A number of apps now use geolocation as a means of fostering socialising. Smartphones can serve as a tracker, allowing social links to be formed instantly with other users in the area.

Social Networks: Ephemeral Proximity-Based Links the Next Big Thing?

Geolocation in traditional social networks is based on contextualised alerts sent out to your online community. Foursquare is a good example of the kind of mobile app which enables you to announce your whereabouts to your community of friends irrespective of where they are currently located. So why not take this experience the other way round and instead of focusing the experience on friends happening to be, or coming together, at a given location, create an instant ephemeral community based on where you and others happen to be by tracking the proximity of their smartphone or other mobile device? This is the idea of Gerry Colyer, inventor of Spiral, a brand new app-based social network for people who find themselves together in the same place. A number of other tech startups also seem to have rebelled against the notion that membership of a saturated social network or known reciprocal interests are the only basis for people to form new relationships. The emerging location-based social networks draw on a range of technologies from iBeacons to geolocation – which is still the most appealing as it enables you to vary the spatial range within which you want your conversation to take place.

Socialising based on current proximity

The Spiral app lets you set the geographical range within which you wish to connect with other people. You can tune in to conversations already taking place within this area, in the same way you would follow a Twitter flow. Spiral uses geolocation as the social filter. Your Spiral community does not consist of existing friends, instead it is your current location that puts you in touch with a community of users who are in the neighbourhood at a given moment.  Meanwhile France-based Happn suggests that the traditional ‘dating’ function of social networks could also be really shaken up by the proximity factor. The Happn functionality is based on communication between smartphones, which leave a sort of digital trace in the physical space. The app lists all the devices whose paths have crossed in one day and makes a list of people who might interest the user. The main variable of the algorithm used to classify people is the frequency with which their devices cross.  People you come across on a daily basis and might bump into will quickly climb the list up the list of people who ‘match’ you.  

Ephemeral can be fun!

However, just because a social relationship is created on the basis of the people being physically close by does not necessarily mean it will be less valuable. “We have nothing against temporary social interaction. People may meet for a spontaneous game of baseball and have fun without necessarily wanting to get together another time,” explained Gerry Colyer. And conversations grounded in a given geographical area may not be all that ephemeral.  App users can trace back past conversations, as they are constructed in the form of threads which can be retrieved.  So it seems that having focused for so long on getting people from faraway places together virtually, the social networks could now be going through a period of ‘re-spatialisation’. Basically these recent apps, using a range of technologies and approaches, offer a social experience that centres on a user’s relationship with people in his/her close vicinity.  Social networks can thus become a useful tool for linking up socially isolated individuals who happen to be physically close to each other – for lectures, concerts, or classes. Used like this, a social network will no longer be a way to meet strangers from faraway places but will serve as an interface between people and the space around them.

By Simon Guigue