So many of my early adopter friends have embraced certain kinds of location-based services [LBS] such as FourSquare, Gowalla and BrightKite. I have not joined them. I do not enjoy their frequent location updates to my Twitter stream and I have been saying for a long time, I see safety and privacy issues that should not be overlooked.
Apparently, I am not alone, at least not anymore.
There has been an increasingly frequent string of blog posts by people who were LBS
enthusiasts who are now opting out. Ray Wang [l], wrote a thoughtful and damning piece a few days ago. He told of a neighbor who saw an LBS post that said Ray was away from home, then he stole his newspaper on the driveway, then he went on to examine larger issues of privacy and pointed to several other posts. Additionally, Andrew Hyde posted that he now realized he had “opted in on getting stalked.” Les James announced last night that that he was leaving Foursquare and Gowalla because he wasn’t getting “a reasonable return” on his time investment.
his is certainly not sufficient evidence to declare the bloom is off the LBS rose. This is a hot category. According to Ray, four percent of Americans use LBS and those users will spend over $10 billion a year by 2013, unless the trends start reversing or slowing.
And it needs to be noted that the category is actually bigger than these tell-a-friend services in the center of the spotlight. Yelp, TripIt and Google Navigator are all location-based services. There are controversies with these other services as well, but they are reasonably safe to use or so it seems to me.
But more people are stopping to think about the downside of keeping the world posted as to where you are and where you are not. If you are out for the night, instead a neighbor filching your paper a burglar could be visiting your home through a back door.
As the noise rachets up a click, I wondered if there is any evidence of a trend away from the meteoric rise of the Foursquare-type services. So I did what I often do, I turned to Twitter and I asked.
The answer is, maybe.
I received 17 responses in 12 hours. By previous experience, this is a relatively modest response showing no great passion on the issue at this time. I average about 25 response when I ask twitterville a question. Recently, an inquiry about Wikileaks generated 120 responses in two hours.
But still a growing number of people are voicing concerns that seem to me to be very real. A few folk shared with me some disturbing stories, ones that may not be all that unique.
My friend Jesse Luna [r] got a very unpleasant phone call after he posted on FourSquare where he was located. They would later call him at home as well. He eventually uncovered a band of LBS stalkers who were targeting people and talking trash. nasty words on a phone are bad, but it takes no great leap of imagination to see how the same location information could do far greater damage.
With these thoughts in mind, several women–particularly mothers–have opted out recently. ”I determined that the safety of my kids was more important that social game play. I felt I was playing with my kids safety and that’s no game,” Samantha Fein told me.
Another aspect a couple of tweet friends told me is that locations responses, particularly on Gowalla, come out very prominently on both Google and Bing searches. “I just didn’t want any potential employer,” to determine that I was spending all my time hanging out in coffee shops and home improvement stores,” a job-seeking professional told me.
After privacy, the second largest reason to opt out was that after a while the services just become boring. “No one cares where I am unless it’s somewhere special. Then I can tweet it,” I was told. “Besides, many of my friends were getting pissed off with all my Foursquare tweets.
In defense, users can opt to send messages to smaller circles of trusted friends and that may be useful to some people some of the time. In reality these location-based services are not going to crumble and blow away any time soon.
But what is becoming clear is that there are some very real privacy issues related to these services. I think with some thought, the service providers can resolve them, but that would reduce their numbers and all companies love the biggest possible numbers they can garner.
Where is all this going? That remains to be seen.