On location

It’s been a little quiet on the blogging front the last month or so. Lots of reasons – a big move to the big smoke, living in the cloud while waiting for broadband and wifi internet to be installed at home, and most of all a job where instead of writing about all the awesome things we should be doing online, I’m getting to actually make them happen.

It’s an exceptionally good feeling, and at the end of most days I’m all idea-ed out – I’ve been throwing myself into getting to know what we’ve got at Citywire, and finding ways to start improving some of the most obvious things. New share buttons have started appearing on part of our site; our journalists are starting to tweet under their own names while I take over our group account, and we have the very lean and early beginnings of a Facebook page. On top of that there’s been a lot of work behind the scenes, nitty gritty nuts and bolts to bring us better data on how well what we’re doing works.

Getting to know London, especially in the absence of a broadband connection, has changed my media and browsing habits enormously. For more than three weeks we didn’t have a TV aerial at home, so there was no TV news for me – and I didn’t miss it, thanks to Twitter. I didn’t go to any one site in particular for my news – the things I was interested in have found me. Perfect.

Newspapers are free here, as long as you commute. I read more papers voluntarily than I ever have – the morning Metro and the Evening Standard, cover to cover, on the train and the Tube. That fills ms in on anything Twitter hasn’t told me – they’re not my main source of news, but they fill in the gaps, and if they’re not there I don’t miss them. I see hundreds of people reading these papers every day – far more than I ever did in Norwich. The free model works, so long as you have your distribution sorted.

I use apps more than browsers, especially Twitter and Reeder. I still use mobile more than static, because much of the time I don’t know where I am or what’s near me. And that’s been a big surprise for me. Location based services have been a godsend.

I know, I know. Foursquare has a problem with checkin fatigue and meaningless badges that reward grind and a game mechanic that isn’t really a game. Gowalla is a loot quest at best, and even with trips and items its fundamental mechanic isn’t entirely satisfying. Facebook Places is stuffed with privacy issues. There’s a study out that shows the number of Americans using location services is small – 4%, and dropping. And until I moved cities, I was one of those who tried for a while and then stopped bothering.

But then I moved, and suddenly instead of knowing my home city inside out and backward, I didn’t know where anything was, or who anyone was, or where to go for a pint of decent ale or a good cup of coffee. It’s an incredible, dislocating feeling, moving to a new city and especially London, and I’m lucky to have my husband with me through the upheaval. But now there’s a layer of information on top of the city streets that just wasn’t there six years ago, the last time I made a move like this. And that, for me, has value.

So being able to find a decent restaurant or a pub from my phone is not only good, but helps me feel a little more welcome, a little more embedded in my new community. What’s better is the added layers of information that some social networks are building on top of location data. Untappd tells me where I can get a well-kept pint of London Pride. The Foodspotting community is perhaps a little richer than me – I’ve looked at some pictures of incredible food but not yet used it to eat – but a service like Rate My Takeaway (complete with hygiene scores and a price list) would be useful regularly.

For that matter, location based classifieds would be pretty handy too. A system of virtual newsagents’ windows where I might be able to pick up a second-hand sofa locally, for instance. So would a deal-finder that would let the local supermarkets – and corner shops, and grocers, and butchers, and so on – compete for my weekly shop by telling me what was on offer today. Not online deals, but real ones. And I could use a “what’s happening” app that tells me, right now, what’s happening at the places I’ve scoped out that might get me mixing and mingling – not reviews afterwards, but upcoming and current events. (I’ve just downloaded the Time Out app – we’ll see if that does the trick.) Not games, but services – not fun, but useful.

Digital people talk about how newspapers missed the boat on digitising classified ads. I don’t know whether location is another space where traditional media is missing the boat – given the low take-up numbers it’s possible there isn’t a boat to miss. But I wonder if the numbers are down to the fact that location services, Foursquare in particular, are still creating an ecosystem, laying the foundations for a whole world of mobile information layers that could, in the end, be a profitable and useful space.