Location-based Messaging


Messaging apps are normally location-independent by design. If your device is connected to the Internet, sending a greeting or a snapshot to any other online device is normal. But what if the spatial dimensions were re-introduced to a chat application? Send a message to anyone listening in a 100 meter radius or to anyone in the same metropolitan area. What if the app guaranteed that you really have to be where you are to send and receive such messages? Is that possible?

So what are the use cases? Such a channel could be a common place for local announcements, from town hall meetings to soccer games. Pinned messages could be used for this. A larger building might run out of space for a bulletin board in the ground floor and use this virtual counterpart instead. Indeed many social spaces on the Internet are already intended to be restricted by locality, but lack strong means to do so.

This idea is not entirely new, indeed such apps have already been developed and released. But this is not a mainstream thing yet. For this post I want to discuss a few ways in which such a service could be implemented.

Should the app allow users to define their own geographic spaces, by specifying a radius around their position? Or should it come with predefined spaces, such as neighborhoods, cities and countries. And how does geography interact with language in this app? If the chat room is limited to the capital of a country, most communication would probably be in the languages spoken in that country. But maybe a user wants to, for example, define an English-speaking message room in said city for foreigners.

Another interaction with the location concept is the role of time. In a sufficiently popular app a country-wide message room would have messages passing through at a high rate, compared to a room for a unimportant neighborhood, which might seem rather empty. This means that the same app would have different communication styles in one interface.

A further question is whether to offer a more or less anonymous service, or to have a traditional avatar-based app with explicit connections between “friends”. In the latter case message rooms could be private as well as location-based. You would have to be invited to them and present in the location to use them.

Now to the question asked in the introduction: can we prevent users from cheating, by indicating a wrong location to the system? Location would be reported to the service from users’ devices using a built-in location finding subsystem, usually satellite-based. Of course the user can refuse to provide location in this fashion, but so can the service then refuse entry to the user. Ultimately it would be possible for a hacker to manipulate their device or the installed app to the point that they gain unrestricted access by location. But this, being quite difficult, would be out of reach for normal users.

Overall a well-designed, location-based chat app might spark entirely new forms of online communication, and might well be worth an attempt as a startup idea.