Soon even your grandparents will know what a check-in is

Imagine you are at a restaurant with 20 people, both family members and friends. You pull out your smartphone and tell everybody that you quickly have to check-in. How many of the people around you would understand what it is that you are doing?

As we have written about before, the check-in has become the default way for people using mobile services such as foursquare, Gowalla, Brightkite or Loopt to tell the world where they are. Instead of the mobile phone monitoring their location automatically and publishing their whereabouts, users actively press the check-in button when they feel comfortable revealing their location.

But so far, these kind of location based apps have solely been an Early Adopter phenomenon, reaching only a few million people around the world (foursquare has less than 3 million users, Gowalla doesn’t even have 500.000 yet). Hence, the majority of people won’t associate the check-in term with web apps but rather with airports where checking in means leaving your luggage and getting your boarding pass.

Do the test: Ask your family, friends and colleagues what a check-in is. And then wait a year and do it again. You can be sure that the result will be significantly different. Why? Because Facebook, the world’s biggest social network with more than 500 million active users has recently launched a check-in feature called Facebook Places. At the end of last week the site started to roll-out the feature to users in the US, but we don’t expect it to take more than a few weeks or month to see the Places feature launching globally.

With Places, Facebook has finally done what many observers of the Internet for a long time have expected to happen: It has launched its own location service based around a check-in functionality. The feature works exactly as you would imagine: Depending on your coordinates you get a list of locations around you where you can check-in, or if the location does not exist yet you can add it. Every location has its own profile page which shows recent check-ins of other people.

Additionally, Facebook gives you an overview about where you friends are at the moment, making it much easier to meet up with some of your contacts who might be close to your current location.

By betting on the location trend, Facebook is bringing the concept of checking in and seeing where your friends are to the mainstream. So far, the biggest problem with the smaller services mentioned above is that not many people do use them, and for most users I know, the foursquare and Gowalla friends mainly consist of their Twitter peers, who not necessarily are their close friends. In fact, only very few of my “real” friends are using location based services, which means that I hardly benefit from the capabilities location based apps do offer in theory.

But I expect this to change, since almost all of my friends are on Facebook, and lots of them do own a smartphone. After having launched Places on a global scale, it won’t take too long until many of your closer friends will have tried the new feature, giving everyone new insights about favourite places and interesting locations. And since Facebook is providing existing location apps with a new API to integrate their functionality with Facebook Places, loyal foursquare or Gowalla users can continue to check-in with those services and will see their Facebook friends’ check-ins as well.

It’s for sure that Facebook embracing the check-in concept won’t be the final evolution step of location based services (background monitoring and automatic check-ins at favourite locations using Geofencing will become common in the future). But the move means that the whole idea of telling other’s where you are by using your mobile phone is brought to the masses, and the check-in as term will become as common as other expressions introduced by web services such as “to google” (which in several European languages is synonymously used for doing a web search) or “to poke”.

While we at Twingly can’t wait to try the new Facebook Places feature, it will be interesting to see how Facebook handles the inevitable privacy-related user backclash. While the possibility of telling all your friends where you for some users is reason enough to be concerned, Facebook didn’t make it easier for them by adding a potentially questionable feature which lets you check-in your Facebook friends (it’s required though that you have checked in at the same location). It’s possible to deactivate this feature but in best Facebook tradition the site made this process more complicated than necessary.

We’ll see if the feature will be abused by some who find it funny to check-in at some dubious location just to be able to tag their friends as well. It’s not impossible that Facebook might do some fine-tuning with Places before rolling it out globally. But in any case it’s only a matter of time until even your grandparents will understand what you mean when you tell them that you have to check-in.

/Martin Weigert

8 use cases for the realtime web

We recently wrote about how the realtime web will change the world. And even though we gave some examples of use cases, there are many more scenarios when people will benefit from the realtime web. So here is a certainly not complete list of use cases for the realtime web. Feel free to add more in the comments section.

1. Breaking news and background for media outlets
If something happens today somewhere on planet earth, it is often reported on Twitter first. Usually much earlier than newspapers and TV stations get to know about it. On the other hand, this information from alleged eye witnesses is not always completely reliable, and in general rather incomplete. So the realtime web is not replacing traditional news media, but it is helping them to gather first-hand information and to get a clue about which story could be worth reporting on.

