discovering what humans are really like when they are fully technology-enabled and connected. If location-based social networking truly does take off and become embedded in how we interact with our friends and others, society will be substantially different than it is today.