Hyperlocal social networking: iPhone 3G may be the trigger

If Facebook, MySpace and Twitter do it right, there may not be much room in the hyperlocal mobile social networking market for niche players such as Whrrl and Loopt.
Written by Jennifer Leggio, Contributor

Apple announced this morning that it sold more than 1 million iPhone 3Gs over the weekend. Mashable reported today that there have been upwards of 10 million downloads of these applications since the App Store opened on Thursday.

This is great news for Apple, its fans and gadget geeks. However, in sinking my teeth into how using iPhone 3G as a platform could deeply impact social networking, I scheduled a little phone brainstorm with Adam Ostrow, editor in chief of Mashable.

Ostrow and I discussed how the new applications and iPhone 3G features could create even more sophisticated hyperlocal mobile social networking. And, my take on it is if the big social networking players (i.e. Facebook, MySpace and Twitter) do it right, there may not be much room for some of the niche location-based players.

Think about it. Two of the big iPhone application announcements centered on location-based social networking sites Loopt and Whrrl. Both allow users to determine the locations of their friends and both provide microblogging and hyperlocal reviews, all using a GPS-powered application.

Great! But there's a catch -- both applications also require that you and your friends download and install the Whrrl or Loopt applications on your mobile phones. This means joining yet another social network. Considering that there are multimillions of users are already frequenting Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, couldn't that imply that the major hyperlocal opportunity here lies with the incumbents? I think it does.

Ostrow says that the newly released MySpace and Facebook applications are much more sophisticated than the mobile-optimized Web sites. These applications integrate with any iPhone's camera, allowing for direct upload of pictures to user profiles. Facebook also integrates its chat into the new iPhone application.

So it's more than reasonable to state that a hyperlocal social networking boon could be on the horizon if Facebook, MySpace, or even Twitter, find a way to tie their services or their third-party applications into the GPS functionality of the iPhone 3G.

Here's why:

  • Most people and their friends already use these services. There's no new software to download, no evangelizing new tools to friends. It's a natural and automatic extension of, for one example, Facebook Mobile's status update.
  • The built-in status or feed options lend themselves well to automatic location sharing, whether it is an intersection or a restaurant, shop, salon, etc.
  • These status updates could easily connect to user-written reviews or even feed conversations about specific locations. (Note: Loopt already integrates with Yelp, but one still needs to install Loopt to benefit.)
  • These status updates could also be customized to either update all friends or to update only friends who are within a certain radius.
  • Finally, all but Twitter currently have integrated social ads. According to Ostrow, partnering with a hyperlocal advertising service such as AppLoop would create an improved mobile monetization model for the social networks, as well.

"I would think that's the direction they would want to go into. It's a niche as a service but could be very big as a feature of existing social networks," Ostrow said.

Some might say that since other phones, such as the BlackBerry, have had 3G features for some time and both Loopt and Whrrl have existing applications for these, this hyperlocal social networking explosion would've already happened. Again, the numbers don't lie. In March, M:Metrics (now comScore.com) [Update 7/14/2008 1:05 p.m.: Article incorrectly stated that M:Metrics was part of Compete.com] reported that the iPhone is the most popular device for accessing news and information on the mobile Web. From the report:

Usage of social networking is also popular among iPhone users: 49.7 percent accessed a social networking site in January, nearly twelve times the market average. Twenty percent of iPhone owners accessed Facebook, one of the first Web properties to customize its content for the iPhone, versus 1.5 percent of the total mobile market.

"The iPhone demographic is definitely better suited to these types of features," Ostrow said. "The more progressive Apple fans tend to be a lot of the heavy social networkers and they are probably more likely to use this stuff."

The reality of this could be a bit daunting to the firms who have invested significant dollars into the niche location-based social networking players, though it could also represent opportunity. It's possible that we'll see Facebook, MySpace, Twitter -- and maybe even FriendFeed -- step into this game and acquire the likes of Loopt and Whrrl and create a bit of much-needed social networking consolidation.

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