2. Spreading important information
There might be situations when it could be necessary for governments, companies, organizations or citizens to spread a specific information quickly to a huge group of people (within a specific area or country) – just think about Chernobyl or the tsunami in Southeast Asia. The realtime web is the definite tool to make really important news spread like a virus, and that actually could save lives.

3. Organizing events
With the realtime web, people can organize themselves, arranging flash-mobs, spontaneous parties or demonstrations. Apart from the fun factor involved here, this can be a big advantage for non-democratic countries and those parts of the world without freedom of speech. As we have witnessed during the Iranian protests, the realtime web helped citizens to be a step ahead of the authorities and to steer a huge crowd of people.

4. Collective intelligence
The real time web allows for tapping into the collective brain of millions of users. It’s not uncommon on Twitter or Facebook that people ask their contacts/followers public questions about a good restaurant, mobile phone or museum. Or simply about something where they didn’t find the answer on Google. Thanks to the realtime web, there are always people out there listening, and the required information is never far away.

5. Crime prevention
Sometimes people on Twitter re-tweet announcements from either citizens or the police, searching for witnesses of a specific crime. The realtime web helps to spread this information, since it is not part of most user’s daily routine to check the press releases of their local police station.

Of course, the realtime web can also support getting eye witness reports on crimes that have been committed just a few minutes ago, so that people in the vicinity can both be especially careful but also pay attention to suspects. The final result of this could be a higher risk for criminals to get caught, which might prevent a few from actually committing a crime in the first place.

6. Market transparency
Go to Twingly Microblog search, enter the name of any product, and you get an list of people’s opinion about it. Customers use the tools of the realtime web to say what they think about brands and services. The results might not be sophisticated reviews like on specific websites made for product reviews, but aggregated and analysed based on technologies for sentiment analysis, the results can be very helpful for other’s and at least an additional source of information right before a planned purchase. Under the assumption that there are the right tools for extracting the relevant feedback from the stream of status updates, the realtime web can increase the transparency of markets.

7. Find people based on their locations
You can find users from a specific country or city by searching on a Social Network. But that doesn’t guarantee you that they are there right now. And it doesn’t tell you if they have been at a specific location in their city. With the upcoming combination of realtime elements and location features – that even Twitter is taking seriously now – it will be pretty easy to connect with people being at any given location anywhere in the world. So if you are interested in the tweets of someone who is in South Africa following the World Cup, that wouldn’t be a problem anymore. This will even come handy for journalists looking for somebody at the scene of an event to interview.

8. “Social” media
Everyone is speaking about “Social Media” referring to a million different things and tools, but in this specific context, what we mean is that the realtime web makes existing media and media channels become a social experience. Have you ever been on Twitter when there was a big sports event on TV (hard to avoid these worldcup days), or the final show of a popular music television for example? The realtime web enables viewers to comment with their smartphones or notebooks on what they are watching , to share their opinion with other’s and to make the watching experience become social, even though they are sitting in their homes many miles away from each other. With the soon to be launched Google TV project, this type of social media might become a really widespread phenomenon.

To see this in action, you can use Twingly Live to follow the hashtag or keyword of your favourite show, to get a realtime stream of Twitter updates from other viewers.

/Martin Weigert

Illustration: stock.xchng

The evolution of social networks

Social networks have been around for about 10 years. Yes, there were communities, forums and chat services before, but that’s not what people have in mind when they speak about social networks.

If you follow the evolution of network sites and the progress that today’s big players like Facebook, Google or Twitter are making, you can clearly see three different phases that the social networking world went through until today.

Let’s have a closer look at those three evolutionary steps of social networks:

Step 1: Walled Gardens
This first evolutionary step lasted pretty long, let’s say from the beginning of the new century until 2006/2007. In this phase many services evolved and started to woo users. It was during this period that many of the social sites appeared that later became huge, like Friendster (started in 2002), MySpace (started in 2003), Netlog (started in 2003), Hi5 (started in 2003) or Bebo (started in 2005). Even Facebook was founded during that first period, though it was open only to students of Harvard University students in the beginning.

