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Brightkite: A bright future for mobile social networking?

With a slick interface, extensive privacy controls, and iPhone and Android apps on the way, Brightkite is the most promising location-based social network yet. That doesn't mean it's perfect by any means.

"Do you have a Brightkite invite yet?"

I was asked that question at least three times at last month's Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco, one of those gatherings where an invitation to the latest private-beta social network is a coveted status symbol. And at this iteration of the Web 2.0 Expo, the private beta of choice was Brightkite, a Denver-based start-up that uses both a Web interface and SMS text-messaging to log your location and broadcast it to your friends. It's a lot like a more feature-intensive version of Dodgeball, a mobile networking site that debuted in 2004 and was eventually acquired by Google before quietly fading into has-been status.

Since the demise of Dodgeball, location-based mobile networking is something that at least a dozen start-ups, not to mention big Valley projects like Yahoo's OneConnect and Fire Eagle, have tried to master. Nobody's been able to make it work, but they're going to keep trying: social networking on mobile phones still hasn't taken off beyond basic messaging, and it really won't until some company nails location awareness.

Brightkite, the latest to jump in the where-you-at pool, is slick, functional, and promising, but there are still plenty of issues. In fact, they're issues that the whole location-based networking industry has to consider.

Should it be open to everyone, even sacrificing features in the process?
"We've been working on (Brightkite) for just about over a year," founder Martin May, who has a background in local-search start-ups, told me in an interview. The end result, he said, is a location-based social network that anyone can use. Much like Dodgeball, Brightkite users utilize a number of SMS codes to send updates--addresses or business names--to the service. There are far more options than Dodgeball offers.

But when it comes to the mobile industry in the U.S., there's still a massive technology divide between the low and high ends of the market.

"Access to everyone" means that Brightkite's features are relatively simple: introduce a single crucial feature that isn't compatible with the cell phones that carriers give away for free, and it's immediately restricted. So it has to rely primarily on the most basic of cell phone functions: manual text-message updates. "Checking in" on Brightkite, like Dodgeball, requires forming a new texting habit, and not every bar-hopper is going to remember to keep updating his location into the early-morning hours. And because it offers more options than Dodgeball, there are more text-messaging codes to remember.

It's an approach opposite to that of Loopt, arguably the most talked-about location-based service since Dodgeball, which is restricted to compatible phones and participating carriers.

"If you look at the services where people have had to manually enter location and update them as they move around, they have not really taken off," Loopt co-founder Sam Altman said in an interview with CNET, hinting at Dodgeball. "To deliver the best experience, you know, live location, you've got to be able to partner with carriers in the U.S." The Loopt offering that Altman calls "live location" requires no manual updates and can automatically sense location through GPS technology. Several other location-based networking companies, like ULocate's software, also rely on GPS technology that not all cell phones have.

Brightkite's May argued that it's not worth restricting the user base in order to enable a slicker experience. "We believed from the get-go that if you're going to build a location-based social network, a social network means that all of your friends can be on it, and not just your friends that have really fancy devices or that are on a certain carrier." Besides, he said, the company has other restrictive features: "You actually have to pay for Loopt."

Juggling the techies and the Luddites
Despite having been founded in 2005, Loopt remains restricted to Sprint and Boost Mobile as well as to select devices like GPS-enabled BlackBerrys. This will change soon, Altman explained, as more developer-friendly mobile software becomes available--the iPhone's software developer kit (SDK), for example, or Google's upcoming Android open-source software. May said that Brightkite hopes to take advantage of the same initiatives, with an iPhone application coming in June and more on the way.

"We want everybody to be able to use (Brightkite) whether they have a phone with GPS or not," May explained. "That being said, of course we wanted to make it easier for people to check in, and GPS and triangulation are the way to go." For Brightkite, this will mean that users with fancy handsets like iPhones and Android-enabled devices will have the bonus ability to download an application and hit a "locate me" button to set their coordinates rather than relying on text-messaging.

"To try to do this without access to live location just doesn't work," Loopt's Altman said. "At least no one's cracked that nut yet." With iPhone and Android applications, Brightkite could ideally handle both openness and "live location"--or, in other words, have its cake and eat it too.

What's more annoying: too many messages, or too many user controls?
But an everyone-can-use-it service is inherently susceptible to the same kind of overload that people bring up when they gripe about micro-blogging service Twitter and even social behemoth Facebook: too much noise and information you just don't need. Dodgeball dealt with this by restricting its reach to major cities and only sending you text-message updates from your friends in the same city, but the only way to silence an annoying user or opt not to send them your whereabouts was to block updates entirely. The "I don't want to know everything about everyone" barrier might have been what doomed Dodgeball; it has also prevented Twitter's entry into the mainstream. Brightkite may have the same issue.

But Brightkite thankfully has far more extensive user controls, a plus for members with low thresholds for annoyance or with concerns about privacy. You can opt to have your updates sent to all your friends or just a select "trusted friends" list, and for each of your contacts you can choose whether you want text-message updates, e-mail updates, or neither. That said, manually picking and choosing privacy controls for individual contacts can be a hassle, as some Facebook members learned when the social network gave them the option to organize their friends into groups and set individual privacy controls.

Those concerned about information overload are likely also concerned about identity overload: exactly how many social networks can we join before we there are just too many. Brightkite has an admirable strategy of aiming to complement, not replace existing social networks, but currently that's restricted to pinging Twitter with your location along with a link to a map, as well as a tie-in with Yahoo's nascent Fire Eagle. It doesn't yet connect to, say, Facebook status messages, nor does it pull in external data like Yelp reviews or geotagged Flickr photos. If any new social network is going to fit into this social-media-saturated world, it can't just complement the other services; it has to prove that it can make them more useful.

Now checking in on Brightkite: Virtual tumbleweeds
But all of those issues are rendered moot if nobody uses the service, which could be the toughest problem for a start-up like Brightkite, as well as a more established service like Loopt as it expands beyond Sprint and Boost. Only a quarter of my Brightkite contacts have posted "check-ins" in the past 24 hours, and no other members have checked into my New York neighborhood recently. Martin May described Brightkite as very "micro-local," but there just isn't much going on in my "micro-locale."

Successful social-networking sites rely on a core group of early users to give the site a "presence" before going mainstream: MySpace had indie bands, Facebook had Mark Zuckerberg's Harvard classmates, and Twitter had the Valley geeks who remain its most loyal followers. Brightkite doesn't have that grassroots crowd yet. It's a sign that a tightly restricted private beta phase--while helping to keep server stability under control--isn't the best strategy for a service where users will abandon ship if they don't see extensive activity around them.

Or Brightkite's issue could be, ironically, location. The Internet might make anything accessible from anywhere. But for a local-focused site, it helps to have a "home base" where things can start growing. And being in Denver, Brightkite is physically distant from the tech industry's most reliable petri dishes: the Bay Area crowd that sustained Twitter in its early days, as well as the New York new-media set that formed the heart of Dodgeball, which started as an NYU graduate thesis project. And Brightkite, unfortunately, emerged around the business-like Web 2.0 Expo rather than the more party-friendly South by Southwest Interactive Festival, which saw Twitter rise to fame in March 2007 when festival attendees wanted to know what everyone else was doing.

But May said that he believes prospective Brightkite users will see the utility in the site he created, regardless of the challenges that face the industry.

"The main focus of our service is to be able to bring people together around the places that they go to," he said.

And, May hopes, that's something they'll actually want to do.