As wary and worried as Americans appear to be about ebbing electronic privacy and the sweeping surveillance capabilities of the government, when it comes to sharing their location on their smartphones, most people know exactly where they stand.
A recent Pew study showed that nine in 10 smartphone users use location services, and likely leave them on. Ninety percent. Turns out we are perfectly cool with our phones knowing precisely where we are — especially when we don’t.
But location services go beyond just powering the apps that guide us from Hyde Park to Chelsea. Location tools can alert you when friends (or “friends”) check in at the pho place down the block, or ping you when those shoes you like are within striking/swiping distance, or help you track down a Pikachu, or even draft a Billy-esque cartographic record of your jogging history, so you can show all of us on Facebook that you’ve been jogging again. (We know.)
Like most of the Internet’s greatest conveniences — from using a credit card online, to agreeing to meet a total stranger based on a profile, to getting a ride home in someone’s Altima after too much green beer — the initial resistance to location sharing eventually gave way to something more like dependence.
So it is with the latest update to Google Maps, which adds a feature that has put the same Rockwell song in the heads of privacy advocates and casual users alike. A new menu feature in Maps allows you to share your real-time location with selected users across Android, iOS, mobile web, and desktop platforms.
The idea is never again having to answer the question, “Where u at?” When you opt to share your location with select contacts through Maps, you also designate a timeframe for that sharing window. (The app offers regular reminders of your sharing status.) The next time you’re stuck waiting for your table of six to show up, you can track the stragglers (and assure the hostess) as they inch across a live map like tiny human Ubers.
Live location sharing tools already exist tucked into apps like iMessage and Facebook, but putting it in the location-driven context of Google Maps, as well as in the hands of its billion-plus users, could upgrade it to the commonplace.
Google has been tinkering with this kind of crossover between location sharing and social networking for a while. It acquired an early SMS-based service called Dodgeball in 2005 (that would respond to texted locations with nearby points of interest); that evolved into Google Latitude, an early Maps-based service that could share location and archive a history; that was then folded into its endlessly flagging flagship social network Google+; and now the idea has reemerged, possibly triumphant, in its cleanest, and arguably most practical incarnation yet.
This is especially so for families, whom I could see easily adopting location sharing functions to track each other across scattered afterschool activities or during visits to crowded theme parks. Parents wary of leaving kids at home for a weekend might find some relief in a pair of brother/sister icons peacefully hovering over the house (for where they go, so go their phones).
Google unofficially enters an existing field of family tracking apps like Life360’s Family Locator, and more beefed-up security options like SecureTeen (which also blocks unwanted apps and content) and Teensafe (which also displays their incoming texts, calls), but even with Google’s own launch of the standalone Trusted Contacts app, it’d be wrong to assume the family safety market is something the tech giant is looking to dominate.
More likely, this newly tilled social aspect of location sharing is among the richest turf for high-value data mining.
For advertisers and analysts, the relationships between friends and families find new articulations in the wild tangles of our physical locations. From a marketing standpoint, where we are in relation to each other could soon be just as valuable as who we are in relation to each other, if not more.
That is, Maps sure does make it easy to see where we all are, but this being Google, it’s anybody’s guess where this is all going.Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.