Is location-based social networking practical in spread-out Los Angeles?

In early May, Mark Ghuneim was sitting in his hotel room at the Four Seasons near Beverly Hills. He discovered, via his iPhone’s Foursquare app, that a friend was at the Echo, a concert venue in Echo Park about eight miles away, about to watch a concert. “I’m realizing that even if I got in my car and drove there right now, I’d miss the set,” he said.

At that moment, Ghuneim did not find Foursquare as useful as some of its 1 million users do. Location-based services are the hot new form of social networking, allowing users to tell their friends where they are and what they think of that place. Loopt has more than 3 million users and MyTown has more than 2 million, while Twitter and Google also have location-based features.

But as Ghuneim discovered, these services might not be an ideal fit for Los Angeles, a city that has always had anxiety when it comes to locations. Angelenos tend to spend too much time in a location we don’t want to be, driving to a location we’re trying to reach, along with a bunch of other people fighting to do the same. The city’s spread-out geography and car dependence might make it particularly inhospitable to the spontaneity that these services thrive on.

For the uninitiated, here’s how location-based services work: When you arrive at, say, a bar, you can click on an app on your iPhone or other mobile device to “check in” at that bar. Your friends can see that you’re there, so that they might come meet you. Sometimes people leave location-specific tips, such as “the mac and cheese is amazing” or “for stronger drinks, ask the bartender who looks like Kate Beckinsale.” Some services make the process into a game — on Foursquare you can earn badges or become “mayor” of a place, while MyTown allows people to “buy” a place and collect virtual rent.

In Manhattan, when your friend has checked in to a bar, she’s not more than a half-hour cab ride away at most and often as little as a 10-minute talk. In Los Angeles, the equivalent meet-up might involve a 45-minute drive through traffic, not to mention 10 more minutes looking for parking.

“On balance, stuff like this works better in walking cities,” says Sam Altman, chief executive of Silicon Valley-based Loopt. “It’s easier to have these spontaneous interactions.”

Dennis Crowley, co-founder of Foursquare, told New York magazine that his service is “designed to work in New York, and then we kind of tweak it so it works everywhere else. I think it works best in really dense urban areas.” (Crowley did not return e-mails asking for comment.)

Useful figures on which cities use these services the most are hard to come by, especially since some areas are simply more populated or tech-savvy than others. On the Austin, Texas-based Gowalla, which has a quarter of a million users, the cities with the most traffic are San Francisco, New York and Austin, with Los Angeles in the next tier, says Josh Williams, the company’s chief executive. On Brightkite, which has 1.5 million monthly users, the top four cities are New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago in that order.

Back to Ghuneim, a married man in his 40s who heads a digital marketing agency and, through his frequent check-ins on Foursquare, has become “mayor” of places such as Book Soup in Los Angeles and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. One week after his failed concert outing in Los Angeles, where he was visiting on business, he was back in his West Village apartment. Three music-obsessed friends had checked in at the Mercury Lounge across town in the Lower East Side, where they were about to see the indie band the Joy Formidable. “The band is always going to be 10 minutes late — no problem,” he recalls thinking. He hopped in a cab and made the set.

Lee Humphreys, an assistant professor of communication at Cornell University, has studied Dodgeball, a primitive predecessor to Foursquare that Crowley also helped found before selling it to Google, where it died out. Humphreys discovered that when your friend checks in to a location, there are three factors that determine whether you redirect your evening to meet them. One is timing — right after work is better than at, say, 11 a.m. The others are spatial proximity (how far you are) and travel time (the time that it takes to get there). “In L.A., during rush hour, travel time would really discourage redirection and meeting up,” she says. “Having to go a mile or two in rush hour may be crazy.”

Humphreys points out that the arrangement of the streets hurts Los Angeles as well. In New York, if you’re heading from Chelsea to Murray Hill, for instance, you can go west on 23rd Street and up 3rd Avenue, or you can go up 8th Avenue and east on 34th Street — whichever will allow you to meet a friend for a drink on the way. But in Los Angeles, sometimes you can take only that dastardly 405. “You might have routinized pathways, but you can still change them and get where you need to be without too much additional time,” Humphreys says of New York, whereas in Los Angeles, “there are certain pathways you’re meant to travel, and to deviate from them can be difficult.”

Another problem is that mobile devices are harder to use while driving than while on foot. California’s anti-texting law does not prohibit looking at apps such as Foursquare while driving, but you can’t hold the device in your hand and you can’t type on it, says Erin Komatsubara, a spokesperson for the California Highway Patrol. “People look at their phones a lot while driving, whether or not they should be, especially on long drives in traffic,” says Altman.

David Jarrett, vice president of business development for the Dolce Group, which controls the Hollywood hot spots Geisha House and Les Deux, among others, says he doesn’t observe customers using location-based social networking to meet up. “It’s more ‘I’m here’ rather than ‘come see me,’ ” he says. “It’s almost like a replacement for a status update on Facebook or Twitter.”

Still, all is lost not for location-based services in Los Angeles. Josh Williams, chief executive of Gowalla, which has a quarter of a million users, believes people get used to their city’s quirks and tailor their location-based experience accordingly. When he lived in Dallas, the sprawling layout didn’t prevent him from meeting up. “I would see people check in and would say, ‘Oh, maybe I should go the extra mile and check it out,’ ” he recalls.

Humphreys found that Dodgeball users in spread-out cities such as Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Seattle were especially likely to “precoordinate” their nights in advance by telling tell their friends the neighborhood where they’d be partying.

Planning check-ins ahead also helps. Sometimes people will, say, check in at Mel’s drive-in as they’re stumbling out of the Standard in West Hollywood, so that people will have time to meet up for late-night milkshakes. And if all else fails, good old-fashioned texting can confirm that people actually are where they say they are.

There are even ways to cope with driving. Ford is planning a MyFord Touch feature, which allows for social networking on a dashboard LCD screen. Aha Radio, an app that converts popular apps such as Facebook to a driving-friendly format, is planning to incorporate location-based services. “I’ll hear so-and-so checked in with Gowalla a mile ahead at this bar,” says Robert Acker, chief executive of Aha Mobile in Palo Alto. “It’ll have the ability to map to that location.”

Altman even speculates that Los Angeles’ sprawling nature might induce citizens to make an extra effort to use these services for meeting up. “I think people really crave face-to-face human connection — that’s what we like about location-based technology,” he says. “In a very car-focused city, there’s less of that, naturally, than in a city like New York where people run into other people all the time.”

Plus, of course, these services aren’t just used for meeting up. People use them to record their activities, like a diary. Parents use them to keep tabs on their kids. Rob Lawson, chief marketing officer of Brightkite, a location-based service in Burlingame, Calif., with 1.5 million monthly users, notes that some people use these services to stay mentally in touch with their friends. “I may only see you twice a month, but I know where you are the rest of the time,” he says. When you do see each other, you can bypass the mundane “What have you been up to?” and instead inquire, “How was Ricky Gervais at the Nokia Theater?”