Get out of my driveway, social-mobile-location apps

So many apps want to see where you are and find "friends" nearby. This is why almost none of them survive.

Sometimes you come across a quote that’s so good, you feel like you should pay the person who spoke it at least a buck or two. Because they have, in essence, served as your bartender or barista, and served you up a delicious concoction that makes you feel a bit better.

Such is the case when I saw Courtney Boyd Meyers, features editor at The Next Web, quoted in the New York Times’ Bits blog about location-oriented social apps at the annual South by Southwest Interactive festival, entering its final stages here in Austin, Tex.

“Right now, it’s awkward because the suggested social connections lack relevance,” she said. “Why am I being notified that a woman across the street also likes Tom’s Shoes on Facebook? So it comes off as an annoying, noisy battery drain.”

That is a whole lot of truth in one little aside. Let’s get unpacking.

There’s social, the part of your life and your brain that navigates connections, knows how deep those connections run, and has a built-in system for sorting and prioritizing certain contacts. If you don’t show up for drinks with one group and choose to watch a Netflix rental with another friend (maybe a spouse), you’ve created a certain algorithm for determining what kinds of situations and activities you prefer with which people. You don’t think about it usually, you just move forward and send notes and live your life.

Then there’s “social,” the thing that’s come to mean “Connections between the database columns of people who use a certain service.” You can either manage those connections manually, as on Twitter, Facebook, and Foursquare, or you can hand over your credentials to one of those services and let your latest “social” app make all your connections. This is where most of them get into trouble, by assuming (somewhat like Google+ does) that your social connections are people you want to know about on a regular basis. It’s easy to get away from people who want to “friend” you in real life, usually. It’s a bit more tricky when the web flattens and shrinks the space between you to just a few clicks.

“Annoying” and “noisy” are another important piece. Try to name a mobile app that keeps notifications off, or at a bare minimum, by default. Rather than trust that you’ll want to explore the world the app maker has put together using satellites, databases, and expensively designed icons, apps ping you all the time about every change in yours and your “social” connections’, trying to make it seem like an active and busy place. Think about the neighbors you’ve lived nearby. How many of them became trusted, maybe even close friends of yours by jumping into your driveway as you’re leaving for work and yelling, “Kapow! Your neighbor, me, had some explosively spicy Chinese food last night!”

The final piece is just as important as any, and that’s battery life. There is no efficient way for an app to keep checking where you are, keep calling out to remote servers to check the significance of that location, and to then compel you to type something in, click a button, and turn on your phone’s big LED-lit screen, time after time. Batteries on smartphones are starting to feel very much like the bottleneck between what technology promises and what we can do at any given time on any day. And if you only have a few things you can do on your phone to keep it running all day, seeing who’s nearby that you didn’t intend to meet, at significant cost to your battery, is never going to matter to you.

So thank you, Courtney Boyd Meyers, and reporter Jenna Wortham, for saying more in two sentences than a whole long weekend’s worth of panels, discussions, and marketing-powered parties.

Top photo and thumbnail via mrlaugh on Flickr.

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