Tag Archives: geotagging

The state of geosocial media, 5 years later

In March 2010, I wrote a four-part blog series on geosocial media and its potential for the future. In addition to being fascinating to research, the series earned me invitations to speak at conferences and write articles in real publications. And while I saw great potential for what I called “geotagging” social at the time and the players in the field, the closing paragraph of the series may have been the most prescient:

Building bonds — with other users and with establishments favorite and unfamiliar — remains the big draw to geotagging, so we can’t underestimate its future. Since, as this series has shown, each comes with different drawbacks, neither Foursquare, Gowalla nor Yelp seem like that killer app that will become that next service with Facebook-style popularity. But the potential is there if some of these apps merge. Or if a developer can build a better mousetrap, the world may beat a bath to his or her door … since, with geotagging, we’ll know exactly where to find it.

The sad truth is that the past 5 years have seen most of the major players in the market change, get bought or fold. Consider:

  • In 2014, Foursquare mystifyingly launched a sibling app, Swarm, that relegated Foursquare itself to irrelevancy. I just looked and none of my friends recently checked in anywhere nearby. Zero. I occasionally see Swarm checkins pushed into my Twitter feed, but nowhere near what Foursquare was in its heyday. (UPDATE: Apparently Foursquare will partner with Twitter to provide the opportunity for check-in ability, which is the first promising thing in a while.)
  • Gowalla was consumed by Facebook in 2011 and disappeared into the void by the following year.
  • Whrrl, my personal favorite of the bunch, was bought in 2011 by Groupon, which essentially cannibalized its best features.
  • The promising social scavenger hunt app SCVNGR disappeared from app stores in 2012, having transformed into LevelUp … and you’d have to hunt to find any mention of them.
  • Out of the major players, only Yelp retains any semblance of itself. Its Monocle feature that adds a bit of augmented reality for what’s around you and its robust reviews keep it relevant.

Yelp’s innovative Monocle remains a constant. You can find eateries around you even while admiring toddler art.


Strangely where do I see more people check in than ever? Facebook. In terms of geosocial capability, Facebook doesn’t let you do much more than check in, but it’s still a relevant social platform that’s been too big for anybody to buy it out, so it kind of garners check-ins by default.

So what happened here? So many companies tried to build a better location-based mousetrap, and the world beat a path to their door oh so briefly … but then buyouts and changes of strategy sent people away from the promise of location-based media. Everybody instead rushed to the next big things, whether Instagram or Snapchat or Yik Yak or whatever the same technology press that called Foursquare “a game changer” decides to (probably misguidingly) hype next.

We can take away that because no one app was perfect or at least all-encompassing (the Facebook goal), most were more likely to become tools not of users but of the desires of larger companies. The way business works now is that if you can’t build that better mousetrap, you buy out the company that does and use it however you please.

We’ve also learned that all the hype in the world doesn’t buy a market category, let alone a company, a future. As much as we all like to think otherwise, what we see as social media communities many just see as tools. Something newer and shinier is always coming next. Maybe all of us (me included) need to realize that in the world of technology, change is the only constant.


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another layar of augmented reality.

For a while, I’ve wanted to blog about Layar, the augmented-reality aggregation app, but seems every time I start, the app changes. And not always for the better. In the game of geosocial media, Layar is like that young baseball pitcher with all the talent in the world but still working on his delivery.

Put simply, the Layar app lets you see what’s happening around you in several layers — who’s tweeting, who’s posted pictures or YouTube videos near you, what Gowalla locations exist, where to eat, where to drink, where crime is happening (the scariest one), who’s looking for love (or maybe that’s the scariest one?), etc. Sounds like a lot of great hyperlocal stuff, eh?

Hypothetically it would be, if the app had even decent usability. You’re allowed to select favored layers, but have to access and use each one separately through not-quite-intuitive navigation. Sometimes it will show hits around you but they won’t come up in either the list nor map views. Sometimes it says you’re nowhere near where you actually are. And just when you’ve figured out its latest reinvention, Layar seems to change the way it functions.

Note that Layar had layer functionality before Foursquare added its layer for users around you. And Foursquare toyed with a partnership with Layar — which, given its greater use than Gowalla, could have been promising — but a beta version that doesn’t work for all devices is as much as I ever saw. And while Layar theoretically offers more functionality than augmented reality competitor Yelp — which focuses on local points of interest and reviews — it’s nowhere near as reliable or easy to use.

