I’ve been thinking a lot about location-based social networks like Foursquare and Gowalla. After seeing some of the numbers that came out recently regarding their user acitivity, I’ve been thinking about what drives that growth. I can honestly say that I have no idea.
If you think about it, location-based services haven’t been living up to their promise. I’ve been asked by numerous friends what I use these services for, and my standard line is something like “it’s a location-based social network, so I can see where people are at and meet up with them”. But I’ve thought about it and I’ve never once done that.
What I have done is checked in at places so that other people can see the cool stuff I’m doing. I’ve also checked in to get items or badges or whatever other virtual accomplishments they throw my way. I’ve also checked in to boost my early adopter cred. But I don’t think I’ve ever used one of these services to do something useful.
Ultimately the problem stems from them being too present-oriented. Case in point: the other day my friend and I, who are both on Gowalla, were trying to organize a trip for the Fourth of July activities in downtown Austin. Never once were we able to coordinate any of this over the service, nor were we in any way aided by it. The only thing we could’ve done would be to see if each other were both there and possibly meet up. But we were in the same car so that would be pointless.
There needs to be a way to broadcast your short-term plans and see if anyone you know is down. Like Plancast, but useful. Maybe you can propose them to different people, and invite them to join in, augment, or counter-propose something. And then people can see where you are in those plans and catch up. That’s where the check-ins would come in.
Additionally, people who broadcast their plans and are the real hub for their friends could be offered specials to include new locations in their plans. Maybe I always plan outdoorsy events and the Stand Up Paddle Austin Group wants to offer me a discount if I bring three friends. You could eventually glean the really interesting information of who’s driving people to do things and reward them for driving business your way.
Right now location-based services don’t really enhance your social life at all, they simply let you report it. By adding a future-oriented feature, you could work to recruit enough friends to make activities happen, and then spend your time actually enjoying doing stuff, rather than trying to see if anyone is nearby and whether you can get ahold of them somehow. You could even set it up similarly to Groupon, and if five people are set to come do an activity, suddenly, the deal is on and you can get a discount.
Those are some ideas I have on how to make these services more relevant to the general population. Right now, the services seem to be growing based on virtual goods and narcissism, of which I’m guilty of both. But for them to reach true mainstream status, they have to offer something more than just specialized tweets and the hassle of checking in when you go somewhere.