There’s been a lot of talk this week about Google’s new friend finding service, Latitude. As expected, there are two camps in the debate around the service: those people who think it’s awesome (they likely think everything else Google has ever done is awesome, too) and those who think Latitude is the perfect tool to enable stalkers to track down and eat their children and/or significant other.
I fall into neither camp.
Frankly, I think the stalking angle is totally overblown. Every story I’ve heard in the mainstream media about stalking via a mobile device goes something like this: A girl breaks up with her emo boyfriend. Said emo boyfriend suddenly knows everything his ex-girlfriend is doing. He says he can track her every move via her mobile phone, even when it’s off, so, like don’t try turning it off, because he can totally track her. And, you know, he just really loves her and everything and he’s not really stalking, because it’s love, right? He just wants to get back together!
The parents believe this is possible because they don’t really get the technology – they know it has GPS that can provide location so the leap to a kid who obviously understand technology better hacking into the phone isn’t a huge one. The kid believes it because, well, she’s a kid and probably thinks Law and Order is a pretty accurate slice-of-life-for-a-cop show.
More likely, the truth is he’s hiding in the bushes at night and showing up where she is because he’s physically stalking her with only the technology of a car or a bicycle. I spent the past three years with some ubersmart people making location aware mobile apps and I’ll tell ya, if they couldn’t hack into my phone or my phone’s network to locate me, the chance of your daughter’s obsessive techy boyfriend doing it is about zero. Seriously, play the lottery. You have better chances.
Then we have the “awesome camp” who think that friend finding, as an idea, is pretty darn cool. They see the possibilities of it. They imagine reliving college days always knowing where their friends are. They’d always know where the best party was because if their friends are all in the same place, its a good bet that’s a good party. That would be awesome.
There’s a million use cases they make just like that. My spouse wants to know where I am so s/he can start dinner at the correct time. My buddy wants to see if I’m at the bar yet, or if s/he has more time. My parents want to know if I’m home so they can call me and come see their grandchild. Etc. Etc. Etc.
The problem is that there is a big non-stalker related downside to always on. For all the millions of ways it makes life easier, at some point or another everyone – everyone – does something that they don’t want someone else to find out about. At the college party my girlfriend could be cheating on me. As I’m on my way home, I could be stopping to get a present for my wife right as she’s finding me and it could ruin the surprise (or worse, bring up pointless arguments). As for my parents, even though I’m home, I may not want them coming over.
In each case, once the friend finder bites me, everyone involved in the mishap has to make a decision about their future with the service. It comes down to this: what’s easier, changing habits so that I turn off the finder every time I do something “secret,” or just discontinuing the service? It’s a simple decision. Friend finders don’t really fulfill a need, they just make finding friends or loved ones a tad bit more convenient than making phone call, texting a message or emailing someone to collect the same information. And with Friend Finding, the risk of getting caught far outweighs the benefits, so I opt out. Once this happens to enough people, the critical mass (assuming there is one) disappears and the service as a whole becomes useless.
So, good for Google joining Loopt, Brightkite and Loki in the buddy finding parade. I predict the same fate for Latitude as their Dodgeball service – a shiny, seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time addition to the Google scrap heap.