Tuesday 31 August 2010

'SOCIAL CHECK-IN': Harmless gimmick, or something sinister? Or both?

Social check-in, for those who might think it is a new method of flight check-in - using your Facebook password perhaps - is actually personal geolocation using your portable device to sign in to participating businesses and establishments. The idea being that your friends, playing the same game, can see where you are, and you can see where they are. And then you and all your friends can play an old fashioned game of sardines around the high calorie special lattes or Caipirinhas. I guess.

Excuse my cynicism, but the vocal supporters of these social networking geolocation apps like Foursquare, Gowalla and Facebook Places try and shame me into feeling like a grumpy old fuddy-duddy simply because I ask, "What is the point?" But these things are games, pure and simple, and shouldn't be credited with more significance than that. They are games which attract players by gently massaging vanities and social insecurities - play the game and prove you exist.

Don't get me wrong: geolocation is very useful - for specific purposes. It's great that people can find your 'bricks & mortar' business with ease online and have it pinpointed on a map, and then through their smart phone can be directed straight to your door so they can (let's say) buy the only secondhand Tintin books available in your city. It's great that you can run a blog for your business promoting all the trade shows you will be attending and with 'RSS 2 Geo' those trade shows will be pinpointed on a map. You get the idea. It is extremely useful.

But personal geolocation? Give me a break.

More than ten years ago - in the age of the simple cell phone - I was visiting a high-tech relative in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Friday lunchtime and we were in a bar with four or five of his friends-stroke-colleagues. It was decided that most of us would meet up again after work at another bar, and maybe some of us would go on together to eat somewhere. But nothing was actually decided and I pointed this out as the lunchtime party broke up to go back to work. I was mildly shocked and amused to be told, "Don't worry - we all have cell phones - we'll sort it out in the afternoon!" Shocked and amused because the group seemed oblivious to the absurdity of ignoring the simple face-to-face opportunity to firm up the evening's social events in favour of spending yet more time ringing round - probably several times - to work out where we were going to meet.

And the result? Well, the afternoon's phoning proved totally unnecessary. We met at the bar the group always met at on Fridays after work. Of course. And those of us who went on to eat went to one of the group's most favoured restaurants. And this is the crux of the matter. We are creatures of habit. Even trendy high tech urban young adults with disposable income are creatures of habit. Today the successors to the group described above must be among the perceived top targets for the whole 'social check-in' concept - along with the wannabes of course, who are actually the biggest target group. (Look at the Foursquare and Gowalla websites and it is clear they are aimed at the teenie market.) However, they too are creatures of habit. Few people have time to be anything else, however 'cutting-edge' and trendy they consider themselves. Even the 'Friends', from the eponymous darling TV sitcom, always met at the same coffee shop. OK, that was to satisfy production demands, but you get the point because it was totally natural. No viewer was surprised by that routine.

So what are the young trendy high tech urban adults with disposable income making of social check-in? Well of course some of them will play with it for a while, until they realise that it's a gimmick. And when they start dropping out, social check-in will be left with the wannabes and the office saddo. People will be sitting there trying not to spill their lattes on their smart phones while they work out where all their friends are. Two of them are on the sofa opposite - oh, right! (Embarrassed smile - I forgot you were here - "Hi Guys!"). And if you are not all in the same place anyway, who is going to move? Surely there is massive comic potential here.

And what about the office saddo? Remember, he's the guy you reluctantly befriended on Facebook, but then quickly hid from your news stream, and if he sends you a direct message you pretend you didn't see it - well the notification is a bit small and easy to miss isn't it? This is the poor lonely socially challenged inadequate or pain-in-the-arse who you have spent months keeping in the dark as to where you all go on Friday nights. He has a smart phone too you know - of course you and everybody else knows because he never ceases to bang on about it (normally he only gets to spend his money on gadgets), and sure he will sign up to Foursquare - and everything else.

Will people get totally paranoid about their every move? Will there be special apps developed to work out which restaurant you can go to tonight, successfully avoiding everyone on your private black list? You may end up just going home because your device won't let you go anywhere anymore.

And what happens if you are a perfectly trendy modern type, who just happens not to live in a large urban area? There are plenty of us about. Not a dozen Starbucks within spitting distance. In fact only one Starbucks for miles and miles. The whole idea of social check-in is going to look pretty puzzling to an awful lot of people who live in small communities, smart phone or no smart phone. At least Foursquare appears to understand this: their strapline reads, "Check-in, Find your friends, Unlock your city." My stress.

The evangelists for personal geolocation, however, are already trotting out the same two mantras.

First mantra:

It [social check-in] is today's equivalent of calling someone, "Hey! I'm at the café on the corner, c'mon over if you want!"

I think I have already dealt with this! But I could add, has anyone ever actually done that? Gone to a café and then start ringing round to see if you can entice friends to join you? Oh wait a minute - perhaps you are the office saddo, desperately trying to find someone to be social with...?

The second mantra is about security and the whole big brother/'1984' issue:

With Facebook you control the information you share. With Places, you choose when to share your location by checking in or allowing friends to check you in. Your location is never given to anyone automatically. This works just like Gowalla or Foursquare. People, you control it.

Absolutely true. You can turn it all off if you want to, and you don't have to sign up in the first place if you don't want to. [Turn off FB Places] But how many users actually have much idea about Facebook's privacy settings? Not many I wager. Unfortunately the social web illuminati can't understand that huge numbers of social web users - indeed, computer users - just want to turn the blessed thing on and use it. I guarantee that there are thousands of FB users out there who haven't even realised 'FB Places' exists; understand it, or know whether they want to use it or not.

And what about the business of letting everybody know where you are all the time? Or your friends letting everybody know where you are without your knowledge? It will happen. Big Brother and all that. You may argue that through mobile phone and plastic money usage The State can get a fix on you pretty quickly anyway, unless you are extremely careful. And, hey, you're honest, aren't you? They are not going to have any reason to look for you, are they? You live in a free country don't you? There are privacy laws in place to protect you aren't there? Of course there are...

But the more sinister side of social check-in and personal geolocation is almost exactly the opposite. By showing where you are in real time, or where you are going to be in a few hours, it shows where you are not. Right now I am not at home. Or where I should be. If you are cool with that, then so be it. But be warned: nobody quite knows where this is going, or what cunning ways will be thought of to dishonestly exploit these services.

So, personal geolocation and social check-in is a gimmick. An urban craze which will burn itself out when people get bored with it and realise that it is just some elaborate game and it is actually far easier to organise a social life using more traditional methods. And for all those cafés and other 'ideal' businesses? Well, they are probably damned if they do, and damned if they don't. Who wants to be seen as a place where no one ever checks in? But who wants to be known as somewhere you can't check in? It's your call.

So is there actually anything useful about social check-in, other than its potential as a silly vanity game with potentially hazardous consequences? Well, yes, maybe. Here is a comment I saw in the last few days:

A former co-worker of mine used his [FB Places] to track his travels all over Germany recently, it was interesting to follow!

OK, that's fair enough. However, that rather makes my point: geolocation is great for special and specific events, and for businesses to geolocate themselves in a modern Yellow Pages kind of way. As a day-to-day benefit to social networking it sucks.

Now, bring on the mystery and crime movies...

and be careful out there, people!

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