The Future of Space and Time: Techies, Normals and the Location-Based Revolution

Danielle Nuzzo is a Digital Publicist at 360i. You can follow her on Twitter @dailynuzzo.


Wednesday’s panel on The Future of Space and Time engaged the audience to reflect on the past and envision the future.  The panel took place at the Conde Naste building in Times Square, and yes, I checked in to Foursquare as soon as I took my seat.

Moderator: John C. Abell, New York Bureau Chief for; @johncabell


  • Tony Jebara, Associate Professor Computer Science, Columbia University & Chief Scientist at Sense Networks
  • Chris Dixon, Co-founder, CEO at Hunch; @cdixon
  • Dennis Crowley, Founder and CEO of Foursquare; @dens

As we all know, Google can now follow your every move – does the thought make you cringe or cry out in glee?  Do you find the forced serendipity of Foursquare to be enchanting?  Or does opting-in to a service to let strangers know your exact location seem down-right creepy to you?  This panel discussed the evolution of lifecasting and how location-based services are going to shape the future of social media.

“We live in a world where if we forget our smart phone at home or if Twitter or Foursquare are down we have a nervous breakdown,” admitted Dennis Crowley to the panel’s audience.   He called out that 33 of us had already used Foursquare to check into the panel and another 40 were on their way from Grand Central.  Hmm, he might have a point…and we agree that location-based services are not going away anytime soon.

Panelists discuss location-based tech tools and services at Wednesdays Future of Space and Time event.
Panelists discuss location-based tech at Wednesday’s Future of Space and Time event.

Location-based services are here to stay

There is no more denying it. Twitter is impacting the way we communicate with the world, just like Foursquare is changing the way we socialize and connect with friends.  People are logging on to the internet to find out what their friends are up to on a Thursday night, as opposed to picking up the phone and calling them.

We trust Web sites like Yelp and Hunch to help us make informed decisions about life – where are the best vacation spots?  What are the best haircuts? What about the best vacation spots to get haircuts for someone with my personality?

The guests on Wednesday’s panel unequivocally and unanimously agreed: There’s no turning back now.  2010 will be the year that mobile takes control.  With a number of technologies already available, location-based services are only going to become more ubiquitous.  Dixon even mentioned a rumor that Facebook will be unveiling a geo-targeted check-in system within the next few months.  And we all know that when a “trend” finally hits Facebook, it’s here to stay.

Techies vs. Normals

Dixon divided the audience for users of these new technologies into two categories: techies and normals.  Techies are the early adopters, the ones that were using Foursquare last spring when it first launched.  The “normals” constitute the general population, or as he puts it, “the ones that use Facebook on a daily basis.”  While techies are already on the bandwagon with location-based services, it’s not yet the norm among the normals.  But when will it eventually trickle down and find its way into the mainstream?

The tipping point will be when average people (your aunt in Michigan as well as your colleague in Jakarta) start depending on the information that these location-based tools provide on a daily basis.  When these cool gadgets become a necessity and not just another iPhone app.  For instance, when was the last time you looked up a number in the Yellow Pages?  Can’t remember?  Well that is exactly their point.

Why do big companies miss “the next big thing?”

Even as Twitter is slowly becoming a part of the normals’ daily lives, there are still a lot of skeptics.  Just a few days ago, The New Yorker’s George Packer referred to Twitter as “crack for media addicts.”  The panelists debated why these new technologies continue to be dismissed by major corporations and mainstream media.

Dixon said it best, albeit bluntly: because they seem more like toys.  “One of the key characteristics of new disruptive technology is that it starts out looking like a toy. That’s so often why big companies ignore and dismiss it.”

However, once the normals start adopting and playing with these “toys” on a daily basis, big companies start paying attention.  By that point, the techies have usually moved on to something  else.  To illustrate this point, whenever Facebook was mentioned during the panel, the majority of the audience (myself included) rolled their eyes, anticipating a quick change of topic.

Opt-in vs. Passive Tracking and the Impact on Marketers

But why are people voluntarily telling strangers where they are, what they are doing and where they are headed next?  Perhaps it’s to better connect with friends.  Or maybe it’s to learn about nearby deals and not waste any time by heading to a lame party.

According to Crowley, it’s the opt-in nature of Foursquare that’s changing the game.  Passive tracking technologies, such as Google Latitude (formerly known as Dodgeball, which was also invented by Crowley and sold to Google in 2005) seem a bit more creepy and Big-Brotherish.

For marketers, this is a pivotal moment in time.  People are opting-in to let strangers (as well as companies) be aware of their every movement.  When individuals start voluntarily sharing personal information about their locations and activities, they are also signing themselves up to serve as personal ambassadors for the places they are going and for the services they are receiving.

Having access to this information as it comes directly from the horse’s mouth, as they are living it, is intrinsically more valuable for marketers than the standard practive of making assumptions that a certain demo might like a product or brand based on their web browsing habits.


End Note

Throughout the panel, one thing that Jebara mentioned kept resurfacing in my mind.  He explained that GPS technology is shrinking our hippocampus, the region of the brain that controls spatial navigation.  He informed us that the people with the largest hippocampuses in the world were London cabbies – as they exercise this muscle on a daily basis to help navigate those confusing and windy London streets.  So the more we use location-based services to help us “remember” the places we like to visit and the friends we like to see, the smaller our brain becomes.  But then again, it’s all part of human evolution, right?

Check out the full Twitter conversation about this panel with the hashtag: #smwwired.