Yes, this is a post about location services, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Ever dabbled with LastFM? If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a platform that talks to your PC / phone / iPod and keeps a record of all the music that you play. Over time, as it gathers a nicely rounded picture of your tastes, it recommends other music for you to listen to that it thinks you will like, usually very effectively.
In true narcissistic web 2.0 fashion, (or 3.7, or whatever we’re up to now), one of the most enthralling things about LastFM is the ability to look back over your data, seeing which artists you listened to most over the last year, or which tracks rocked your socks last month and so on.
Once you get into the habit of peering at yourself through the LastFM prism it doesn’t take long for you to become a little self-conscious about your listening habits.
Did I really listen to Sophie Ellis-Bexter for 6 consecutive hours last Monday?
Oh god, the ‘Too Fast, Too Furious’ soundtrack is showing up in my stream…
With the knowledge that your tastes are now openly displayed to the world you may well find yourself curating your listening habits to present the most edgy / cosmopolitan / intellectual / clued-up version of yourself you can muster.
Nothing much new there. Who hasn’t hastily rearranged their CD collection in anticipation of impressing that date who’s coming over for the first time?
John Coltrane and Bach mysteriously find their way to the fore, while Linkin Park and Maroon 5 are banished to the outer darkness. A lovingly crafted public image is not a recent invention.
But what if your LastFM page, or indeed your home CD collection, consisted of only two albums? Imagine seeing page after page of LastFM data that consisted of nothing but the same handful of songs endlessly rotating. Showing anyone that your musical taste verged on the binary would put you, in terms of cultural, emotional and intellectual pioneering, somewhere just south of Jim Davidson.
Yet this is almost exactly what a vast swathe of foursquare users are experiencing right now, but with location data rather than music.
One of the best and worst things about the location-based social network is that it demonstrates just how unadventurous life is for the vast majority of us.
Don’t take my word for it, look through your FourSquare friends and see how many of their histories consist of train station / office / train station, day after day, broken up only by the occasional check-in at a Starbucks.
Hell, look over your own history – it’s probably you I’m describing.
foursquare does a really great job of highlighting to us just how mind-numbingly routine our lives can be; the location-based equivalent of listening to nothing but The Lighthouse Family.
An unpleasant truth is that we often change ourselves only when we are suddenly embarrassed by a facet of our lives of which we were previously unaware. There’s nothing like seeing a photo of yourself taken at an unexpected and alien angle to get you into that weight-loss program you’ve been meaning to get on with.
Just like viewing the mundanity of your musical taste with LastFM and taking steps to broaden it using their recommendation engine, there’s a real opportunity for location networks like foursquare, (and let’s not forget the recently-launched, yet currently rather boring Facebook Places), to inject some adventure into our usual routes without our having to become polar explorers.
How nice would it be if, once foursquare gathered enough data on your travels to establish that you’re falling into a routine, it suggested a point of interest based on the path between your two most-travelled check-ins that required you to take a very slight diversion to experience it. Maybe only a ten minute diversion…hardly any effort at all, but enough to introduce a tiny little glitch of colour into the otherwise beige matrix of your daily traipse.
Imagine getting out at Totteridge & Whetstone tube station for the 10th day in row, but instead of heading east and going straight home your location software nudges you and lets you know that just 200 metres west is one of London’s oldest trees, standing at an impressive 2,000 years old.
Worth taking a small diversion for? Yes, probably, when it’s not raining.
By making location services more active and disruptive rather than the relatively passive data receptacles they are at the moment they will be able to combat fatal check-in fatigue and encourage us to have less of a ‘two-album’ repertoire of personal location data.
Why submit data to a service when it’s not going to make much of a discernible difference to your life? Staring at yourself in a mirror is only entertaining for so long – after a while you want to feel like there’s a different person looking back at you.
Many people love LastFM for exactly this reason – they see a real-world, positive disruption feeding back into their lives from the data they submit and, most cruically, it’s personal to them.
Like so many other massively multiplayer online games, the points, badges & mayorships of a network like foursquare are most fun to the people who got in early. For the average adopter, trying to catch up with this elite can appear to be an almost insurmountable task, whereas feedback and positive disruption powered by a recommendation engine defined by your own personal actions remains infinitely, well…personal.