One interesting thing about Layar, which also points to its potential, is how it resembles an app store within an app. Many of the popular layers are free, but Layar also offers paid layers, such as guides to Walt Disney World, an “EyeTour” of Puerto Rico, a service for finding local deals and even augmented-reality greeting cards. Thus, unlike Foursquare and its ilk, Layar has a built-in monitization avenue … if it can score a decent adoption rate and develop apps people find of value.

With all its power and potential, it’s too soon to know where Layar will go. To return to the baseball analogy, it could flourish into a Stephen Strasburg or flounder like a Hideki Irabu. But there’s enough going on both within Layar and the whole geosocial game that this app remains worth watching.

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making a gowalla campus tour: if you build it, will they come?

Part of my ongoing research of geosocial (location-based interactive) media has involved testing the usefulness and usability of it. A more extensive project was creating a visual campus tour via Gowalla. Or, if you prefer, knocking a tree down in the forest to see if anyone hears it.

With its ease of creating locations and uploading photos, Gowalla seemed a good bet for the project. Some locations already existed from previous testing, and a couple of lunch hours making spots for the other buildings and taking photos filled in the blanks. It came together through a few hours of experimenting, mostly in my spare time.

I placed bit.ly links on a couple of well-traveled pages on our website, plus Oswego’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, then waited to see what happened. The good news: People are visiting virtually. The bad news: No one’s engaging it.

We had around 200 folks in six weeks, generally 5 to 10 per day … Gowalla’s lack of metrics means I know little about what happened once they reached that site. But the only people to check in have been two current students and I. Admittedly, you can’t check in if you’re just visiting via web, but it’s too bad no one has interacted with this feature geospatially. On the bright side, while preparing to write this entry, I was pleased to see that visitors other than the location creator can edit place information. This previous data hygiene issue was one of Gowalla’s drawbacks. Alas, this project reveals other shortcomings of the platform.

1. Gowalla’s low adoption rate. If Foursquare had the capability to upload photos, given its larger user base, I would expect the number of checkins to be higher. I’m experimenting with some Foursquare projects now, not yet sure of outcomes.

2. Navigation issues. It’s just not easy to get from one location to another in the application. Gowalla’s usability is better than other geosocial platforms, but the tour comes across more as a list of places loosely connected than a cohesive presentation.

3. Lack of wow factor. People may have been excited when they saw this tour existed, but it has nothing on, say, a Campus 360 virtual tour complete with creepy talking avatar (coming soon to our campus). Just seeing photos with a little bit of information is perhaps less than users wanted.

So if creating a Gowalla tour isn’t a stirring success, at least it’s a learning opportunity. Creating it took only a couple of hours, and I consider experimenting, trying new things and learning new technology time well spent.

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5 (+1) keys to social media platform adoption.

I clearly spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about social media platforms and explaining them to others. Part of this involves pondering why some catch on easily and others don’t — a combination of factors defying a simple recipe. Yet I’d propose at least five key factors driving user adoption of any social media platform: usefulness, usability, user interactivity, sharability and sustainability.

Usefulness: Is it clear what you can do with it? You don’t need much of an elevator speech to explain why folks use Facebook. Not everyone gets the appeal of Twitter, even in more than 140 characters; you have to learn by doing. Proponents would compare LinkedIn to a powerful, interactive rolodex. On YouTube, you share and watch video. Geosocial services like Foursquare and Yelp that offer reviews and tips make plenty of sense for those visiting another city, whereas Gowalla makes more sense if you just want to know what’s around. Innovative tools like Yelp’s monocle — a visual augmented reality layer that shows metatags of what’s around it — could serve as true differentiation as the market shakes out.

Usability: How easily can you take a desired action? Honestly, this is a huge key to why Facebook is so large a juggernaut it’s worrisome and MySpace a punchline. I could never find anything easily on MySpace, and other user pages were run-screaming-from-the-room horrible. Facebook offers a clean and consistent look with commands brilliant in their simplicity — “Add As Friend,” “View Photos of ____,” “Comment.” Twitter offers great ease of use (unless there’s a fail whale sighting). The often-poor user interface, clunky navigation and various glitches among the geosocial services (as described elsewhere) may hold them back at this point. Communities like YouTube and LinkedIn could use some navigational streamlining but are overall fairly facile.

User Interactivity: How easily can you interact with other users? No problem on Facebook — you can comment on photos, comment on status updates, comment on comments, etc. With Twitter, it’s as easy as replying with an @ or DMing for more privacy. Comments and replies are easy on YouTube. In terms of LinkedIn, since I use other connective media more, I have yet to find any reasons to interact with anyone (YMMV). With geosocial services, interaction is often more passive at this point, users more likely to read tips and reviews in Foursquare and Yelp. Although I guess ousting someone else as a Foursquare mayor represents an unusual wrinkle on interactivity.

