Last week, I posted my analysis of how foursquare prescribes certain types of social behavior. Next, I’m looking at two other locative media products, or “mobile social software”: Brightkite and Loopt. To simplify this comparison, I’m focusing on the iPhone applications rather than websites or applications for other platforms. (These apps are primarily made for mobile phones with GPS anyway.) I’ll also disclaim that I don’t really use these apps, so my understanding of them is based on the signup process rather than habitual use. This part discusses Brightkite; Loopt will follow in Part Three.
To recap, I’m looking at how mobile social software prescribes certain types of behavior. This isn’t to say that it causes specific behavior or that users don’t have agency. Instead, I’m interested in how locative social media has certain assumptions about social life built into the software.
According to their website, “Brightkite is a location-based social network. In real time you can see where your friends are and what they’re up to. Depending on your privacy settings you can also meet others nearby.” The Brightkite interface is really clean, well-designed, and sleek, with great integration with the rest of the iPhone. It’s clear they’ve spent a lot of time on the product, and they claim something like two million users. (Active users or user accounts?)
Like foursquare, Brightkite users “check in” to specific venues, but can also add notes and photos. In practice, Brightkite is a combination of foursquare, Twitter, and the Flickr photostream. Here’s what this looks like on the iPhone app:
Unlike foursquare, Brightkite gives you two viewing options: friends (wherever they happen to be), or people near you (who may or may not be your friends):
The Friends stream doesn’t filter by location, so it’s more “keep up with what your friends are doing” than “go meet your friends.” The purpose of the Nearby tab seems to meet people near you, or people who frequent venues that you do, but in practice, this is difficult. Location data is most useful when a relationship has already been established; establishing a relationship based on shared location (as opposed to shared interests, or friends-of-friends) is sort of like becoming friends with the people on your hall freshman year of college. They’re fine to go to the dining hall with, but you’ll eventually want to meet people you have something in common with besides living space.
Brightkite says on one of their help pages that users can “Message, browse, and see what people are up to around your current location. View visitors at your favorite places.” So presumably Brightkite should help you find cool stuff going on around you – if Harry posts a picture of a lightsaber battle going on in Washington Square Park, and you’re two blocks away, you can hustle over and join in the wacky fun. Or, if you see that Angelina J. is always checking in at your favorite coffee shop, maybe you can offer to split a blueberry muffin with her (“I saw you on Brightkite.”).
The problem with this latter scenario is that it’s creepy. It’s non-normative social behavior. Even using Dodgeball (foursquare’s pregenitor), there were plenty of times when I went to meet a friend who had checked in to a nearby venue, only to find that they were on a date, out to brunch with their girlfriend, or otherwise engaged in a pursuit where a random additional person was uncomfortable. Smoothly navigating these scenarios with strangers seems close to impossible, let alone leading to new friendships. And location information itself is not enough; how could I use the information that “cman checked in at Williams-Sonoma 15 minutes ago”?
Because Brightkite doesn’t have a points system or a leaderboard like foursquare, it’s not as cut-and-dried to describe it as “prescriptive.” So what does Brightkite value?
- Documentation (encourages users to create a persistent record of where you’ve been, with photos and notes)
- Connectedness among friends (encourages frequent check ins)
- Ambient awareness (being able to see what everyone on your friends list is up to)
- Meeting new people based on location (through providing a “nearby” stream)
Because Brightkite is more open-ended than foursquare, it’s less prescriptive. If your interest is in self-documentation, BrightKite works very well– the addition of photos and notes allows you to put together a diary-like stream of actions. But in some ways it’s just a weaker, lesser-used Twitter/Flickr stream; the lack of local specificity for “friends” makes it harder to use for socializing, and there’s no clear use case for meeting new people. Foursquare is more prescriptive, but ultimately more useful: it’s obvious how you’re supposed to use the software. The argument amongst foursquare users that people shouldn’t check in to “home” or “work” makes this clear. Brightkite would encourage users to check in at home or work; that way, they create a persistent record of their life, and broadcast that information to friends. Foursquare, on the other hand, is based on a particular kind of action– meeting up with friends for nightlife socializing– which arguably doesn’t include “home” and “work.”
If anyone reading this is a huge Brightkite fan, I’d love to hear your experiences with it in the comments.