Dear Lifehacker, Some of my friends use Foursquare and swear by it, and others use Yelp and check in to places. I have other friends who are sad that Latitude is going away. What's with all of these social location services? Is there any good reason to use them? Don't they just give away your privacy? Sincerely, Checked Out
Dear Checked Out, There are definitely two sides to this. For some people, social location services are never worth the possible benefits they could provide. Giving up your physical location is just too much to ask for some people. On the other hand, there are some great uses for social location services that go beyond collecting points and badges to show people how outgoing you are. Here are some real examples.
The Benefits Location Services Can Provide
When you think of location services, you may initially think of things like Foursquare or Facebook check-ins. Those are great examples, but they're hardly alone, and putting aside any narcissistic need to tell people where they are at all times, many people who use those services do so for more than just fictional points. Here are some benefits many of these services offer:
Discounts and Promotions for Check-Ins and Frequent Visitors
Probably the first bonus that comes to most people's minds are the check-in discounts that many restaurants, cafes and retailers offer to people who stop in and check-in on Foursquare. A local bar near me offers a free round for every third check-in (which encourages you to come back), and if you check in frequently enough to become the "mayor" of the establishment, you get free food every time you stop in. It's been a few years since Foursquare check-ins and mayorships were pop culture topics, but the perks you get for using the service are still there, and they have grown in some cases.
Tips and Photos for Places You've Never Been
There are plenty of productive ways to use location-based services, but some of the best tips involve getting information or access to services you would otherwise have to pay for or struggle to get. For example, Foursquare and Yelp are great for getting Wi-Fi passwords at local cafes, restaurants and airports. If it's not internet access you're looking for, Foursquare, Yelp, Google Local and other location-based services almost always feature photos and tips from people who have been to the location, so you can see the inside before you go, check out the atmosphere, find out about something good to try, or just get the general sentiment of a place without having to set foot there. Reviews are one thing -- their usefulness is definitely debatable -- but you can't put a price on being able to check out the inside of a restaurant to find out it's a dive before you go, or real photos of guest rooms in a hotel before you book a room there. Plus, Yelp is good about letting you know if a review was left by someone who actually checked in to the location at least once.
An Auto-Updating Personal "Life Log"
This one appeals to fans of the quantified self, or the idea that by translating as much of your activities and habits as possible into data, you can review your activities, choices and behaviours objectively, and make decisions about how to improve your life. Life-logging lets you keep a running list of the places you've visited, who you were there with (if your friends use the same service), and if you add photos and tips, what you did. Whether you want to keep a tally for nostalgia purposes or you actually want to use the data for something, most location-based social networks let you keep your check-ins and history completely private so you can look through it when you want to.
A Tool to Find Friends or Let Loved Ones Know Where You Are
If you're on a long road trip or just far away from home, a good location-based service can give you a way to tell loved ones that you're on your way, where you are or that you arrived at your destination safely. Google Latitude used to be the king of these services, but it's shutting down on August 9. Latitude let you share your location whenever you wanted with as many (or as few) people you wanted. If you're looking for alternatives, check out Glympse, a great tool for sharing your location privately in real time with just the people you want to see it. Foursquare can do a lot of the same things, although it won't track your exact position. You can, however, check in to places and share your location with others.
There are lots of good reasons to share your location, whether you're sharing it with one or two people who are close to you, checking in with family when you're away from home, or just creating a database of your own movements and activities for future use, the data can be valuable -- and not just to the networks that you're using.
Practise Good Location-Sharing Etiquette and Protect Your Privacy
If you do decide to use networks like Foursquare, Yelp or Google Local, make sure you do so considerately and try not to annoy your friends. Practising good etiquette also has the bonus of protecting your privacy -- if your check-ins and shares are personal and limited to your account, you don't have to worry about people using your backlog of check-ins to find out when you're away from home so they can rob you, for example.
If you're using FourSquare, follow these instructions to keep your check-ins private, and make sure you limit your check-ins and location history to people you're friends with (and only add friends you trust with that information). Get familiar with the privacy settings on whatever network you choose, and make sure your friends can't check you in, defeating the purpose of privacy settings entirely. Depending on the services and apps you choose, you can have it both ways -- you can keep some measure of privacy intact while you stay in touch with friends or fill out your travel diary automatically.