Tonight I stumbled on Jyri Zengeström’s 2005 essay on why some social networks work, and others don’t. He argues that sustainable networks must be built around objects (“object-centered sociality”) like photos (Flickr) links (delicious) and events – EVDB,, evnt) — not people.

He then points out there’s not successful network around places, even though people like to talk about places, because we don’t have “a digital camera for location” – basically an easy way to capture location. Here’s that piece of the essay:

Last but not least, we can use the object-centered sociality theory to identify new objects that are potentially suitable for social networking services. Take the notion of place, for example. Annotating places is a new practice for which there is clearly a need, but for which there is no successful service at the moment because the technology for capturing one’s location is not quite yet cheap enough, reliable enough, and easy enough to use. In other words, to get a ‘Flickr for maps‘ we first need a ‘digital camera for location.’

Remember this was written in 2005. Since then:

  • Digital camera for location = mobile phone
  • Successful service to annotate places = Foursquare

Matt Jones, of Dopplr and BERG London fame, wrote a post on location-based services in 2009 to which I often return. He includes a drawing of a lightcone with an overlay to explain how he was thinking about the world in Feburary 2009 (ish.) He describes Dopplr as being about the hereish and nowish – with a certain amount of fuzziness to both dimensions.

[Broadcasting future intention] still has me thinking that sharing your precise whereabouts – where you are right now, has limited value … By concentrating on the future lightcone, sharing one’s intentions and surfacing the potential coincidences, you have enough information to make the most of them – perhaps changing plans slightly in order to maximise your overlap with a friend or colleague. It’s about wiggling that top lightcone around based on information you wouldn’t normally have in order to make the most of your time – at the grain of spacetime Dopplr operates at.

Read Matt’s entire post and the Flickr thread of the lightcone to get the nuance. There is much nuance, and I haven’t done either the post or the thread justice.

Taking Jyri and Matt’s posts together — what if Foursquare and other location-based services aren’t about broadcasting your location so much as annotating the places you know and would like to know? Can we put to rest the notion that broadcasting is inherently valuable?

There’s much more I should unpack here, but to start: I believe the broadcasting that happens on Foursquare and similar services comes with a cost/benefit tradeoff, with the costs starting with the potential for awkward encounters (“oh, you saw I was in the neighborhood and stopped by my date? How … nice?”) and the benefits starting with the ability to export our annotations on the past – as well as those of our friends – onto the future. Perhaps broadcasting is only the mechanism, not the message.