The Unexplored Art of Geotagging

Recent noise over location-based services (LBS) and geotagging (i.e., tagging and confirming your GPS-based location online) coupled with mixed reactions over the seemingly lackluster showing of tech prowess hoped for by some SXSW attendees have finally backed my brain into a corner to force a few scribbles on the subject.

Well okay, the SXSW fascination is somewhat unrelated and concerns a certain tech journalist (whose company I closely follow on Twitter) who vowed never to go back to the SXSW again. But on a related note, el BS– I mean, LBS was in fact a hot topic at this year’s SXSW.

Gowalla logo


After coming across some splattering of opinions surrounding potential abuses on privacy, creating inadvertent opportunities to rob you ( and the rising popularity of LBS apps like foursquare and Gowalla, I’ve determined, despite the negative backlash, that I must strive to identify a happy medium I can comfortably describe as practicing the “art of geotagging”.

Location, location what’s your function 
Remember Sesame Street? (Ya okay, if you weren’t a kid growing up when that show aired on TV then Google it) ♫ Conjunction, junction..what’s your function..♫

The same could be asked about LBS. What is the value of tagging all these places where you’ve “checked in” and left a traceable trail of what you’ve been doing and where you’ve been?

Well so far, in my usual attempt to eagerly explore foursquare and Gowalla, the first thing that popped into my head: marketing. It’s got to be one of the most obvious reasons why these apps were developed.

In my mind, the marketing equation is simple: The more “check-in’s”, reviews and shares you get of your organization/business, not only would this spell more exposure but also additional opportunities to connect online with customers and prospects.

Oh and yeah, as a side note, I prefer Gowalla over foursquare mainly because the user experience (U/X) is much nicer and you can take photos! Trite but true.

And we’ll have fun fun fun..till our privacy is slowly stripped away 
A large part of the geotagging experience is fun. So the clever developers of foursquare and Gowalla naturally built apps that would have game-oriented goals.

And then there’s Google Latitude, which is not quite a game…but I won’t get into that.

So you sign up to play a game (a fun, cool game at that). And hook, line and sinker you start ‘playing’ this geotagging game all the while being encouraged to ‘check-in’ (tag your it), aim to be mayor, founder, galactic ruler or whatever, add places (foursquare) or create spots (Gowalla), leave details about the place, giving it a review and sharing it online.

There’s no material reward. All the badges, pins, stamps on the forehead (I wish they’d include that) are online “want-to-have-must-have’s”. And as you find friends and begin to add them, you’re once again given another layer of interactivity with whom you’re already connected in your social channels or email lists. Inevitably, you become compelled to keep playing the game.

foursquare badge

Harmless enough right?

Some privacy folks are cautious. A recent Canadian Press article suggests that most users are oblivious to the ramifications of freely sharing and constantly marking a permanent impression on one’s geographic location.

Last year, in a similar vein, there was much debate over whether or not agencies were effectively disclosing how certain behavioral targeting campaigns work and what they in fact do with the data they collect from consumers. I have not followed up on the issue closely and can only assume that nothing concrete has been resolved to date.

Will unpredictability save the day?
As the collective momentum to “share and share alike” increases to patterns never before seen in history (yes, that’s a visceral observation on my part), and as advances in technology drive many of us to explore with unchecked abandon, I can’t help but ask myself if we are in fact doomed to lead excessively transparent lives.

As with all things that lure you to verge on extremes, balance should always serve as guidance. So if you’re in the ‘explorer’ camp and are keen on sharing but cautious about your overall privacy, here are some tips:

  • Staggered Pacing – based on lessons learned from addictive behaviors caused by Twitter, make sure you don’t get too caught up in geotagging every single moment of your life. Focus on your actual life not on the game.
  • Randomized Activities – be more spontaneous, less contrived in playing the game and aim to show random patterns of activities. Avoid tagging the same place, at the same time, and in the same series of similar instances. You want to avoid creating discernable patterns.
  • Planned Duplicity – sounds awful and wrong but you want to emphasize the notion that your geotagged information is not always going to be accurate. Honest mistakes don’t happen often enough for you to accumulate inaccurate coordinates. You don’t want to wilfully mislead but in an effort to continue randomizing your movements, I’d say feel free to do the odd “oopsie..that’s not quite the name of this place” or “well, I was actually doing the dishes when I checked in at the grocery store down the street”
  • Deliberate Absence – like Twitter and many other social networks, no one will really miss you if you’re not tagging your brains off 24/7. Be absent. Stay off the grid for long periods of time and let your next tag be somewhere completely different from your last known location. 

What do you think of all this tagging…when will you start ‘tagging’ to see if you’re ‘it’?

16 thoughts on “The Unexplored Art of Geotagging

  1. Interesting times we live in, Autom. It isn’t going away and it will ultimately be used to do something bad by someone. So, yes, as with all technology, I think protecting your identity and safety comes first. Parents need to know what this is and how it works to help their kids understand the ramifications too. The vast majority of LBS use is harmless and will remain so. A few loons will probably make some headlines along the way.

