Should you bring some Color into your life?

(or, Thoughts on recent, and future developments in location based services and social networking)

In the world of geeky correspondence on Twitter, Quora and tech blogs the last month has seen a lot of discussion about a new app called Color.

There are several reasons why Color is attracting so much attention:

  • It has a high profile team of already successful internet entrepreneurs
  • It has received financing (“$41m!”) from one of the most prominent venture capital firms, Sequoia Capital
  • It has an innovative, and potentially revolutionary approach to the “social graph” (the way in which social networks are built)
  • It is receiving very mixed reviews, from very negative to wildly popular

Color allows you to take photographs with your smartphone, and will share those photographs publicly with anyone nearby (regarding the privacy aspects, it’s really quite simple – if you don’t like that publicity, don’t use Color, at least not for the photos that you don’t want to share).

At the moment, that’s pretty much it. Simple, right? So why the fuss?

Some see Color as being the first step in a possible new Facebook ‘killer’ (the holy grail of venture capital investing currently, given Facebook’s increasing valuation), justifying the significant initial investment. Instead of having manually derived friend or follower lists (like Facebook, Twitter or Foursquare, for example), Color automatically (‘automagically’) determines for you what your social graph looks like – you see the photos of people who are nearby you and who are also using Color, and eventually, people who you are regularly nearby.

Whether you need (or want) this, depends on your interest in how you connect to your network – some prefer to limit themselves to classical physical connections, or perhaps also using one of the earliest social network tools, the telephone; others are already rapidly taking up use of Facebook, etc. At the moment Color seems to be mostly being used by geeks / early adopters, but there are indications that it could eventually hit the mainstream also.

There have however been plenty of new social networking apps, which after exciting announcements/launches, have eventually drifted, or are slowly drifting into obscurity. Color might join those, but there’s no doubt (in my mind) that the discussion around Color, and the innovations that the Color team have come up with will contribute to the development of the sector.

For example, check out these “questions” (and answers) on Quora:

Funnily, there are also many who hate Color – they say it is not user friendly, have difficulties using it, it has a confusing name (Colour?!), or find that once activated they find that there is nevertheless no-one nearby for them to connect to (at which point, as a social network tool, it is pretty much useless). These are all understandable – some say that Color was launched too early in its development cycle; others say that it depends on there being critical mass in groups willing to use it.

So, given these developments, where is the “social graph” going?

Automatic interactions between nearby users and ‘places’

I expect that eventually, whenever you come near a friend/colleague, or pass a location that you know, or frequently pass, your phone will (if the option is switched on) automatically register this.

From this you’ll know where you spend most of your time and who you are most often nearby, and for how long – whether you choose to share this data (or some part of it, perhaps anonymously) will allow friends, family, employers, or marketers to track you more closely and more specifically drive (and more relevant, improve the quality of) their interactions with you (perhaps social or professional).

As with Color, your social graph will automatically develop itself for you, based on who or what/where you are nearby.

You won’t need to always go into the app (Color, Facebook, Foursquare, etc.) to issue an update, take a photo or ‘check-in’ – your smartphone will automatically do this for you at the right time/place, in the ‘background’ while you are running different apps, such as music, playing a game, or speaking to someone using the telephone features (currently some smartphones limit the extent to which third party apps can run in the background, due to battery limitations and concerns regarding unauthorized access).

Do we really want people to know so much about us?

This is indeed a valid question, but it is not necessarily a new one: Credit card companies know what we like to buy; mobile telephone companies know where we are at any point in time; Supermarkets know what we eat, when we shop and whether we are healthy or not; Petrol stations know when and where we drive.

This data, collected via loyalty cards, mobile phones and non-cash payment solutions (credit cards, etc.), is used to improve the services offered to us (both to reduce costs and improve profitability of the vendor, but also to enhance the quality and competitiveness of the services).

So if so much data is already being collected, wouldn’t it make sense that these vendors produce apps to allow the customers (and providers of the data) with ways to undertake data-mining on this data? Of course, some credit card bills and bank statements can already be accessed online, or downloaded into accounting software, for further analysis.

Generally however, I’d love to be able to have more access to the data that is already collected about me. I’d use it to make better decisions about my purchases, as well as my lifestyle. A backward thinking company might be scared that this would put pressure on prices; a forward thinking company might see it as a better way to connect to its customers and a competitive advantage to be the first to offer this (eg, data from supermarket loyalty schemes).

And back to our own automatic social graph data, and whether we share the data held by us – that is a decision for each to make personally, but I see no issue with allowing consumers to make that choice themselves, giving flexibility (and transparency) as to how much, or how little data is shared (actually what Facebook is broadly doing with privacy settings today, despite the somewhat turbulent journey to this position).

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