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Ephemeral Location Sharing

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Wednesday, January 23rd 2013
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A group of social media apps debuted in 2012 which allow messages that “time-out” after a short period, leaving no trace. One app had over one billion messages sent in six months. Executive Editor Adena Schutzberg asks, do we need a location sharing app like that?

Late in 2012, Facebook introduced a new communication tool for its social network. Poke, as it is called, allows users to send each other text, pictures or video messages of what’s going on now. That’s not news, but what is news is that those messages disappear after a short time (seconds, but in fact details may linger). The app solved the problem of sending information that Mom, and perhaps some future employer, should never see. The response to the new app was quizzical at best, at least to those over 30 years old. The upshot, however, was quite a bit of good press for a non-Facebook app, Snapchat, that does roughly the same thing.

This idea of disappearing messages reminded me of the “this tape will self-destruct in five seconds” from the old “Mission: Impossible” TV show of the 1970s. Clearly, there’s nothing new under the sun.

What about a geographic implementation of Poke and Snapchat? With all the concerns about privacy and long-term storage of location information, why is there not a disposable location message service?

There is, sort of. Glympse is the closest implementation to what I’m imagining. Glympse puts the sender’s changing location on a map that’s accessible to the recipient for a defined time period. The recipient sees a history, too: “...we also display a trail of the last 10 minutes of where you've been.”

Glympse offers a graphic interface to set the time a location is shared.

So, Glympse is not a “point” implementation, at this time, but rather a potentially hours-long challenge of battery use and information management - up to four hours at a go. You can even extend Glympse beyond four hours (like putting money in the parking meter), something you can’t do with Poke or Snapchat. The latest update (Dec 2012; it launched in 2009) prompted some reviews describing the interface as cluttered and a bit confusing as more features are added.

My sense is that most people would, by default, not share their location during any given year of their lives. Still, on a few occasions, such as when the car gets a flat on the highway or when you are lost on the way to ski cabin, it would be very valuable to send just a point location. The recipient would have to capture the data in order to act on it before it disappeared. Worst case, the sender could resend it, I suppose. But, the sender could feel confident, as perhaps Snapchat users do, that the data are safely destroyed.

How would a provider of such an infrequently used service make money? Glympse is free; early discussions about the company suggested an advertising-based business model, but that has not developed yet. So, how would my ephemeral location sharing app make money? Licensing.

I would love to have my auto club have the service built into its app. So, when I login to report I need aid, I could safely send a timed-to-disappear location for dispatch/responder eyes only. I would be more likely to share a one off, disappearing location to brands I interact with in multiple locations: my gym, my nationwide coffee shop, etc.

The idea of Poke and Snapchat, and my proposed ephemeral location sharing have one thing in common: Today’s information/communication is fleeting. For much of human history we worried about the permanence of the drawn picture, the written word and the electronic webpage. Now, perhaps, we are far more interested in information’s impermanence. 

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