Social media provides real-time access to the who, what, and when. Geolocation now provides the “where” in real time. Web meet World; World meet Web.
Geolocation will become a huge market in the coming years, much like social media itself. There are more than a dozen companies in the space already, and it seems like every tenth post on TechCrunch lately is about geolocation: Facebook vs. Foursquare, Gowalla, GeoAPI, Social Paradox, SimpleGeo, Google, Rally, and this one about Ambient Streams.
Our friend Pete Cashmore of Mashable cited geolocation as one of his top web trends to watch in 2010. In his CNN column he wrote that “location is not about any singular service; rather, it’s a new layer of the Web. Soon, our whereabouts may optionally be appended to every Tweet, blog comment, photo or video we post.” This is big. But it’s not just about broadcasting our whereabouts. It’s about the data and how valuable that can be for everyone.
To expand on Pete’s description, geolocation is content that has been tagged with geographic data such as GPS coordinates or a street address. This can be a video, Tweet, blog post, news story, restaurant review, or an entire lifestream. It is ultimately about geospatial awareness. The trend is being driven by location-based social networks like BrightKite, FourSquare, and Gowalla, where you check in to a location, thereby alerting your friends, and possibly take other actions to engage with that location such as posting a photo or writing a review. All of which is generating rich data streams of location-based information. Today there isn’t enough participation to make geolocation broadly useful. But that’s about to change.
Geolocation is a lot like social media in that it requires critical mass for it to be valuable. In other words, generating value requires a lot of participation. For example, we found Facebook valuable long ago as a marketing channel, but it didn’t become personally useful until this past year when our close friends and family started using it. (They don’t tend to be early tech adopters.) Social media reached a major tipping point in 2009, driven largely by Facebook and Twitter, where there is enough participation and data to make it universally valuable. Today, Facebook accounts for one out of every four pageviews on the Web and Twitter drives more than 10% of the traffic to most major content sites. That’s a lot of participation and a lot of data. Reaching this level took several years for social media. Geolocation, on the other hand, will get there in the next 12 months. This is largely because social media and mobile have paved the way. Which means that by the end of 2010, there will be enough participation and data for geolocation to be universally valuable.
Critical mass in geolocation means several things. Yes, there are privacy issues. They already exist with social media, and they can get much worse with the added layer of location. It may require new security and privacy standards, and we may need ways to easily mask or approximate our location while limiting access to that information. The market will clearly demand this as geolocation approaches critical mass. However, the value of using location-based tools and generating this data outweighs the potential downsides. Because when geolocation reaches critical mass, it will give us unprecedented access to information about the world around us i.e. the world within a certain geographic radius.
Google has done a tremendous job with organizing the world’s information, per its mission, but it lacks the real-time info about everything going on around us (and that is partly why it wants to acquire Yelp). Which is to say every Tweet, blog post, YouTube video, happy hour special, political rally, museum event, live band, car accident, garage sale, restaurant menu, and friend within, say, a quarter-mile radius or 20-mile radius of our current location. Imagine if Ustream broadcasts could be filtered by geographic area (perhaps they already can). We’d be able to see live video happening at bars and events around us, often streaming from people’s iPhones, and decide whether or not it’s worth showing up. We could also cross-reference these video streams with Tweets to get more detail.
When all Web-based information has real-time geographic coordinates and when all of the new, location-specific data being created each moment can be easily accessed, filtered, personalized, and organized (governed by privacy settings, of course), we will have tremendous access to the world around us. We’re confident this will be realized a year from now, if not sooner. And though much of it will originate from Facebook (once it enables geolocation), all location-based data will have value. It’s also quite inevitable that new, geo-based platforms will emerge. It’s essential that this data is open and accessible. If the recent moves by Foursquare and Facebook are any indication, it appears that it will be.
We’ll be covering this space more closely because it’s exciting and because there are clear implications for entrepreneurship, sustainability, and green business.