When Twitter finally hit the mainstream press in 2009, you could essentially predict the comments on every fluff piece put out by a magazine or newspaper: Twitter is stupid, it’s “for twits” and “my God, I can’t believe anyone would be so stupid as to use this idiotic service”.
As it turned out, those people were, well, completely and utterly wrong; Twitter unarguably has its uses, and has been a boon to millions everywhere.
Yet these days, there is a lot of chatter – much of it on Twitter, no less – that new location apps like Foursquare or Foodspotting are stupid, pointless and “my God, I can’t believe anyone would be so stupid as to use this idiotic service”.
But location services – small, mobile apps that allow people to share with friends where they are, what they’re doing and what’s cool there – are, much like Twitter, easily dismissed but actually a pretty huge deal. Not only do they represent the “next big thing” in tech, they are also part of how our culture is changing.
Here are some reasons that location apps are “the next Twitter”:
They Open Up the City
One of the great things about Twitter is how it creates what many have called ‘ambient intimacy’: a feeling of being connected with others and the world, even as you sit in front of your laptop.
In a similar way, when people use location apps to ‘check-in’ to various locations – bars, coffee shops, restaurants – they don’t just tell people they are there. They often also say what’s good there, forming this incredible user-generated resource of information about the cities we live in.
So like the ambient intimacy of Twitter, location-based apps are almost like a really basic form of augmented reality that “layers” information over places. Walking around with your mobile phone, you can use these services to discover what’s new and cool. You can also learn things about your neighborhood, town or city you may have otherwise not known.
They Encourage Discovery
Luddites often like to say that heavy tech-users never get out. We know the opposite to be true; using the web makes it much easier to find out what’s going on, which makes you more likely to get out and do things.
These new location apps – Foursquare in particular – take things a step further by injecting a playful competitive edge. Visit a place more than any other user and you become ‘mayor’ of that establishment.
By mixing mobile technology and a “high-score” mentality from gaming, these services encourage people to go and explore their cities, becoming the first person to check-in somewhere – or just the guy or gal who checks in most.
This competitive edge appeals to many, and is another reason more and more people will use these apps.
They Help You Focus On Your Interests
When the first social networks like Friendster appeared, they were general purpose, aiming to be all things to all people. Later though, things started to get more specific, and you’d get social networks for book-lovers or pet owners or any number of things.
Similarly, we are now seeing the rise of location-based apps like Foodspotting, which use your location to find specific dishes, with an accompanying picture, available at places near you. It’s a great app for foodies looking to share their love of all things culinary.
In this way, location apps tailor themselves to specific pursuits, making it easier for those with niche interests to connect with others who share them.
They Create New Business Streams
Of course, for better or worse, no web or mobile trend can survive unless it helps business. Thankfully, one way location-based apps can help commerce is by encouraging customer loyalty through rewarding the most frequent customers with discounts and rewards.
Lots of businesses across the world (like Starbucks) are already offering “Foursquare Mayor” discounts and as these services proliferate, these kinds of incentives will continue to grow, as will the businesses of the companies that implement them.
When consumers have so much choice for something as basic as coffee, a simple game-based incentive can do a lot to keep people coming back to the same place, day after day.
Your Own Private Web 2.0
There has been a lot of talk about how Facebook is going to roll out its own location-based service soon. But most people use Facebook as a way of collecting friends, co-workers, acquaintances etc.; most users rarely limit their FB friend list to only close friends and family. And do you really want all those people to know where you are and where you’ve been? Probably not.
On services like Gowalla, you can choose to share information only with friends who are on the service. Because the uses of the network are different, the etiquette is different too; you don’t just add anyone, and it’s easy to limit it to those you want to share your location with. That way, you keep Facebook for ‘Facebooking’ and these new services for a different (and kinda awesome) purpose.
What Do You Think Of Location Based Apps?
Of course, there’s always going to be debate over what ‘the next big thing’ is? Do you think services like Foursquare and Gowalla are going to hit the mainstream? Or are they a niche service aimed only at tech-heads or iPhone addicts? Let us know in the comments.