The first evolutionary step was characterized by so called “Walled Gardens”, that means destinations which were totally separated from the outside web, with no interaction between the service and external websites. The competing sites aimed at getting as many registered users as possible to reach a critical mass. That was important to leverage “network effects”, which are necessary to reach exponential growth.

Even here in Sweden, a bunch of social networks launched during this first period which actually was initiated earlier than in most other countries. One reason for that was that Internet access became common in Sweden very early. Sites like LunarStorm or Playahead launched under different names already during the late 90s and became huge gathering places for mainly young Swedes around the turn of the millennium. Another big Swedish community, Bilddagboken, started a bit later, in 2004.

Step 2: Platforms
In May 2007 Facebook presented its developer platform. The social network which at that time had about 25 million users encouraged external services to become part of Facebook by launching applications within the platform. This led to something like a “gold rush” since each and every web service wanted to be present on Facebook.

The launch of the Facebook platform can be seen as the beginning of the second evolutionary step of social networks. Now every relevant site wanted to become a platform and to open up to external developers. That doesn’t mean that Walled Gardens had become history. No, they still existed, but at least they made it easier than before for others to leverage the user’s social graph. Thanks to an increasing number of API’s, it was even possible to export some of the content posted within a social network, like status updates which you c0uld access through external tools.

During this phase, every big player tried to open up and to embrace developers. Google launched its own platform initiative called OpenSocial, which aimed at standardizing applications so that a developer could push the same app into several participating social networks.

In 2006, there was a late comer to the social networking party: Twitter. Certainly you can argue if Twitter actually is a social network, and there obviously are some differences between Twitter and the rest of the sites mentioned in this article. But I don’t think the service should be absent from this analysis anyway.

Unlike most other sites which needed at least a few years to evolve into platforms, Twitter made this step almost instantly, in fall 2006. In fact even earlier than Facebook. As of that moment, developers were able to connect to the Twitter API and to create apps using the company’s infrastructure. Unlike Facebook, MySpace and other sites, Twitter’s approach was to provide only basic functionality and to let external apps do the rest – a strategy that seems to change a bit considering the recent acquisition of the popular iPhone app Tweetie and the launch of official apps for BlackBerry and Android.

While Swedish social networks were among the first ever, they struggled in competing with the increasingly popular and advanced international sites, losing their users to cooler, more international services, primarily to Facebook. LunarStorm has lost many of its active users, as well as Playahead that was closed down a few weeks ago. Still remaining on the Swedish market and pretty successful is Bilddagboken, which focuses on photos as its differentiation point. Bilddagboken is owned by the same company as LunarStorm.

Step 3: Embracing the web
The third evolutionary step is one that only a few dominating players were able to make. And it’s progressing at full speed right in front of our eyes. While the second phase was characterized by platforms on top of destinations that tried to appeal to as many external developers as possible, now the social networks want to encourage other websites to become a part of the platform outside of the networks own destination.

Again it was Facebook which initiated the third phase by launching Facebook Connect in late 2008. Facebook Connect made it possible for external sites to add basic Facebook features so that visitors could carry their Facebook social graph and Facebook identity around even when they were not on

Google’s answer was “Google Friend Connect“, which did more or less the same thing, but with the main difference that Google haven’t had the same success with the whole social networking thing. Still, thanks to Gmail and Google Talk, many people have lots of Google contacts, so it nevertheless fulfilled some people’s needs.

Another approach of several social networks with Google involved is XAuth, which also aims at giving users the option to log in to external websites with their identity of participating social networks.

Even Twitter is working on becoming more present around the web with its @anywhere platform. The new feature provides website owners with easier tools to integrate Twitter streams and Twitter functionality into their sites.

The third evolutionary step of social networks would not have been possible if those services wouldn’t have become a mass phenomenon, gathering hundreds of millions of people, making it almost impossible for content sites and other destinations not to connect with this audience. That’s the reason why they are now willing to integrate the social network’s features and to help it gather information about user behaviour and preferences on “foreign territory” – something that especially in the case of Facebook recently has led to a lot of criticism among open web advocates, Internet journalists and bloggers who see the risk that Facebook is pushing the boundaries too far. A conflict between the user’s and the social network’s interest is coming up and right now it’s impossible to anticipate how it will be solved.

(Foto: stock.xchng)

/Martin Weigert