Tech: Are You Ready for Social Mapping?

When Nick Douglas, an aspiring comedy writer in San Francisco, wanted to avoid an "annoying" couple in his neighborhood, he turned to Dodgeball. Not the masochistic childhood game, but a mobile phone service that informs you of your friends' locations via text message. The couple, he says, were Dodgeball diehards and updated nearly all their errands and outings. "I was able to avoid them for weeks," says Douglas, 24.

While that may not be good news for his "friends," Douglas's reliance on his mobile phone to play hide-and-seek is a welcome development for social-mapping services like Dodgeball. When it launched in 2001, even the company's founder, Dennis Crowley, had a hard time describing exactly what Dodgeball was. "There was no concept of social networking, so I couldn't explain it to people," he says. Then along came Facebook and MySpace, both of which made social networking a daily habit for millions.

In the past two years, about half a dozen Dodgeball competitors have launched. Among them: Loopt, Brightkite and Whrrl. Data for these services are hard to come by, says Charles Golvin, an analyst at Forrester Research, but he estimates that users total "a few million in aggregate." But as the concept of privacy evolves and fewer people wince at the idea of broadcasting their random thoughts and exact locations, social networking will continue to gain in popularity.

Helping to advance the trend, are a raft of GPS-enabled cell phones, like the latest iPhone and Blackberry devices. For those with older phones, most services can grab data from nearby cell towers to triangulate your position. Registering as a user is typically free, though data and text messaging rates often apply. Once registered, you can invite friends, who have to approve your requests, just like on Facebook. When you're logged in, those friends—and their locations—appear on a zoomable Google Maps-like interface, often with short status updates along the lines of "Standing in line for 'The Dark Knight'." And as these services mature, expect to see an increasing number of location-based ads that try to lure you to nearby restaurants or stores.

Dodgeball was the first social-mapping company to market, and its founder, Crowley, says the service was born of selfish intent. "The idea was to help you hang out with different groups of friends all in one night. It makes my Tuesdays more fun," he says. Initially, a small but devoted following agreed. Dodgeball's early subscribers included influential bloggers from Gawker, and Douglas, who was also the founding editor of the Silicon Valley gossip blog Valleywag. The buzz led to Dodgeball's acquisition by Google in 2005. Since then, however, Google didn't grow the service as much as Crowley had hoped; he resigned from the company in April 2007.

Dodgeball's missteps have paved the way for competitors. Among the front runners is Loopt, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based company started by Sam Altman, a 23-year-old Stanford University dropout. While he won't give exact numbers, Altman says the company is growing rapidly and seeing increasing downloads. To secure its toehold, Loopt is working to integrate with Facebook, hoping to broaden its user base.

Brightkite is taking a different tack—it wants to help strangers meet one another. Brady Becker, Brightkite's founder, says it's all about "creating serendipitous encounters." But Becker doesn't want to leave such encounters to chance alone, "We can actually determine if you and another user are going to the same concerts or other places, and we can say, 'You might want to meet [each other]'." That potentially makes the service appealing to an entirely different type of person, one who isn't afraid of using technology as a catalyst for semi-random social encounters.

But what's appealing to some may feel a little creepy to others. Most services are very sensitive to the privacy concerns their software raises (although anyone with serious qualms ought to be sure to read the fine print). All the services NEWSWEEK tried require users to press an "update status" button to reveal themselves, meaning your location won't be given away unless you expressly ask it to be. Some, like Loopt, allow users to limit which of their friends can see any given location update. Loopt also makes clear that it won't record users' comings and goings or past information that can identify them on to unwanted marketers or anyone outside their own self-selected social circle.

There are, of course, other things to be concerned about. Several services try to foster love connections—Dodgeball, for instance, allows users to list up to five crushes and will alert you when they're nearby, but though the feature has led to several real-life relationships, what happens when a couple calls it quits? "There's no consequence to saying, 'Yes, Ex-Girlfriend, I want you to be my Facebook friend'," says Crowley. "But when you do that same thing on Dodgeball, or any of these mobile social services, you're potentially broadcasting your location to [your exes]. Whenever you build software, you have tech bugs; we used to call this [one] the 'ex-girlfriend bug.'"

As technologically advanced as they are, these services aren't foolproof. Douglas, the San Franciscan who spent weeks avoiding a pair of annoying friends through the power of Dodgeball, eventually hit a snafu. "One evening they didn't check in soon enough," he wrote. "These people were obsessive Dodgeballers and had checked in from a hair salon an hour earlier. I walked into my favorite Indian place, saw them, and only then felt my phone buzz [with their location update]. But then I had no choice but to sit through dinner with them."