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Is location-based social networking practical in spread-out Los Angeles?

Sure, you can beam your location through Foursquare, Loopt or Gowalla, but what's unanswered is whether anyone is likely to face a freeway for a meet-up.

May 23, 2010|By Zachary Pincus-Roth, Special to the Los Angeles Times

In early May, Mark Ghuneim was sitting in his hotel room at the Four Seasons near Beverly Hills. He discovered, via his iPhone's Foursquare app, that a friend was at the Echo, a concert venue in Echo Park about eight miles away, about to watch a concert. "I'm realizing that even if I got in my car and drove there right now, I'd miss the set," he said.

At that moment, Ghuneim did not find Foursquare as useful as some of its 1 million users do. Location-based services are the hot new form of social networking, allowing users to tell their friends where they are and what they think of that place. Loopt has more than 3 million users and MyTown has more than 2 million, while Twitter and Google also have location-based features.

But as Ghuneim discovered, these services might not be an ideal fit for Los Angeles, a city that has always had anxiety when it comes to locations. Angelenos tend to spend too much time in a location we don't want to be, driving to a location we're trying to reach, along with a bunch of other people fighting to do the same. The city's spread-out geography and car dependence might make it particularly inhospitable to the spontaneity that these services thrive on.

For the uninitiated, here's how location-based services work: When you arrive at, say, a bar, you can click on an app on your iPhone or other mobile device to "check in" at that bar. Your friends can see that you're there, so that they might come meet you. Sometimes people leave location-specific tips, such as "the mac and cheese is amazing" or "for stronger drinks, ask the bartender who looks like Kate Beckinsale." Some services make the process into a game — on Foursquare you can earn badges or become "mayor" of a place, while MyTown allows people to "buy" a place and collect virtual rent.

In Manhattan, when your friend has checked in to a bar, she's not more than a half-hour cab ride away at most and often as little as a 10-minute talk. In Los Angeles, the equivalent meet-up might involve a 45-minute drive through traffic, not to mention 10 more minutes looking for parking.

"On balance, stuff like this works better in walking cities," says Sam Altman, chief executive of Silicon Valley-based Loopt. "It's easier to have these spontaneous interactions."

Dennis Crowley, co-founder of Foursquare, told New York magazine that his service is "designed to work in New York, and then we kind of tweak it so it works everywhere else. I think it works best in really dense urban areas." (Crowley did not return e-mails asking for comment.)

Useful figures on which cities use these services the most are hard to come by, especially since some areas are simply more populated or tech-savvy than others. On the Austin, Texas-based Gowalla, which has a quarter of a million users, the cities with the most traffic are San Francisco, New York and Austin, with Los Angeles in the next tier, says Josh Williams, the company's chief executive. On Brightkite, which has 1.5 million monthly users, the top four cities are New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago in that order.

Back to Ghuneim, a married man in his 40s who heads a digital marketing agency and, through his frequent check-ins on Foursquare, has become "mayor" of places such as Book Soup in Los Angeles and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. One week after his failed concert outing in Los Angeles, where he was visiting on business, he was back in his West Village apartment. Three music-obsessed friends had checked in at the Mercury Lounge across town in the Lower East Side, where they were about to see the indie band the Joy Formidable. "The band is always going to be 10 minutes late — no problem," he recalls thinking. He hopped in a cab and made the set.

Lee Humphreys, an assistant professor of communication at Cornell University, has studied Dodgeball, a primitive predecessor to Foursquare that Crowley also helped found before selling it to Google, where it died out. Humphreys discovered that when your friend checks in to a location, there are three factors that determine whether you redirect your evening to meet them. One is timing — right after work is better than at, say, 11 a.m. The others are spatial proximity (how far you are) and travel time (the time that it takes to get there). "In L.A., during rush hour, travel time would really discourage redirection and meeting up," she says. "Having to go a mile or two in rush hour may be crazy."

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