I was recently on a panel at the South by South West interactive conference (SXSW) where we discussed multiple applications of the real-time Web and the things that might prevent us from seeing its true potential. I’ve found it interesting that the key take away from the panel is that privacy issues will be one of the biggest problems we will face as we move forward. You can see this perspective in CNN’s coverage of the panel in the story Privacy concerns hinder 'real-time Web' creation, developers say and GigaOm’s write-up SXSW: Is Privacy on the Social Web a Technical Problem?
This overlap of privacy and real-time web features is brought into sharp relief when you look at services such as Foursquare and Gowalla which provide a mechanism for people to broadcast their physical location to a group of friends in real-time. I started using Foursquare last week and I’ve noticed I’m even more careful about who I accept friend requests from than on Facebook or Windows Live Messenger. The fact is that I may share status updates and photos with people but it doesn’t mean I want them to be aware of where I am on an up to the minute basis especially if I’m out spending time with my family and friends. This difference in how we view location data from other sorts of real-time data we share is captured by the co-founder of Foursquare in the article Facebook Isn't For Real Life Friends Anymore, Says Foursquare's Dennis Crowley where it states
Facebook plans to clone Foursquare's central service -- the ability for site members to use their phones to "check-in" from restaurants and bars -- and make it a mere Facebook feature.
But Foursquare cofounder Dennis Crowley says there's something Facebook can't clone: the real-life friendships between Foursquare users.
"Facebook used to be who your friends are, now it's everyone," Dennis told us in an interview.
"[Foursquare] is more tightly curated to who you want to have as your check-in friends. Facebook is good place for status updates and sharing photos, not to keep tabs on where people are going."
I think Crowley is on to something when he says Facebook can’t clone the Foursquare relationship model. I suspect that like Twitter, Foursquare has created a social network whose value proposition is differentiated enough from Facebook’s that it can grow into a relatively popular albeit smaller service that will not be “killed” by Facebook*. Secondly, there is a lot of synergy between Foursquare and Facebook as evidenced by the fact that Facebook is the largest referrer of traffic to Foursquare thanks to their implementation of Facebook Connect. So I think the claims that one will kill the other is just the usual tech press creating conflict to generate page views.
One thing I have noticed is that location can’t just be a field you bolt on to a status update. It has to be a key part of the information you are sharing with others otherwise it adds little value to the user experience and in fact may detract from it by adding clutter. For example, compare what a location-based update from Foursquare looks like on Facebook versus what the exact same update looks like on Twitter
The difference between both updates is almost night and day even though the actual status text I shared is the same. The way Twitter has approached location is to treat it as a bunch of “poorly translated” GPS coordinates that are bolted on to the end of my status update. The Facebook update not only gives you that but also a human readable location for where I am down to the room number and includes some social context such as the fact that I was attending the talk with two coworkers from Windows Live.
As real-time location data starts to permeate social experiences, there’s a lot to learn from the above screenshots. In the example above, people who are interested in the topic based on my status knew which room to find danah’s talk from the Facebook update whereas they were told “downtown austin” in the Twitter update. As designers of social software applications, we should be mindful that location data enhances the experience and the information being shared. Adding location simply for buzzword compliance or to add metadata to the status update without enhancing the experience actually ends up crufting it up.
* Twitter’s value proposition is that it is the place to interact with celebrities and microcelebrities that you care about. It is useful to note that the much maligned Suggested Users List was key in establishing this value proposition in the minds of users. This is different from Facebook’s position as the social network for your real world friends, family, coworkers and acquaintances.
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