SXSW Foursquare. Photo by Mark Rabo.
SXSW Interactive often sets North American tech trends, and its influence will be seen quickly in a city like ours, filled with early adopters. For 2010, location-based applications were the big story with the two frontrunners being Gowalla and Foursquare. Although both debuted last year, it was this year that the services became entrenched in the SXSW experience.
At the core, both Gowalla and Foursquare do the same thing: they allow users to alert friends of their location (called “checking in”). While this can quickly become tedious in everyday life—who really cares where their friends are eating lunch or how often they’re working out?—the service is perfect for massive events like SXSW. The convenience of using Gowalla or Foursquare to find out instantly which sessions or restaurants your friends are at trumps any other social web tool around (no more trolling for location tweets or clumsily mass texting friends!). Even cooler, if you use Sitby.us, you can find out where your friends are sitting at panels to meet up.
Gowalla even reduced ambiguation by allowing users to check in to specific SXSW sessions, rather than by location alone. Imagine how this could change how we interact with Toronto’s many festivals. You could share with friends the films you’re seeing at Hot Docs or which Nuit Blanche exhibits are unmissable. For many, SXSW was the first showcase for how Foursquare and Gowalla could fit into their life. For festival organizers, the services could provide important feedback on how attendees interact with an event.
But what about when there isn’t a major festival going on? There’s still potential for location-based services. Gowalla head Josh Williams told an audience at GDC that he hoped Gowalla users would become inspired to try new things and explore the world around them—Gowalla rewards users who, for example, do a walking path along the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. In Foursquare, when you check in a location, the service will recommend something close by you may also enjoy. Venues can catalyze this by placing specials on Foursquare and Gowalla so people who check in get a discount and even reward those who visit the most (called “Mayors” on Foursquare, while Gowalla uses a leaderboard).
Another great use for the services is as a repository for user recommendations and tips, which aren’t limited to just a user’s friends but can be viewed by any user. Essentially, imagine the power of a food-based service like Yelp, but also for stores, cultural exhibits, and nearly any public space. At its best, a Foursquare or Gowalla could help users make informed choices about venues by organizing, archiving, and allowing instant access to word of mouth.
What both location-based services need is further adoption to allow for more social interactions and to provide more data for the system. Granted, revealing your every location can (and should) make people uneasy. However, this is most problematic when people recklessly add users they don’t know or when people link their location to a public service like Twitter. There are people on Foursquare who check-in to their homes, revealing where they live and when they’re home, and it demonstrates the need for further conversation on safe behaviour on the social web.
Jaime Woo is a tech and social media writer, and was a panellist at this year’s SXSW Interactive conference. He’s also a former Torontoist contributor.