Just How Personal Is Geosocial Networking Going To Get?

When Google plus Your World came out, many critics were underwhelmed. Although there were privacy concerns about personalized search results, the site’s social media elements were actually conservative considering the arsenal of tools available for finding people online. At a Social Media Week panel on Tuesday, pioneers in geosocial networking predicted a more sophisticated – and slightly creepy – future.

Computer analytics can already read entire sentences, like we saw with the command center at the Super Bowl, where tweets were monitored to help tourists find parking or to respond to emergencies. But the panelists at Tuesday’s event seemed to agree that such tools are, for the moment, half-baked. “I see huge potential,” said Gilad Lotan, vice president of research and development at Social Flow, “but there hasn’t been an ‘a-ha’ moment yet.” Social Flow scans Twitter and Facebook feeds for conversions, likes, shares, and subscribes to provide data on users that will help publishers know when and what to post for maximum exposure.

In this scenario, the site with the greatest potential for over-sharing is not Facebook, but Twitter. Because Twitter feeds and user profiles are public, tweets will play a large part in creating a person’s online persona, which is not a very complete picture for people who spend more time on other sites.

Stefan Weitz, director of search at Microsoft also noted that expertise is hard to establish online. Microsoft recently ventured into social search by incorporating expert blogs, videos, and content from discussion forums into display ads on Bing. Sparse data sets from other membership-based sites like Yelp make it difficult to come up with, say, reviews on restaurants from friends. The same would be true of advice given on community forums and comments posted to publications that don’t require a connection to a social site.

And there are limited means for understanding a person’s motivations for posting on a particular subject. Lotan said he became a top influencer on popcorn after somebody retweeted an offhand comment he made about the snack.

Added Brett Martin, founder and CEO of Sonar.me, “As we better understand people’s motivations for sharing, we’ll get better results.” His company’s mobile application uses a person’s publicly shared connections to locate friends, fellow alumni, and like-minded strangers nearby.

Now that geosocial tools can identify users by name, read their conversations, and connect them to the people around them in the real world, the Internet is starting to look like something out of the “Mission: Impossible” series. Imagine walking down the street and knowing the names of all the people within a two-block radius who have martial arts training. And the technology goes a step further than check-in services like Foursquare because the computer, not just the user, can tell how two people are connected.

Attitudes about combining social analytics and geolocation seem to have shifted just in the last year. In an interview with our sister blog FishbowlNY, entrepreneur Jack Smith described a very different intent behind his social analytics platform, Solariat.

“People on social media are looking for information,” Smith said. Solariat wouldn’t use geolocation to target consumers, nor would it try to collect personal information to determine its market. “We don’t want to know who says what,” Smith explained, “we only want to know what’s being said.”

Not mentioned in the panel, but worth a look, is the use of photographs in geosocial networking. Facebook already has facial recognition software in the works to identify friends in pictures before they are tagged. Right now on Google plus Your World, the only pictures that come up are profile pictures and public photo albums in which the user has been tagged. Users have very little control over which pictures of them end up online when they are not the ones doing the posting. What would happen if photos were pulled from all over the Web and tagged automatically?

It may be a stretch, but tech companies are fond of saying that it is easier to beg forgiveness than to ask for permission. And perfecting the technology is just a matter of time.  “Remember Google Translate eight years ago?” said Martin. “It was terrible.” And look at it now.

Image by Cienpies Design via Shutterstock.

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