Location, location, location.

Faster than you can say ‘negative equity’, the age-old adage of the property business that ‘location is king’ now rings as true online as it does on the pavement.

SXSW Interactive (the annual love-in in Austin, Texas for web entrepreneurs and start-ups, which launched the likes of Twitter in 2007) this spring became a battleground for two new location-based services, Foursquare and Gowalla, with the former already topping one-million users and the subject of a speculative $125 million bid from Yahoo Inc., which suggests that pinning-down our virtual identities to physical locations could be big business.

As Robin might exclaim, ‘Holy location-targeted advertising potential, Batman!’ – and he’d almost certainly be right.

But aside from the obvious business benefits to advertisers, why would I want to reveal my location to all-and-sundry randoms on the internet? What’s in it for me? And do I have any choice?

FoursquareNot only does my camera now remind me where I over-exposed another perfectly good shot, but now Twitter has taken to geo-tagging each of my tweets. As if that wasn’t enough, for the last few months I actively ‘check-in’ to venues I visit with Foursquare. In the same way that a gamer unlocks achievements on Xbox Live, Foursquare offers ‘badges’ to users. For example, check-in to more than 25 venues or for more than 4 nights in a row and you’ll receive the bluntly-named ‘bender’ badge. Personally, I’m still trying to figure out ways to snag the ‘I’m on a boat’ badge.

What’s more, with frequent check-ins you may get to become a venue’s ‘mayor’, but risk being toppled from your perch if others check-in more times than you (and it hurts, let me tell you). Before long, I’m mindlessly checking-in almost everywhere I go trying to satisfy my competitive streak (and, most importantly, trying to regain the mayorship of Mortlake Train Station from my arch-nemesis, ‘Alen M’).

However, in embracing the location-based social networking fad, I’m aware that the boundaries between my virtual and physical social networks are becoming increasingly blurred. And I’m not at all sure I’m completely comfortable with it.

Recently I came up against an example of where my virtual and real existences very nearly crossed over, an experience that may make me a little less prolific with Foursquare.

From time to time, just out of sheer curiosity, I like to check out tweets that have been posted near to where I live – call it being a virtual nosy-neighbour, if you will (it’s certainly more discreet than the altogether less-virtual curtain-twitching approach my actual neighbour employs). On one occasion I saw some interesting tweets from somebody who works in the same industry and I decided to follow them on Twitter, to which they duly reciprocated. We occasionally commented on each others’ tweets and generally carried on living the Twitter dream. A few weeks later I discovered they were also a Foursquare user, so we duly added each other to our respective networks and, alongside all our other followers and followees, we innocently kept up to date with where we were checking-in.

Then one Friday night, as I was making my way back home from another check-in at my local train station, a notification eagerly popped up on my iPhone telling me that this very same virtual buddy had, at that very moment, checked-in to a bar. No big deal, except that it was the very bar outside which I found myself standing.

Foursquare Badges

Get crunked with Foursquare

Surely this was social networking nirvana, a triumph of Web 2.0, geo-locationary interaction? Wasn’t this the whole point of location services like Foursquare and Gowalla, to discover new venues and meet new people? All I had to do was to stride confidently into the bar, find my virtual chum and say ‘Hi’ and, um…

I carried on walking home.

For me it was all just a bit too spooky. The thing is this: I’m a married man with a three month old baby and this ‘virtual friend’ was (and indeed still is, at least I think) a woman. In spite of my being a socially brave sort, randomly appearing in a bar and going up to a woman who I’ve virtually, but never physically, met and saying what fundamentally amounts to, ‘Hi, I just saw your profile on the internet and wanted to say hello’, all felt just a little bit too sleazy.

Perhaps I simply want my virtual friends to remain virtual, and I’m as scared to encounter rejection and disappointment in my virtual social networks as I am in my real-life ones – the key difference is that ultimately I’m much more in control of my online interactions, and mixing the two might be akin to some Matrix-style revelation. Which is a shame really, as it’s exactly this breaking down of virtual boundaries that Foursquare is out there for – that is until Yahoo, Google or some other advertising powerhouse get hold of it, begin mining our every movement and pumping us with even more targeted advertising.

So, I guess I’ve failed you Foursquare, maybe it’s time I checked-out instead. But only once I’ve knocked that pretender to the throne Alen M. off of his smug mayoral perch at my local train station…

Check out the battle for the Mayorship Mortlake Train Station by checking in here.