Thursday, May 31, 2012
Sean Zehnder on Social Media: Usefulness
of location-based apps is all in the mindset
One of the hottest trends in technology this year has been location-based mobile applications such as Sonar and Highlight. Applications like these leverage the GPS capabilities of most modern smartphones in order to notify people when they are close to something or someone of interest: friends, acquaintances or even strangers.
The idea is intriguing if you happen to be in a social state of mind, for sure. But what about the rest of the time, when you’re just going about your business?
The fact is, even in familiar environments we “read” our surroundings differently depending on our current activity or mindset. More importantly, we tune in and out to the people around us depending on our context.
For example, when you are commuting to work you are much less likely to daydream about what the person next to you might be thinking (unless of course they cut you off in traffic) than you might if you are sitting at a bar next to him or her. Or consider the difference between your openness to talking to a stranger while you’re at a coffee shop researching a good auto mechanic than when you’re sunbathing in a park — your current mindset matters more than your physical proximity more often than not.
Another way to think about this is to recall a time when you saw someone working on his computer at a coffee shop. You knew who this person was but had never been formally introduced. If you are bold, you might walk up and introduce yourself. Even if you were to go this far, it is unlikely that the conversation would last very long unless the person is in a particularly social mood and invites you to stay.
Ok, now imagine a similar scenario where you don’t know this person, have never laid eyes on him or her; in fact it’s just your phone that is telling you that the person went to the same school as you or is also into rock climbing. Despite the extra information provided by your mobile app, and a relatively social environmental context, this would still not be a straightforward social situation for many people to navigate.
I would group location-based apps into a larger movement of “Augmented Reality” (AR) systems. In a nutshell, AR systems take information about your current location and/or where you are looking and provide additional information that would not otherwise be readily accessible. Even Google has recently entered the AR space with a pair of prototype glasses, as recently seen being worn by one of the Google founders, Sergey Brin.
Given their massive datasets and unparalleled expertise in identifying context from a person’s actions, I believe that Google definitely has as good a shot as anybody of unlocking the usefulness of AR. Unlike Sonar and Highlight, however, Google doesn’t need to completely saturate a market before it adds value. The fact is they already gather and mine sufficient data to have something useful to add to many different contexts.
Whether we’re talking about Google-powered glasses or iPhone apps such as Sonar and Highlight, the biggest challenge to the usefulness of these tools lies is in their ability to identify and adapt to a person’s current mindset. Neither of these pieces — identification or adaptation — are simple, because a person’s mindset and intentions change very quickly.
In many ways thinking of proximity in just this one dimension — location — is the heart of the problem. Being proximate to a person’s current intentions or his current state of mind, would be much more useful.
Sean Zehnder is the co-founder of Meeps, a new topic-based mobile social network, currently available in the iPhone AppStore. Sean grew up in Lexington and Versailles and graduated with honors and as a Gaines Fellow in the Humanities at the University of Kentucky. Sean later earned his master’s at Georgetown University and has been building and studying social media since.