the culture and values of social media

Loopt, Locative Media, and Prescriptive Social Software – Part Three

Posted: April 28th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: social media | Tags: , , | 54 Comments »

This is the third part in a series of articles looking at how mobile social software prescribes certain types of social behavior. Part One discusses foursquare; Part Two discusses Brightkite. This part looks at Loopt.

Loopt

Loopt is a website and mobile app that, in the words of their website, “transforms your phone into a mobile compass. Connect with friends and get alerted when they are nearby. Share your location, photos and comments with friends and social networks. Explore places and events recommended by friends and Yelp.”

Loopt is a lot like Google Latitude: rather than voluntarily checking in to a particular venue, and broadcasting that information to a social network (the foursquare/Brightkite model), Loopt automatically tracks your location and shows that to your friends. But while Google Latitude is building a platform, Loopt is a standalone application.

My experience signing up for Loopt immediately made me uncomfortable. When you add someone on Loopt, it sends them a text message, which is much more intrusive than an easily ignorable email (the reason for this is that you don’t provide Loopt your email address right away; more on this in a bit).
While many social software applications use the term “friends” in a very generous sense (Facebook: everyone you’ve ever met), “friends” on Loopt should presumably be people you really trust rather than people you’d be comfortable with hanging out in a bar. The software doesn’t indicate this, though; it goes through your phone book/contacts list to find potential friends and suggests that you add all of them. Two people friended me back– both very close friends. And both of them, within minutes, had IMed and texted me to say that it was sort of “creepy” to see exactly where I was on a map. If all three of the people involved in this transaction found it creepy, then it’s likely to be violating some sort of social norm. (And, several days later, only one additional person has responded to my friends request.)

Friend: wait, did it check me in when I started the app?
me: i guess it must have
it says you checked in like 1 minute ago
did it send you a text ?
Friend: heh, ok. didn’t realize that would happen
me: that’s kind of annoying

While you can configure Loopt not to check you in automatically, it does so by default. Additionally, if you turn this feature off, the next time you open the application, it asks you to turn it on again (I suppose that without this auto-tracking, the app is fairly useless, but it makes it clear that the preferred behavior is auto-checkin).

There are fairly intense implications of always knowing precisely where your friends are, which is not information I would always want to have. This is particularly true when you’re talking about someone you’re dating. You wouldn’t necessarily ask your girlfriend where she is all the time, but once that information becomes available, there’s a temptation to use it. Of course, you can turn off Loopt (or Google Latitude) whenever you want, but if you usually use it, turning it off implies that you have something to hide.

Loopt also has an intriguing feature called “Loopt Mix” which connects you with people you don’t know in your neighborhood. To use it, you provide Loopt with an email address. The email address you provide will be used by random Loopt Mixers to send you messages, so Loopt says, “Make sure to remove any contact info that may have been added in your email signature!” This is an annoying user experience which signals something about possible privacy/safety violations.

The next screen gives you various options for filling out your profile: name, picture, “About Me,” age, gender, interested in networking, friendship, dating women, dating men, tags, and “featured communities” – TechCrunch, Imeem, Rock the Vote, and the National Resource Defense Council. Once you’ve filled this all out, you can view people in your area. Here’s what this looks like in practice:

Loopt Mix Profile other Mix users

In other words, this is a great example of people using social media to hook up. Loopt Mix displays your picture and info to people near you, who can then anonymously email you using the tool. The vast majority of people using this app in my area, as you can see from the second picture, are gay men (I live in San Francisco — this may differ in other cities). I’m not surprised about this; the safety issues involved in people putting their locations and pictures of themselves online are gendered, and other hook-up sites like Craigslist Casual Encounters, Adult Friend Finder, and Manhunt are overwhelmingly used by men. One Loopt Mix user’s profile recommended Grindr, which is an iPhone app specifically designed for M4M hookups — a clear sign of the audience Loopt Mix is appealing to in SF.

On the website, there’s a “journal” feature which lets you view where your friends have been over time. There is also some recommendation component, although none of my friends have shared any information yet, so I can’t evaluate this feature. If it’s entirely dependent on information provided solely by my friends– people who I’m close enough to feel comfortable with them knowing my location all the time– it won’t have comprehensiveness like Yelp or any other venue-based review database.

So what does Loopt value?

  • Persistent knowledge of location of friends (always-on location tracking)
  • Persistent self-disclosure of location
  • Meeting people based on location (for whatever, although in practice seems to be for sex)

The overwhelming value here is that location is a useful piece of personal information that should be revealed. I suppose this an obvious feature of locative social media, but whereas Brightkite and foursquare voluntarily ask for this information, and tie it to a specific location, Loopt’s ideal seems to be seamless location tracking. While this is certainly valuable, as with Brightkite, it’s not necessary actionable. The automatic nature of the app means that you never know whether someone wants to be “found” or not. Generally, while Loopt doesn’t prescribe social behavior, it seems likely to give rise to all sorts of etiquette/social problems if widely used. The potentially negative social implications of the technology seem to outweigh the (non-obvious) advantages of using it.