Ban.jo hits 1 million users, signaling mainstream interest in social location apps

The mobile app Ban.jo hit a million users this week, suggesting that a new crop of location-based social apps may become popular with mainstream users despite their privacy concerns.

Ban.jo pools shared information from several social networks—including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and FourSquare—and sorts it by location. Users of the app receive push alerts when a friend from any of their social networks is nearby. They can also access the specific content shared by those friends.

Ban.jo alerts you when friends from your social networks are nearby. The app hit 1 million users this week.

In the past year, many location-based social applications have launched. These include the much-touted Highlight, Glancee, Sonar and Zaarly.

Ban.jo reached the million-user mark in just nine months, outpacing big social networking players including Facebook, Twitter and FourSquare. Of course, the number of users of a free app doesn’t guarantee the app’s long-term success. But Ban.jo’s million users do suggest that at least some social discovery apps appeal to average users.

Ban.jo founder Damien Patton attributes his app’s success to its inclusion of numerous social networks (though not Google+) and to what Patton says is a greater respect for users’ privacy than other location-based apps have shown.

Ban.jo obtains location information from content that users have shared on social networks. It publishes the information only in ways that are consistent with the expectations users had when they shared it, according to Patton. For example, if a Facebook user shares a status update that includes a location identifier with his or her friends on Facebook, only those same friends will be able to see where that user is through Ban.jo. If the user allows friends of friends to see the status update on Facebook, then friends of friends will see his or her location in Ban.jo.

But Ban.jo can sometimes reveal a user’s location to people who don’t know him or her. Users of Facebook and FourSquare whose information Ban.jo picks up may not be aware that they have enabled public sharing, for example. And while most Twitter users understand that their tweets are public, they are used to other people finding them by hashtag or username, not by their current location.

Jules Polonetsky, director of the Future of Privacy Forum, found that potentially troubling.

“I downloaded [Ban.jo], and it was great that I could see easily across my multiple social networks what my friends are doing and whether they’re near me. But I also could see other people near me, and their pictures and information about them,” he said.

“The idea that because I share my information, people I don’t know can monitor whether I’m near them, is a bit disconcerting,” he said.

But Polonetsky said he would go back to using Ban.jo because it was fun.

Polonetsky’s behavior is not unusual, experts say. Many users express concerns about privacy without avoiding the products that trouble them, said Annette Zimmermann, an analyst at Gartner.

“Our experience is that consumers like to talk about being wary of privacy issues in those apps, but in the end they actually act differently,” she said in an email interview.

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