Saturday, February 04, 2012

Geosocial Networking: Check Out What's Happening With Check-ins

This week, I had the opportunity to guest lecture for a great class on social networking at the University of Toronto. I spoke about how new technologies were facilitating geosocial networking, that is people connecting and sharing place-based experiences via their mobile device.

I've been studying this for over two years and I'm an avid user of the ultimate geosocial app, foursquare. So I was excited to speak on this topic.

I'll give a brief summary of the main themes I addressed in my presentation.

I wanted to begin the presentation by having the class get a Swarm badge (earned for a mass check-ins at a location) from foursquare. But problems with the tech highlight that this field is not mature and profound user issues remain. For one, the lecture hall was in a basement of UofT and my network connectivity was the pits.  When I finally could connect to foursquare, the app would not accurately find my location (it pulled up locations within an approximate 20 block radius).  So I had to do a manual search for the building, but foursquare could not find it by the common, short version of the name of Alumni Hall. I had to exit the building to find out the proper name of the building and then enter it in full, i.e. Muzzo Family Alumni Hall.  Finally, once I was able to check-in (15 minutes later) I asked the class of over 50 people how many of them had foursquare and only a handful did. Surprisingly, few of the class appeared to be using any geosocial apps. Considering that according to Pew only 4% of US people were using foursquare or other similar geosocial apps, the low uptake shouldn't be that surprising except that young people have the highest rate of adoption of such mobile and social tech.

Courtesy of Agent-X Comics (
I've previously blogged about the core concepts and terms that enable geosocial and location-based apps, so I won't go over them in detail. But here are the need-to-know terms:

  • Location-based services (LBS) - mobile apps that target content and interfaces based on a user's location
  • Geolocation - identification of a user's physical location using positioning tech, such as GPS or cell signal triangulation, user self-selection, or a combination of these
  • Geocoding - digital content with referenced geographic location appended to it
  • Geotagging - user-based metadata appended to digital content, often in the form of folksonomies
Geosocial Media 
Most of the forms of digital content that people create and connect over on the Web, known as social objects, are also used for geosocial networking. The most common geosocial media are:
  • Reviews, tips, & ratings (e.g. of restaurants, shops, attractions)
  • User profiles
  • Photographs & videos
  • Games
  • Status updates & comments
  • Participatory maps
Major Players in the Field
Lately, every digital media company is offering geolocative and geosocial functionalities to their services. I've been keeping track of some of the most popular and innovative apps on this blog through my ongoing List of Location-based services.  But here are the major ones:
  • foursquare (the most used of "pure" LBSs) 
  • Twitter (although this aspect is seldom used)
  • Flickr (possibly the largest source of geocoded data due to automatic setting)
  • Loopt
  • Google Latitude
Screenshot of foursquare, showing user tips of nearby businesses.
Social Coordination
From my research, I've found that one of main usages of LBS are for social coordination, that is the ability to find and meet-up with friends or others.  Social coordination takes the following forms:
  • Friends - these apps make it easy to see your friends whereabouts through map-based interfaces, status updates, and place-based check-ins and have impromptu or serendipitous encounters 
  • Strangers - some apps facilitate strangers connecting over proximity and shared interests or dating status
  • Emergency situations - geolocative apps have been used in disaster situations to coordinate rescue, aid, and news- gathering.  Also, a new app from Toronto, Guardly, makes it very easy for people to alert family, close contacts, and police in personal emergency situations
  • Politics - LBS has been used to coordinate protests (e.g. Occupy and G20) and poll monitoring
Social Cohesion
I call this outcome of geosocial media place-based bonding.  Mass check-ins and sharing of place information and tips helps friends and strangers connect. This can be related to an en masse event, such as I observed for Toronto's Pride Festival and Canada Day celebrations, or singular experiences of readings others stories and experiences with a place that they have shared via LBS.

Identity Projection
I also have a subtitle for this, it's "Why no one checks into Burger King or Walmart".  During my research I found that, for the most part, people weren't check-in and sharing the places they are most apt to predominantly frequent, yet they eagerly shared trendy restaurants, clubs, travel destinations, or other seemingly impressive locales. As with other media, people deliberately use the tech to project their desired image of themselves.

Giving Voice
The academic subtitle for this would be "circumventing the hegemony" but no one other than journal reviewers wants to see this. Geosocial media are more than just user-generated content, they provide an effective voice to people with various positive outcomes:
  • Consumer justice and protection - people's reviews and ratings of places are accessed via LBS are easy to access when and where needed
  • Making visible hidden histories - people can annotate their own cities (I use the example here of how the power-that-be in Toronto decided to erect a prominent shrine to Winston Churchill at our City Hall, complete with a huge statue and ample plaques, despite the fact that Churchill had no significant connection to the city or even Canada. What the City has decided not to share is our own history, such as our first mayor and democratic revolutionary William Lyon Mackenzie, that the first China Town was razed to put up our new City Hall, or that it's the location of numerous weddings (including a stranger's that I was spontaneously asked to witness). All this can now be readily shared and virtually attached to the place - despite what is sanctioned by officials.
  • Protests - place has been used to extend the visibility and power of protests, such as during Occupy, G2) protests and the famous Tiananmen Square anniversary protests via foursquare that resulting in China banning it.
 G20 protesters checked in here in solidarity of detainees.
This location was mysteriously removed from foursquare's database shortly afterwards.

Privacy & Surveillance
I think too much is made of this issue, as most of the apps are getting better with their privacy settings and users need to take the time to read privacy policy and set their options appropriately. However, this was raised in the class and amongst my research participants as a major barrier to greater adoption.  Yet, at the same time it is the ability of this tech to facilitate friend tracking, a.k.a. participatory surveillance, that help makes it so popular.

Courtesy of Agent-X Comics (
Most of the geosocial networking and LBS apps are commercial. So they have to make money somehow, even though most users don't often consider this. Advertising and marketing are the only current viable models.  It's great when businesses get it right, such as a local gelato place that recognized via Fourquare that I was a frequent customer and gave me a free gelato. It's less great when I got an ad for a "deal nearby" for a plus-sized women's clothing store. 

These apps are helping us discover new things about our friends and new information about the place we encounter. This is both possible positive and negative outcomes. People appreciate the advice of others and it is a great way to make and decisions about the world. Yet, in an amazing essay by Mitchell Schwarzer, A Sense of Place: A World of Augmented Reality , having our world always curated for us by others may prevent us forming our own thoughts and experiences. I experienced this moments before my lecture as I checked-in to a nearby independent cafe. I thought it seemed great (it had a huge Klimt mural after all), but when I read the reviews I noticed that people had pointed out legitimate problems with the cafe that I had overlooked. I was enjoying myself there until the communal experience changed it for the worse.

Hybrid Space
One of the continual outcomes of this new technology and our geosocial networking is the changing nature of place.  Place is no longer a backdrop to our media usage and everyday activities. Place is now merging with technology and us to create new hybrid spaces.  Dana Cuff calls these new types of places, cyburgs. The resulting changes to our relationships will be fascinating to watch and experience.

For more information and applications on this topic, check out my Delicious Stack on Geosocial Networking.

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