By now, anyone with a Net connection is familiar with social networking sites such as MySpace.com. The only name that may score higher on the buzz-o-meter is Barack Obama. But the momentum has really just begun. Site operators are linking their services to cell phones, enabling users to stay in constant touch without booting up a PC. Social networking has "become so incredibly viral," says MySpace CEO Chris DeWolfe, "it makes all the sense in the world to port this to a mobile device."
Now more cell services are incorporating location-based satellite technology and maps from the likes of Navteq Corp., making all kinds of social applications possible. Services such as Dodgeball.com, Geocaching.com, and Plazes.com help satellite-linked users find restaurants, nightclubs, and movie theaters, and learn where friends in their network are congregating. All they need to do is press a few buttons to pull up the best route to a desired destination.
Consider the intimate world of Dodgeball, where tens of thousands of users in 22 major U.S. cities zap their locations to one another. Members of the Dodgeball community link up by typing in the name of a location--say, Wrigley Field or the Museum of Modern Art--and sending it to Dodge (36343). This will broadcast their whereabouts to others in their crowd. Dodgeball also automatically lets users know if a network buddy is within 10 blocks so they can arrange to meet spontaneously. "Young people really do count on that cell phone as a connecting device," says J. Kim Fennell, CEO of deCarta, whose software helps drive some of these applications.
Connections have flourished at Geocaching.com, where members immerse themselves in a digitally aided scavenger hunt. Relying on maps displayed on handheld devices, people search for items--everything from toy dolls to rare coins to business cards--in containers hidden in a park or other public space. (You can keep what you find, but be sure to leave something in its place.)
Millions in the U.S. and overseas have been pulled into these high-tech treasure hunts. Using their handheld mapping tools, they can track where others have been, and often they come together to share their experiences. About 700 geocachers congregated earlier this year at a Texas event dubbed "GeoWoodstock IV."
There are obvious risks to privacy on this frontier, so caution is clearly warranted. If and when MySpace enters the game, it may have to impose certain rules about how users locate one another. The key, DeWolfe says, "is to give the consumer the ability to opt in or opt out" of having his or her location revealed. Without that authorization, no retailer or advertiser--and maybe not even your friends--should be able to locate you.
By Roger O. Crockett