Mobile, Local, Social, Invisible

Trying to get people to care about privacy is like trying to get people worked up about the amount of fiber in their diet. Everyone knows they should do something, but hardly anyone wants to go out of their way. That may change when mobile adds a new dimension to search. As mobile goes mainstream, where people search from matters as much as what they search for, and people will have to consider how much they'll want to share their mobile whereabouts.

People may not always want to be found. While consumers are starting to pay to use mobile social networks like Loopt that show where their friends are, soon people may pay to be invisible. It can be considered part of the natural evolution of mobile.

Much of the value of mobile search for consumers will come from local search queries -- searches for weather, maps, nearby lodging, restaurants, and in-stock products. Mobile social networks then build on the local component, allowing consumers to find friends wherever they go; such networks include Loopt, Brightkite, Dodgeball (acquired by Google), and Fireball (an emerging application using Yahoo's Fire Eagle and Upcoming). One of the most important features of these networks is their privacy settings.



For some great indicators of how important privacy is for mobile media, read a recent column by Steven Levy in Newsweek where he interviews Loopt's 23-year-old CEO Sam Altman. Levy asks, "What's the right number of people to share locations?" Altman estimates it's about 20, noting that he only has around 45 such contacts. Compare that to Facebook, where founder Mark Zuckerberg recently mentioned the average person has around 150 friends, while some encroach on the network's limit of 5,000 friends (Robert Scoble says even that limit's too low). I also experienced this firsthand when I signed up for BrightKite; I was excited to join the beta, but then I realized I didn't want that many people knowing where I was. Fortunately, with BrightKite, I could choose different levels of trust for each friend, which makes it easier to sort my real friends from my contacts.

There are many reasons why one would want to be invisible. A spouse may have reasons that are benevolent (out Mother's Day shopping) or illicit (consider the sign outside Eisenberg's Deli for "Sandwich #9"). Maybe someone just wants a night off from socializing. There are also more serious potential concerns, as Loopt's Altman describes in the interview, where a domestic violence victim might want to provide a false location, which is possible on networks like Loopt and Brightkite.

While searching for people is just one important function of mobile search, consumers may start seeking privacy controls over more of their mobile searches. Some of these controls will stem from the needs expressed above, as consumers won't want searches identified with specific locations. Some consumers may want to hide from location-triggered marketing messages.

When consumers are given control over one medium, they tend to want more of that in another. Consumers who love the on-demand nature of online video have come to expect that from television through digital video recorders, while the reverse migration holds true, too. Consumers who relished the National Do Not Call Registry have sought comparable escapes from unsolicited commercial direct mail and email. Similarly, consumers who can set their trusted friend settings for mobile social networking may start to seek settings for trusted sites. Some sites will get access to where a user is, while others will have to stay in the dark.

Even if consumers do become savvier about privacy thanks to mobile controls, the value of local search will ensure that consumers don't get too rigorous with their settings. Just ask anyone who's downloaded Google Maps on their phone if they'd ever go back to living without it. Yet there is a real possibility that consumers will come to think more about which sites they're trusting, so it's one more reason to build that reservoir of consumer trust as it becomes a more precious commodity.

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