Natasha Lomas provides analysis on proximity social networking and urges us to rethink the role of location knowledge in our lives.

Turn back the dial to 2009, and proximity social networking was buzzing, thanks to the launch of Google Latitude and the hype and oxygen burning around check-in services like Foursquare and Gowalla. Such services promised that we were all going to be broadcasting our location to friends — and even strangers — so that life could be one big serendipitous cool-tastic, gamified hook up.

Now, in 2013, it has to be said that the grand location-based vision of Latitude et al hasn’t happened. Not in the form originally envisaged anyway. Earlier this month Google announced plans to retire Latitude (although it should be noted it’s folded check-ins in to Google+). Color gave up the ghost at the end of 2012. Meanwhile Foursquare has been fielding questions about check-in fatigue for years, and doing what it can to decrease check-in friction. And Facebook, which acquired Foursquare rival Gowalla in 2011, also retired its own check-in service, Places, back in 2011. The social network didn’t ditch location sharing entirely, rather it amalgamated it into general status updates as a tagging option, instead of having a break-out check-in service. Location became a feature, not a focus — and that’s as it should be.

Put another way, the fading glory of a manual check-in service like Foursquare doesn’t mean location-based services are going away. Au contraire. More and more location data is being generated automatically by the rise of mobile computing (and location sharing opt-ins), rendering the manual check-in redundant — a quaint throwback to a gentler time when users were asked to volunteer every data point, not asked once to share the lot.

But what about the standalone proximity social network concept itself? I ask because a French startup, Hunear, is preparing to have another go at the space. Here’s how the co-founders describe their nascent bite at the cherry, just launched in London in beta as a mobile app:

“Hunear is a social network (a website and a app) enabling users to join others at spontaneous meetings nearby. The concept of the application is simple : you choose what you want to do (eat, drink, visit the town, go to cinema…), the time that you would like to spend (from 30mn until 2 hours or more…), and then you create a “meeting” from these criteria. Then Hunear will instantly show you people who want to join you (or who created the same kind of event as you) that are nearby. Our concept is based on spontaneity and proximity.”

Asked why a proximity social network should work now, when it’s proved so difficult to get the concept to stick before, Gabriele concedes the startup does not have “a perfect answer”, and says it is very much experimenting and hoping to be steered and shaped by its beta users. One idea it has is to try to build traction by targeting the service at existing communities of people who may be more actively looking for ways to meet than the average city dweller — such as expatriate communities, or conference attendees hoping to network.

Who does proximity really appeal to? Niche communities with a very specific use case. Take the gay hook-up app Grindr. Proximity is an essential component of that network since it’s a lot more hassle to hook up with someone if they’re not nearby. Or, in another example, what if you have something large/heavy to sell and ideally want to find a nearby buyer? There are a fair few proximity retail apps cropping up, such as Shpock. Local buying and selling can be attractive for multiple reasons, with increased trust in a local transaction and reduced hassle since delivery is taken out of the loop. It’s still no guarantee these apps can become social networks in their own right but they at least have a shot at leveraging location to oil the wheels of local commerce.

Now you might think proximity would also appeal to networks of friends. But that’s a fallacy that the demise of Facebook Places and the fatigue around Foursquare check-ins underlines. Friends first and foremost talk to each other. They don’t wait to pop up on a nearness radar before deciding to meet. They arrange meetings via the continued communication that underpins the friendship. This is why mobile messaging apps can easily build social networks but proximity apps can’t easily build communities. Meeting places are moveable; it’s who you meet — not where or when you meet — that’s important to the majority.

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