    Personal safety is the biggest risk I see for obvious reasons.Big brother comes next. Does anyone want their health insurer tracking them or just using unnamed data to make decisions about risk based on lifestyle assumptions?

    The marketing aspect of LBS is brilliant. Gaming is a fantastic way to motivate and reward prospects and customers. It form a very high level of engagement.

    The retail potential is massive. Shopping can become a game with coupon rewards. RFID tagging on packaging can be tied in with LBS to provide variable pricing that’s entirely data driven by the person in front of the package at that location and time of day. It can also be tied to POP displays to create a more interactive in-store experience.

    It’s big. It’s cool. I hope it’s safe.

  2. Great article Autom!

    For every great idea that I’ve ever come up with for geotagging, it seems no one is really ready to take it seriously (i.e. from a business application perspective). The privacy pundits always seem to wreck it for those with the fun ideas. I think part of what makes geotagging glisten is this infatuation and penchant to tell everyone where we are and where we’ve been.

    I’ll admit though, it’s lost on me, and while I anticipate bigger and better things from LBS, it’s role has yet to evolve, and IMHO it will to some extent play a much bigger part in the way we establish trust online. Not so much location, location, location – but rather, a data point in a more complex profiling if you will in establishing a veritable and more profound “social media presence.”

    Lose the scruff and powder the nose, because that’s when the air of pretension that is tinseltown meets SM, and then there really won’t be any sense in fighting it 😉


  3. Autom

    LBS and geo-tagging are interesting beasts. The other side of this is the Twitter geo-tagging. If we ignore the marketing aspect, what else is there? Obviously, there is the networking that happens, but I feel like there has to be more than just that.

  4. Great post Autom! You make a good point about being unpredictable. Predictability can quickly become noise and get you ignored on social and location based sites. Staggered pacing and randomized activities are definitely good ideas although I’m not as keen on planned duplicity 😉 Deliberate absence is good to give yourself a breather at times which is good periodically as long as it’s not too long so as not to have people wondering if you passed on. A couple things I find you can do to fight the predictability with your checkins is to try to bring value. I usually do this by adding a brief phrase or sentence aimed to add entertainment value or helpful info about where I’m checking in. Tips and tricks is useful info and wherever you can help people out, you’re helping yourself.

  5. Nice post The by-product of LBS is location “broadcasting” but keep in mind, we have public lives and private lives. I suspect no one will tag a location when they don’t want anyone to know where they are. LBS really plays to our public lives. Personally, I don’t wish to create another profile that allows someone to market to me based on my travels out and about the city but that’s a personal choice. For those who want to though, your advice is sage, practical and should be followed.

    The lawyer in me wonders when people will start to use geo-tagging to establish their alibi: “Check my geo-tag, I was at the supermarket; how could I do a ‘Dexter’?”

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  7. gentlemen! what a lively discussion surrounding location-based services…indeed, am thankful to hear your respective voices on this topic and for sharing your respective viewpoints.

    Dave – “Does anyone want their health insurer tracking them or just using unnamed data to make decisions about risk based on lifestyle assumptions?” indeed, one wonders if orgs will start using LBS as a means to “make decisions based on assumptions” i raised a similar thought in a earlier post on screening hires via social for safety?

    Mark – not sure if it’s about ‘fighting it’..think it’s more about making good use of it without eventually compromising other consensually valued principles like privacy – and even then, at this stage, the privacy issue is still within in most users/testers radar (including yours truly)

    Joseph – the so-called ‘air of pretension’ is not confined to tinseltown my friend, but i will support your view when you say “I think part of what makes geotagging glisten is this infatuation and penchant to tell everyone where we are and where we’ve been.” is that pretension? perhaps..although i think it’s more about sporadic or chronic narcissism, which is characteristic of social media OR perhaps the subconscious, nagging need to validate one’s existence with others

    Rob – agree completely..and yes Twitter being social media’s official mascot, one would think that its geotagging functionality would aim to serve a similar purpose (i.e., not just to broadcast noise but map out locations for marketing purposes)

    Glenn – yes, very good point: rarely do i see the ppl i follow on Gowalla leave details/comments on the location where they’ve checked in – i try to at least take a photo to give either a visual reference or a hint of atmosphere/mood to the location

    Michael – interesting notion of use LBS for an alibi—it would have to be quite intricately crafted for someone to pull it off given GPS and traceable signal to the mobile device..hmm..what would Dexter do indeed

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  8. Very nice, gives me a lot of inspiration being right in the midst of a redesign. It’s all in the details and comment forms are definitely overlooked more often than not. Time well spent on this post.

  9. As you probably know, Facebook just launched their knockoff of FourSquare. One of my friends has decided to load in her house as a place to check in and out of, and now her and her 300 closest FB buddies know when she is or isn’t home. I don’t know about you, but that’s pretty scary. What a crazy fast slippery slope we are on now!

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