3 Reasons Geocoded Tweets Haven't Caught On and 2 Reasons Not to Worry

Adam DuVander
Feb. 17 2010, 02:08AM EST

Last August was when Twitter first announced it would offer geocoded tweets. With it, user locations are tied to their updates. That feature was rolled out in November. Two months later comes word that it's getting very little use. TheNextWeb reports that less than one-fourth of one percent of all tweets are geo-tagged. For every 430 messages that pass through Twitter, only one has a location--very, very few. Why? Read on for a few potential ideas.

Not enough Twitter client adoption

Many Twitter clients still don't support the geotag API. There are two ways to support it: setting and displaying. The first is most useful for mobile applications, though the JavaScript geolocation standard means a user's location is available in an increasing number of browsers. In other words, there's really no excuse for Twitter clients not to include geotagging as an optional feature.

As for displaying locations, that's even more important. Geo-tweeting may always be something a minority of users do, but everyone can benefit from knowing the location context of a message. That means we should have access to that information wherever a tweet is displayed.

Hasn't been blessed by Twitter's web interface

"I learned it from watching you!" That's an after school special cliche, but you could just as well hear those words from developers of Twitter clients. When the geotag API went live, Twitter was very clear that the web would not support it yet.

Outside of the setting that enables geotagging, there's no mention of location anywhere on Twitter's site. You can't geotag your tweets entered in the web interface, nor can you see others. Not even in search. Not even on the mobile web site.

Privacy concerns

Though we early adopters may not care to admit it, Twitter is moving right along toward the mainstream now. With it, the team needs to be extremely careful about privacy. That's almost certainly why it takes a very deliberate action, unavailable via the API, to turn on geotagging from your Twitter account.

It's not just Twitter that is concerned about privacy. So are individuals, even those who have turned on geotagging. A tweet sent from home with location attached means anyone can find your house. For many, this means they don't want to geotag everything. When you have to think about it, it's much less likely that you'll do it at all, even when you don't mind sharing where you are.

It's still early

It's barely been two months since geotweets were enabled. Maybe we shouldn't expect every client to have updated by now. And it's certainly too soon to expect all users to be ready to broadcast their locations.

And the data that's mentioned by TheNextWeb may only include the first month. It's way too soon to write off location-sharing via Twitter.

It's a numbers game

How much geotweeting is enough to call it a success? The answer may not be in percentages. Tens of millions of tweets are being sent every day. Even with a paltry 0.23% of those geotagged, that still means that location data is being added to tens of thousands of tweets each day. And it's hard to see that as a failure.

Hat tip: Mike Duffy

Adam DuVander -- Adam heads developer relations at Orchestrate, a database-as-a-service company. He's spent many years analyzing APIs and developer tools. Previously he worked at SendGrid, edited ProgrammableWeb and wrote for Wired and Webmonkey. Adam is also the author of mapping API cookbook Map Scripting 101.

Comments

Comments(9)

I completely agree that those are two big issues for geocoded tweets. In some cases Twitter (and app developers) could provide the settings that make people more likely to share. For example, I'd like to see a geo-tag-free area within a quarter mile of my home, for example. Neighborhood-level geotagging, which you reference, would also be a good solution. Apps could do either of those things--Twitter is just providing the platform.

Thanks for the comment, Brian.

We're using the Twitter geo API at our mappping site to help boost participation in the 2010 Census -- visit <a href="http://www.censushardtocountmaps.org" rel="nofollow">www.censushardtocountmaps.org</a> and select the Twitter tab. For our purposes, general location is enough, though it'd be nice if more tweets had a more precise geotag. We're hoping that by mapping the tweets, census advocates will be able to find nearby concerned citizens, reporters, nonprofits, and other social networkers who might want to help get the word out for the 2010 Census.

aaronpk

There is another side effect of geotagging tweets at home or work. I've been post-geotagging my tweets since 2008 using my personal GPS logger, saving my tweets to a database and adding geo data in post processing.

When plotting the tweets on a map, it looks great for all the tweets out and about town. Then there's a giant cluster of points at home and work on top of each other, and you can't distinguish the individual points. I like Adam's suggestion of defining blackout zones, which would prevent this clustering of data.

I second Adam's suggestion of geotag 'blackout zones' to separate those out-and-about tweets (which often have a useful locational context) from at-home / at-work tweets where privacy is a big factor. Check out http://pleaserobme.com/ for a comedic take on the geotagging issue that makes a pretty serious point.

Regarding the 0.23% stat - that very much depends on the location. We map geocoded tweets at http://geo.me/twitter and the volumes in places like central London make for fascinating viewing.

brian

Adam,

The issues you've identified are reasonable mostly from a technical perspective, but I don't believe really affect the causes of general user acceptance. Yes, there needs to be privacy, yes there needs to be app support, but I would like to add 2 reasons of my own:

1. I feel the granularity of the Twitter geotagging flag mechanism is fundamentally flawed. It is an all or nothing mechanism. Apps can turn it on, if it is off (ala user agrees), but then it is turned on for all other apps as well. It should have probably been more tied to the OAuth mechanism, so that I could enable it for my TwitPic stream, but disable it for my web tweeting or Hootsuite tweeting. Or enable it for my vacation, but disable it for when I'm at home. This goes along with your privacy issue, but allow users better control of what tweets get geotagged and when. While we are at it, how about 2 controls, one for apps that can geotag my tweets and one for apps that can see that geotagging. Store coordinates encoded so that only apps with the key can get them.

2. I think there is still a "so what" out there for users with regard to this. Outside of the foursquare game type apps, I don't think the average twitter user sees how it benefits them to geotag tweets to the world. It seems more geared to benefit others (by seeing who's around, watching tweets on a map, etc) than it benefits the actual tweeter. For wide adoption, either the benefit to the user must outweigh the concern of sharing that information broadly, and/or the mechanism needs to be re-architected to allow the user to utilize that information (with a new class of applications) without sharing it broadly.

Regards,

brian

[...] of georeferenced Twitter data.   While the percentage of users that have enabled geotagging is estimated to be under 1%, the total number of users in the USA is estimated to be 18 million.  So even a small fraction of [...]