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Application of viral actions drove Facebook, MySpace, Zynga growth to hundreds of millions of user accounts through oking, sheep throwing, commenting, and gifting stray cats on farms.

Distilling their keys to success, viral growth needs: 

– fun experience and motivation to create events

– effective notification channels

– immediate response mechanisms

– opportunity for sustained interactions (long conversations)

Very few of the current location based services (LBS) offerings today have such viral channels. Most rely on co-visitation of a venue and check-in frequency competitions to drive interactions. To create an event requires overcoming significant friction: you have to walk, run or drive somewhere. Consequently, the potential for interaction is minimal. Counter-examples, location based games have driven explosive growth because they provide alternate modes of interaction not tied to physical presence.

To drive widespread adoption of check-in utilities, viral channels must be cultivated. Viral channels may manifest themselves as messaging, gaming, media sharing, commenting or in any other number of ways, likely including new modes. 

Reflecting on this week’s rumors of Facebook’s imminent release of their check-in service, initial impressions may lead one to believe the marriage of Facebook’s massively successful viral features to a location based service will result in instant success. An installed base of 100M Facebook users is a no trivial advantage.

However, there are two strong opposing forces at play in Facebook’s rendition of location: the goal for widespread use and perceived need of user privacy. 

A few months ago, I triaged my Facebook friends list from 800+ to 50 in an effort to improve the quality of my newsfeed. A drastic experiment, removing hundreds of Facebook friends reduced the value of the service. After all, Facebook has achieved the initial vision of a living address book for friends throughout different life epochs. Moral: to maximize value from Facebook, I should continue to add contacts liberally.

Location based services solicit more private data. I’m not willing to share my intraday location with loosely connected friends. For Facebook, balancing the goal for ubiquity and social graph comprehensiveness with the demands of users is a challenge. To wit, Facebook’s recent efforts to make public increasing amounts of user data is clearly at odds with the initial privacy requirements of a check in utility. 

Therefore, I expect Facebook’s location effort succeed in gaming rather than a check-in utility. This type of approach would mitigate user privacy concerns and leverage the mechanisms of viral growth that have succeed already. The corollary to this thought is that new social networks developing around location must be formed elsewhere, because they must be smaller than the average Facebook social graph.

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3 thoughts on “The impact of location on social networks

  1. Hey Tom – good post. I wonder if this there is a generational effect? I agree, privacy is key for a lot of users (including you and me) but the 17 year olds that I know don’t seem to have the same concerns. How will the 7 years old feel when they are older? I am sure they will evolve to care more than they do now about privacy but I think it will be less than we care. And I am sure there will be different levels of security possible to allow you to share with only the 50 you care about. That said, I agree that the gaming aspects are immediately valuable.

  2. This is a great point. There are two points of view on the privacy question. I'm not sure which one I believe in. The first is that the most recent generation will forsake privacy altogether and maintain that tolerance.  The second view is privacy isn't important until a few years after college. It's been dubbed the "rule of 27", meaning when you're 27, it's time to get your things together and represent yourself professionally on the web.  What do you think?

  3. Interesting, I hadn’t heard about the “rule of 27” before and I am not sure which of the two competing POVs I believe in either. Perhaps there is a hybrid middle ground that will emerge as the younger generations approach 27 years? Whereas our generation doesn’t want even somewhat innocuous info shared totally freely (relationship status, location, pictures, etc), the younger generations will be willing to share with everyone but will transition from sharing everything to just sharing everything minus the truly raucous “Saturday night” material. That material will stop being posted even among their close friends (once on the net it never dies) but everything else will be totally public. In reality, it is probably more complicated. I am guessing employers, parents, etc. will generally become more accepting of knowing the “Saturday night” activities of people without judging as much. Certain material will continue to be off-limits, so to speak, but stuff that was previously considered deal breakers will become accepted. For example (a bit racy), my dog goes to a playgroup every Wednesday. The group has a facebook page. From there, I went to the owner’s personal profile where I saw a picture of him wearing a shirt that said “tiny penis” and holding up a every large beer glass where you’d expect. I didn’t find it funny but I didn’t think it means he won’t take good care of my dog. In the past, I might have concluded that. So, net net, I am guessing we are moving to a more and more open and permissible society but I am guessing the curve of “accepted openness” will flatten out relatively quickly (i.e. next 10 – 15 years) after racing up and not expand significantly beyond that.

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