Emerging social media applications focused on location recognition are trying to change the way we see the world. These tools are being used increasingly to mine data from consumers, provide real-time updates of important happenings, take us to events we want to see and in some cases to keep us safe.
Apple iPhone users, for example, may have noticed the emphasis on location technology during the upgrade to iOS7. Thousands of App Store applications were required to request permission of the user's location before publicly publishing posts.
It's most prevalent in navigation apps, however social media giants like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram rely on location tagging to connect users to each other and to nearby places.
"The most pervasive digital technology on the planet is a mobile device," said
Jason Farman, a University of Maryland professor and social/mobile media researcher.
"One of the things that these devices do better than other technologies in this era is utilize our location in meaningful ways. I think this will be one of the key features of mobile media in the future—taking our location and making it meaningful."
In 2012, there were 6.8 billion mobile phone subscriptions globally—a bounding leap from the 5.9 billion mobile subscriptions in 2011, Farman said.
"The move away from thinking about this real-slash-virtual divide, it doesn't hold up very well. This idea that the real world and the virtual world are separate spaces, that's not the way we're practicing these things," Farman said.
"We are shifting our understanding of how we practice social intimacy," he continued.
Two American social media companies are at the forefront of harnessing geo-tagging—pinpointing the location of social media users—and geo-fencing, which can narrow the search field of social media activity to incredibly precise boundaries. The two companies are
Each company taps into location recognition technology to bring different user experiences to consumers and institutions.
Phil Harris, CEO of Geofeedia, confirmed the global penetration of smartphones and social media applications created the need for clarity in a very noisy social spectrum of hashtags, tweets, updates, tags, lens filters and on-scene Web video.
"People want to know not only the who, the what and the when, but now the where," Harris said.
Geofeedia, launched in 2011, maintains a series of patents that allow the desktop and mobile developer to pinpoint and track social media posts from Twitter, Instagram, Google's Picasa, Flickr and YouTube in a customized space.
"Location is the next most important layer to the social media world, because it provides context," Harris said.
Geofeedia is only available to "qualified" government institutions, businesses and news operations, Harris said.
"Today you can't just come to Geofeedia with a credit card," Harris said.
"With any new technology there is going to be disruption, confusion or a learning curve," Harris said of the company's decision to vet its clients. "We align ourselves with responsible organizations."
Businesses are using Geofeedia for market research, mining data from publicly available information posted by users in real-time.
"Law enforcement agencies are helping securing our schools and monitor events and respond to public safety issues," Harris said. "I can see a world where 911 services says send a tweet in your location."
"No one was hashtagging #noflooding here," Harris joked. (Hashtagging is the practice of adding a "#" before a word or a phrase to filter conversations. Ex. #SuperBowl2013, #Ravens, etc)
Banjo is another social media giant with close to 6 million users across the globe. Banjo, unlike Geofeedia, is marketed to consumers and average smartphone users. It focuses on the experience of virtually attending events, sports or breaking news scenes.
Banjo founder and CEO Damien Patton touts that his app has the most sophisticated geo-fencing capabilities in the world. He claims that a digital perimeter has been drawn around "every event venue," allowing Banjo users the experience of going to the Super Bowl through their iPad, for example.
"Before you know about it, we know about it," Patton said. "We're listening to everything, to every second of every day.
"Any one social network can have trending … but it takes a while to start trending," he continued. "We don't need a big spike for things to be trending. We use location. We use every single social network source that there is and once you start to see a pattern, even if it's very, very small, we get a notification about it."
The app itself has amassed an impressive list of innovation awards and in February announced a partnership with Google to introduce Google+ integration.
Unlike Geofeedia, Banjo works across all social media platforms and does not require an opt-in of location services being activated on a smartphone.
Patton calls the technology "non-geo geo."
"It's a horrible name, I know. But that's what we call it internally," Patton said.
"And we can make [social media posts geographically accurate] with 100 percent accuracy. I can't tell you how we do it or why, but you'll see it online," Patton said.
It begs the question of social media privacy and if there even is such a thing.
"You have to treat privacy as a form of currency," Patton said. "You're not giving up any of your privacy. We never out your location. We never show where you are. What you're able to do is discover people's posts."
The tradeoff is in the value of seeing what's happening at popular or trending events like Austin City Limits or Sunday Night Football.
"Twitter's biggest problem is noise and getting through the clutter," Patton said. "You have to make it interesting."
Banjo was named Editor's Choice for Android Apps on Google Play in 2013.
But, the success in content discovery applications pinged to location have seen a rise and sharp fall over the years, Farman said.
"A lot of these locations space services are going defunct," Farman said.
Gowalla for example, was purchased by Facebook in Dec. 2011 for an undisclosed amount of money, only to shut down by March 2012, Farman offered as an example.
Regardless, Farman believes, "people will increasingly see location as an important element of their social media use.
"What I saw in my own use was that some of the most compelling apps were the ones that took location and made it meaningful," Farman said. "That allowed our interactions with the spaces that we moved through to become really context-rich. They took our location and let us know important facts about location from even the most mundane thing like the cheapest gas in your area or restaurant reviews to really significant things like different histories of the location or the ways that a space could be understood."