When location is everywhere

What if you could take location as a given in the design of web applications and services? By that I mean, what if — when someone who has never used your service before shows up, signs up (ideally with an OpenID!) — and it’s both trivial and desirable for her to provide you with access to some aspect of her physical location in the world… and she does? What would you do? How would you change the architecture of your service to leverage this new “layer” of information?

Would you use it to help her connect to and find others in her proximity (or maybe avoid them)? Would you use it to better target ads at her (as Facebook does)? Would you use it to accelerate serendipity, colliding random people who, for some reason, have strikingly similar habits but don’t yet know each other — or would you only reveal the information in aggregate, to better give members a sense for where people on the service come from, spend their time and hang out? If you could, would you automatically geocode everything that new members upload or post to your service or would you require that metadata to be added or exposed explicitly?

Put still another way, how would a universal “location layer for the social web” change the design and implementation of existing applications? Would it give rise to a class of applications that take advantage of and thrive on knowing where their members live, work and play, and tailor their services accordingly? Or would all services eventually make use of location information? Or will it depend on each service’s unique offering and membership, and why people signed up in the first place? Just because you can integrate with Twitter or Facebook, must you? If the “location layer” were made available, must you take advantage of it? What criteria or metrics would you use to decide?

I would contend that these are all questions that anyone with a modern web service is going to need to start dealing with sooner than later. It’s not really a matter of whether or not members will ever show up with some digital footprint of where they are, where they’ve been or where they’re going; it’s really only a matter of time. When they do, will you be ready to respond to this information or will you carry on like Friendster in the prime of Facebook and pretend like the first bubble never popped?

If you imagine for a minute that the ubiquity of wireless-enabled laptops gave rise to the desire-slash-ability for more productive mobile work, and consequently created the opportunity for the coworking community to blossom; if you consider that the ubiquity of digital cameras and camera phones created the opening for a service like Flickr (et al) to take off; if you consider that the affordability of camcorders, accessibility of video on digital cameras, cell phones and built-in in laptops and iMacs, coupled with simpler tools like iMovie, lead to people being able and wanting to post videos to a service like YouTube (et al); if you look at how the ubiquity of some kind of device technology with [media] output lead to the rise of services/communities that were optimized for that same media, you might start to realize that a huge opportunity is coming for locative devices that make it easy to publish where you are, discover where your friends are, and to generally receive benefits from being able to inform third parties, in a facile way, where you are, where you’ve been and where you’re going.

Especially with the opening of the iPhone with its simple and elegant implementation of the “Locate Me” feature in Google Maps (which has already made its way into Twinkle, a native Twitter app for the iPhone that uses your location to introduce you to nearby Twitterers who are also using the app) I think we’re on the brink of seeing the kind of the ubiquity (in the consumer space) that we need in order to start taking the availability of location information for granted, and, that, like standards-compliant browsers, it could (or should) really inform the way that we build out the social fabric of web applications from thence forward.

The real difference coming that I want to point out here is that 1) location information, like digital photos and videos before it, will become increasingly available and accessible to regular people, in many forms; that 2) people will become increasingly aware that they can use this information to their advantage should they choose to and may, if given the chance, provide this information to third-party services; 3) that when this information is applied to social applications (i.e. where location is exposed at varying levels of publicity), interesting, and perhaps compelling, results may emerge; and that 4) in general, investing in location as an “information layer” or filter within new or existing applications makes increasingly more sense, as more location information is coming available, is being made available by choice, and is appearing in increasing numbers of applications that previously may not have taken physical location into consideration.

Geogeeks can claim credit for presaging this day for some time, but only now does it seems like the reality is nearly upon us. Will the ubiquity of location data, like the adoption of web standards before, catalyze entirely new breeds of applications and web services? It’s anyone’s guess when exactly this reality will come to pass, but I believe that now, increasingly, it’s really only a short matter of time before location is indeed everywhere, a new building block on which new and exciting services and functionality can be stacked.

(Bonus: Everyware by Adam Greenfield is good reading on this general topic, though not necessarily as it relates to web services and applications.)