Sharability: How easily can you share information within the community or export into other communities? Facebook and Twitter are on a different plane here, as not only is it easy to share or retweet within them, but the likes of Foursquare, Gowalla and Yelp rely on appearing in Facebook or  Twitter feeds for their introduction, visibility and viability. Indeed, the main backlash on Foursquare is the annoying flood of checkins, badges and mayorships into other users’ Facebook and Twitter streams. I’m not sure how to share anything from LinkenIn, nor can I think of any reasons I’d want to. YouTube exports anywhere and everywhere.

Sustainability: Why would you want to stay engaged with it? Again, with Facebook, ongoing interaction is self-evident. With Twitter, this creates a quick divide and pundits note how many people abandon it. But this isn’t entirely bad: Those who want to use Twitter as a megaphone will not find it sustainable (fortunately), while those who understand it as a party-line telephone will keep using it. A challenge I’ve had with LinkedIn is that I find content from my contacts on other platforms already. Foursquare’s sustainability gains a boost from its mayor function, as people check into places to try to gain mayorship of that establishment. And with 24 hours of new video uploaded per minute on YouTube, there’s always something new.

Across all these runs an additional factor toward any platform’s tipping point: critical mass. A key reason people adopt Foursquare over Gowalla or Yelp is the simple fact they see more of their friends on Foursquare (and sharing this via Twitter and Facebook). After all, a key draw of social media is the ability to interact with others, so knowing friends are already there will increase adoption of any given community.

What do you think? Did I miss any key factors?


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geotagging: the next big thing? part iv: yelp = enter augmented reality.

Imagine you’re in another city and looking for a bite to eat. You pull out your mobile device, hold it up and on the screen appears names of the restaurants surrounding you, with their types, ratings, approximate meal costs and directions. Then clicking on a specific restaurant’s link takes you to more information.

Sound like something out of the future? The future is now, thanks to Yelp … if you have the right device. If you don’t have the right device, it still works pretty well.

Currently, Yelp’s monocle function (described above) is only available on devices like the iPhone 3.0 with a video interface. Developers even had to hide the function as an Easter Egg to get it into Apple’s app store, noted in this Mashable article (includes video of monocle at work). As the monocle function gains in availability, providing an entree to the sure-to-be-big augmented reality phase of geotagging, this could really be a game-changer.

Whether or not you have the monocle, Yelp provides all kinds of information on businesses around you. If you’re looking for fast food, elegant slow food or ethnic fare — or other goods and services — you’ll find options under the Nearby function. A starred review system tells what users think. A $ rating system tells what to expect to pay. A compass-like function, tied to your device’s GPS, tells you where to find your destination.

Since Yelp generates the basic information, you don’t have to worry about the bad data issue of Gowalla. And while Foursquare also offers reviews, Yelp tying to your phone’s GPS — to say nothing of potential augmented reality feature — gives this service a leg up despite Foursquare’s greater current popularity.

Yelp also lets users in on special deals available to its businesses partners. “I like that instead of having one ‘Mayor’ like Foursquare, Yelp allows people to become ‘regulars’ at locations,” explains Seth Odell, media relations assistant at UCLA. “It seems like a lot more fun and inclusive, rather than exclusive, approach.” Let me reiterate this key point: Social media works best when inclusive, so that Foursquare skews toward exclusive benefits for the singular mayor of any location runs against the grain.

Fred Vigeant, assistant general manager for content at Oswego NPR affiliate WRVO, has the monocle function but also enjoys creating reviews for others. “I like how I’m helping build up a local network of reviews in our area” to help if “someone from out of town comes to visit and is looking for some information,” he says. “I also like how you can follow certain reviewers. This feature is nice because maybe they have similar taste and can suggest new places to explore.”

Jacqueline Lalande, who works for Solar Energy Systems in New York City, likes “that the reviews are passion based. You have to really care about how much you liked or didn’t like a place if you’re going to get online and post about it. This is a great way to get a feel for a place, as I like that it’s an everyday person’s opinions.”

But while reviews are easy to find, Yelp (very curiously) won’t let you contribute one from your mobile device. “While I can check in and upload a location photo, Yelp doesn’t allow people to write reviews from their phones,” Odell notes. “If I could make my entire Yelp experience mobile (writing and commenting on reviews, uploading photos, etc.) then I would be more likely to do that while at the location and to check in in the process.”

A drawback for higher education is the service’s genesis via Yellow Pages listings. Generally, a college has only limited listings, thus you would have to work with Yelp to get them to generate listings for, say, dining halls, specific schools and departments, residence halls or other aspects of the campus experience … if you’re brave enough for the feedback. I haven’t yet seen a college who has worked this out. And it’s worth noting Yelp has four different overall listings for my college with different names, which certainly leads to confusion and data diffusion.

