Location-based social networks

Since I’m doing PhD in geospatial science, I need to keep my finger on the pulse of anything location-based. And the Silicon Valley buzz last year was location-based social networks. Foursquare, Gowalla, Facebook Places.

The problem is, none of those services seem to fill a need. Why would you want to be “mayor” of a cafe? And if you want your friends to know where you are, why not use Twitter? It has geotagging.

One idea I came across for an LBS application went like this – you sign up for a service that continually tracks your movements and stores them in a database. It compares these movements with every other user in the database, and if it find that you cross paths with someone on a regular basis it recommends that you become friends. How sweet. No more Craiglist-style “missed connections”.

Now, putting on my scientist killjoy hat, there are some fundamental technical and practical flaws with that model – GPS power consumption, GPS not working indoors, dealing with multi-storey buildings, gaining a critical mass of users – but it got me thinking. Where are the location-based dating applications? In the online world, dating is a killer app. Why not the mobile world?

One thing I learned in my MBA is that advertising is more effective the closer you get to the point of sale. Ideally, you want to put ads in the supermarket. I’m sure the same applies to dating. A dating application is most effective when you’re all dressed up, drunk, and looking to pick up – in other words when you’re in a bar on a typical Friday or Saturday night.

Which is why I’m surprised that there are so few apps. The Economist mentions Skout and Flirtomatic (although the latter doesn’t seem to be location-based), and I’ve seen an iPhone app called Urban Signals in action. Nothing for Android 1.6, unfortunately, so I can’t comment on usability. But why haven’t the big players got involved? RSVP, eHarmony, and OkCupid certainly have the resources to pull it off.

I guess one of the problems is privacy. You probably don’t want to broadcast your exact location to all and sundry. Perhaps a system that releases more accurate information to people that meet your target profile. This needs some thought.

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