Alistair Fairweather

I see you, baby...

2009-10-30 08:48

"Liefie! Why aren't you home yet? Don't give me that working late nonsense - I can see you're at that bar again!" 

It's the same old call that every misbehaving spouse dreads, but technology has now added a new twist. He or she can now literally see you're at that seedy bar again without even moving from the couch at home.

No, it's not a spy camera attached to your retina (although those are probably on their way) - the traitor here is your own cellphone.

It's called "location-based social networking" and it already has millions of users around the world and dozens of companies vying for market share.

The idea is very similar to more established social networks like Facebook, but with the added dimension of knowing exactly where all your friends are on the planet, to within a few meters of accuracy.

How is this possible? It's all thanks to the new breed of smart phones. With both internet connections and onboard global positioning systems (GPS), your phone can literally "tell" all your friends exactly where you are - if you let it of course.

Possible and probable

This has actually been theoretically possible for a long time, even without GPS. The networks can figure out where a cellphone is by triangulating its distance from nearby cell towers. But the method is relatively expensive and accurate to kilometers rather than metres.

The new breed of location-aware networks thrive on the blend of mobile computing and real life that smart phones are so good at. A large part of online social networking is arranging meetings and dates, so this trend just takes the idea to the next logical step. 

And whatever you think of the privacy and safety issues you have to admit it sounds like a great way to find your friends at a crowded event or your lost kids at a giant mall.

Of course most of the current users fit into a younger crowd looking to meet interesting new people when they're out on the town - but henpecked spouses won't be far behind.

And you probably won't even have to bother signing up for a new service to use it. Location awareness is really just a feature, one that Facebook could add and in doing so squash all its new competitors. 

After all, social networks are only useful when they have lots of people, and none of the current startups have even 1% of Facebook's users.

Connected 24/7

What we're really talking about here is a future where everyone is connected 24 hours a day. That sounds horrific to many of us, but then sharing your hangover headache on the public internet would have seemed absurd just 5 years ago.

If the idea of everyone constantly knowing where you are freaks you out, rest assured that none of these systems will broadcast your whereabouts without your express permission. 

Unless of course you get the new iPhone application called Stalqer (pronounced "stalker") that tells everyone where you are even when the app isn't active. It does this via a cunning back door - essentially a security flaw in the iPhone. But, hey, if you're creepy or stupid enough to download an app called "stalker" then you probably deserve what you get.

However uncomfortable this trend may make some people, it's a natural evolution. Social networks should be about actually meeting real people, and not sitting in front of our computers virtually poking each other.

Essentially it's about the internet moving out of fantasy and into reality. That may not always be a pretty transition - but it's an inevitable one.

- Alistair is Social Media Manager at 20FourLabs.

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