As for benefits to businesses, some exist already. “Finding reviews of bars and restaurants are the most utilized function. However, I could see a use for other businesses to jump on the program and … see what the crowd thinks of them,” Vigeant says.

“Businesses are already on there and I like that,” Lalande notes. For colleges and harder-to-define services, Yelp has potential, as “it’s almost like a message board … which has its good and bad points. You’ll get your good comments, but you also run the risk of people giving it a bad rating.”

For businesses as well as higher ed, Odell thinks Yelp — and geotagging in general — still isn’t there yet. “People talk about how rewarding people for checking in is attractive to businesses, but I don’t see that,” he says. “Sure it’s nice to encourage customers to become regulars, but in the end you are providing discounts to a customer who was already coming. The only way I see advertising becoming successful is if they approach it as a way to attract new customers, not simply build a stronger bond with current ones.”

Building bonds — with other users and with establishments favorite and unfamiliar — remains the big draw to geotagging, so we can’t underestimate its future. Since, as this series has shown, each comes with different drawbacks, neither Foursquare, Gowalla nor Yelp seem like that killer app that will become that next service with Facebook-style popularity. But the potential is there if some of these apps merge. Or if a developer can build a better mousetrap, the world may beat a bath to his or her door … since, with geotagging, we’ll know exactly where to find it.


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geotagging: the next big thing?: part iii: gowalla, a kinder gentler service.

In terms of geotagging services, Gowalla could recycle the old Avis advertising campaign “#2 and trying harder” in terms of its matchup with the more market dominant — but more frustrating — Foursquare.

When it comes to the basics of geotagging — creating and finding spaces and interacting with other users — I find Gowalla more user-friendly, intuitive and responsive. Put simply, I can do things on Gowalla that I either can’t do easily, or at all, on Foursquare. A big plus is that you can locate spaces via Google map, satellite or a hybrid of the two views.

“I had been trying Foursquare and hated that I had to know the address of my location to add it as a new place, since their app doesn’t use the iPhone’s GPS,” said Seth Odell, media relations assistant at UCLA. “The fact that I could create a new location in Gowalla without the address and just my GPS coordinates was the main reason I decided to give it a try.”

In an oddly Pokemonesque touch, creating sites sometimes rewards you with virtual items — skateboards, slices of pizza, saxophones, you name it. You can “drop” these imaginary items to become a founder of a space, whether or not you created it. Whereas Foursquare provides mayorships and such to encourage repeat visits, “Gowalla rewards EXTENDING your territory more” and “taps into our acquisitiveness, with the concept of items,” notes Jon Boyd, online media manager for admissions at North Park University.

“The fun part about using it is mostly as a ‘hey I’ve been here too!’ tool,” said Wassan Humadi, higher ed diversity consultant for the US Educational Group. As opposed to the more popular Foursquare, “Gowalla isn’t used enough yet where you’re in a spot and can see who else is there. I would think that would be a pretty fun use of it, if you’re at the library on campus, I can see who else checked in here as well.”

In the time since I surveyed users, Gowalla had a major upgrade that amps up ability to interact with others, augments a social-gaming leaderboard function (similar to Foursquare) and adds a very user-friendly way of posting photos of your location. These things move fast.

Among users, the passport function — showing a list of places you’ve been — comes up as a favorite feature. Globetrotter Humadi enjoys that “when you’re traveling around the world, you can make it a bit of a virtual scrap book. I would anticipate that soon I can share the list of places I’ve been to via email, Facebook or other similar networks.” With growing functionality, she could see potential for travel journals created on the spot, perhaps combined with text, photos and video.

A major downside of Gowalla involves poor “data hygiene,” as “only a creator can edit a spot, the rest of us have to live with everyone else’s poor data entry,” Boyd explains. A good example: The entry for Sheldon Hall, our oldest and most historic building on campus, was created by a student. Despite the listing, the Extending Learning office is _not_ in Sheldon Hall, which means the only way I can correct it is by bugging him to edit the description.

Gowalla also occasionally has locating issues, especially indoors. In the test drive so far, I’ve seen Gowalla put me in the wrong place less often than Foursquare, although with either service you can drag and drop a pin to correct erroneous location issues. Also noteworthy, unless I’m really missing something, Gowalla lacks the review feature that makes Foursquare and Yelp attractive options for those in unfamiliar territory.

