Commentary

Can Location-Based Nets Woo Women with Privacy?

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Google has launched Latitude for the iPhone as a native iOS service, hoping to build on its already-substantial user base of nine million accessing the location-based network via Android. Even without the benefit of iPhone iOS compatibility, the total number of Latitude users has jumped 200% from one million in February 2009 to three million in May 2010, then another 200% to nine million today. That makes it bigger than Foursquare, with five million registered users, but smaller than Facebook Places, with about 30 million.

These may seem like big numbers -- "million" has such a delightful sound -- but the truth is they're actually pretty lackluster, considered as a proportion of the total Internet population. After almost two years on the market (including overseas) Latitude's nine million users represent less than a tenth of 1% of Google's roughly one billion users worldwide; Foursquare's five million users represent just 2.3% of the total U.S. Internet population of 220 million; and Facebook Places' 30 million represent just 5% of its total user base of 600 million worldwide.

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In November a new study from the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life project found that only 4% of American Internet users use location-based services, with just 1% using these services on any given day. And contained within this data was an even more telling finding: men outnumbered women 2-to-1 on location-based networks -- 6% of online men versus 3% of online women.

Indeed, this gender imbalance reflects one of the main obstacles to further growth for location-based networks. There's been a lot of discussion of safety and privacy concerns which discourage women from using location-based social networks more intensively. The location-based nets are clearly aware of these concerns, and are working to address them. For example, Google Latitude is equipped with a number of privacy measures: Users can choose to only share their location when they are active on the service, and they can also adjust the settings to share only city-level (as opposed to street-level) locations.

But there is a big psychological hurdle to overcome -- especially in view of well-publicized privacy breaches and missteps from Facebook and Google. Sure, the privacy measures and security features look good on paper, but will women trust place-based social networks to implement them fully and consistently?

There have been plenty of incidents which don't inspire confidence. Purposefully or not, Facebook allowed game partner Zynga to share user information with third-party advertisers, and Google inadvertently collected complete email addresses, URLs and passwords with its Streetview surveys. In September a Google engineer was fired for spying on chats by teenage users. And both Facebook and Google have an unfortunate habit of introducing new features without considering their possible privacy implications.

None of these transgressions may seem terribly dire -- until you consider them in the context of your own physical safety, which usually casts things in a very different light. Will women, in particular, be willing to overlook these companies' cavalier handling of privacy issues in the past, when so much is at stake?

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