Users have mixed feelings about its business potential. “Combining a bit of a game idea/scavenger hunt with a more detailed iPod/podcast may be a way of giving a more personalized tour to students who want a more in-depth campus visit than the one the tour guide can provide,” Humadi suggests. She could see benefits from students or participants checking into an activity or class, instead of using roll call or a sign-up sheet.

Odell, on the other hand, doesn’t see Gowalla benefiting businesses — yet. “Down the road I think there will be lots of opportunities for businesses, but right now I think it’s pointless,” he says “For colleges I see absolutely no value right now. The numbers just aren’t there for this to matter. Obviously it’s something to watch though. As the numbers increase so will the value in it.”

Time will tell whether Gowalla plays Betamax to Foursquare’s VCR or becomes the Facebook to Foursquare’s MySpace. Whatever happens, the healthy competition between geotagging services will ultimately make users the winner.

Stay tuned for Part IV: Yelp, Enter Augmented Reality


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geotagging: the next big thing? part ii: foursquare’s gorilla marketing.

With the largest user base, Foursquare is the 800-pound gorilla of geotagging, or location-based social media options that allow you to interact with spaces and other users. But be cautioned that it is a competitive, clumsy and gregarious gorilla.

Chances are, among your friends, more of them are on Foursquare than Gowalla, Yelp or other geotagging service — an advantage in itself. Theoretically that means that establishments will have more tips (microreviews) — which means a better picture of whether its food, service and/or amenities are good and bad — but the sheer socializing aspect holds great appeal. “I’m hopeful for the day when a friend checks in and I really am right by where they are and I can go over there,” says Michael Climek, an MBA and marketing grad student at Baruch College. “That hasn’t happened yet, but I can dream.”

“Foursquare is best for one’s regular haunts, with more incentives for repeat visits,” explains Jon Boyd, online media manager for admissions at North Park University. “Social media has been fun and productive for me, but until these platforms, I was often frustrated by the unfulfilled desire to make the social connections SPATIAL as well.”

Some users like the gaming nature of Foursquare, where users can become mayor of a property, collect badges and score points. You become mayor as a most-frequent visitor within a time frame. Since the Foursquare interface is clunky, anyone who can figure out how to do anything deserves something. “It’s fun to check into a place to check to see if you’ve become the mayor … or find that someone else has beaten you to it,” says Jason Smith, “Morning Edition” host of Oswego NPR affiliate WRVO. “It isn’t clear what the points are for. I’ve earned 15 points this week so far. Foursquare doesn’t tell you what the points mean.”

But, as users push their mayorships and new badges to friends via social media, one could argue this noise drowns out the more important feature of showcasing and providing reviews for businesses and attractions. As Lori Packer, Web editor at the University of Rochester says, “I like reading other people’s ‘Tips and To Dos’ for various venues … But the whole ‘unlocked the Adventurer badge’ nonsense just feels like Farmville-esque social gaming spam to me.” Personally, when I see a tweet declaring “I just became the Mayor of the Duluth Wal-Mart” (or whatever) — the hi-tech equivalent of the 4-year-old who screams “look at meeeeeee!” — it’s hard not to feel a mix of annoyance and pity.

Georgy Cohen, managing editor of Web communications for Tufts University, rebuts that “the Foursquare backlash about it clogging up Twitter streams” is misplaced, as “it’s not Foursquare’s fault; it’s people’s fault for pushing all of their updates to Twitter.” As with Gowalla and Yelp, Foursquare users regulate some information they push to Twitter and Facebook, so “I feel Foursquare gets a lot of crap for what is really an (arguably poor) decision by the user,” Cohen says.

But the biggest real drawback to Foursquare is usability-based: As a geotagging service, its GPS locating ability is unreliable, and spots often are created instead via street address. Nearby location lists tend to be erratic and incomplete. The complicated creation system is especially a drawback for use on some college campuses, as my building has no street address; if my office were a place of interest, the closest I could place it would be the college’s main entrance.

The business and marketing potential of Foursquare remains muddy — current challenges to GPS-based location being a real drawback for many campuses — but users saw potential. As the services continue to grow and evolve, Boyd likes the opportunity to connect users geographically and perhaps develop tours on his urban campus. Climek notes NYC’s Cavatappo Wine Bar gives a free drink to whomever is mayor of it at the time. Cohen thinks it could be great for treasure-hunt style fundraisers, with potential to expand it “as Harvard has done, to encourage students to explore off-campus locations.”

Whatever its faults or flaws, Foursquare remains that 800-pound gorilla … and if you’re a marketer, you ignore it — and geotagging in general — at your own peril.

Stay tuned for Part III, Gowalla: A Kinder, Gentler Geotagging Service


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