This is the first post in a series on geolocation startups and services.

Jason-Wilson
Jason Wilson, co-founder of Platial, in San Francisco. (Photo by JD Lasica)

For years, entrepreneurs, tech observers and journalists have known two things about the geolocation space: It holds an enormous amount of promise, and it’s taking an awfully long time to get there.

geologo-logoGeolocation startups are hot in Silicon Valley right now, from Zkatter, a San Francisco-based startup from British young gun Matt Hagger that wants you to capture and share moments in real time through mobile video, to Findery, the venture-backed San Francisco startup from Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake that wants you to leave notes, media and digital objects for others at specific locations.

What’s my connection with geoloco? For the past half year I’ve been working on a geolocation startup called Placely. We’re still early in development, so I’ll talk more about our plans for Placely in a future post. But today I think it’s worth doing a quick survey of how far we’ve come (not very) and how far we still have to go as geolocation gets ready for its closeup.

an early understanding of what a ‘place’ means

In 2005, the same year I co-founded Ourmedia, the world’s first free video hosting and sharing service (a month before a little startup called YouTube came along), up in Portland, Ore., another venture was just getting underway. Platial (tagline: “your collaborative atlas”) described itself on its pre-launch website as “a rapidly developing application and community pivoting on the anchors of user annotation, layerability, collaborative mapping, social networking and real world publishing.” Heady times for those of us out to remake the world!

I first heard of Platial when I gave a guest lecture at UC Berkeley six years ago this week (and wrote about it on this blog). Instructor Bill Gannon, former editorial director of Yahoo! News, flashed Platial on the screen as an example of mapping and Web 2.0 collaboration tools. Just after Hurricane Katrina, people had spontaneously begun using Platial to create maps and visualizations of damaged neighborhoods, complete with embedded media.

Di-Ann Eisnor at We Media 2007.

The very next week, I met Platial CEO Di-Ann Eisnor (right) at the We Media conference in Miami, which I attended after my work editing the seminal We Media report by Shane Bowman and Chris Willis. When Platial closed down in 2010, Eisnor moved on to a key role at Waze, the real-time traffic app that went out and invented Esther Dyson’s vision of “the ultimate killer app.” Waze’s combination of geolocation, passive collective actions and game elements has made it one of the premier examples of geoloco done right. Last year Eisnor and I sat down and discussed writing a book about geoloco, but I could never pull her away from Waze to devote enough time to the project.

My involvement with the legacy of Platial came full circle last week when I sat down at La Boheme, a cafe in San Francisco’s Mission District, with Jason Wilson, who co-founded Platial with Eisnor and CTO Jake Olsen. The word “platial,” in case you were wondering, was a mashup of places and spatial. I expected Wilson to describe it as as a social mapping site, but he called it “the first social network around places.”

platial-screenshot

It started out, he said, as a kind of art project. But when they saw lots of early traction, Meetup.com co-founder and CEO Scott Heiferman convinced Wilson to pursue it as a business, and Platial landed funding from Kleiner Perkins, the Omidyar Network, Ron Conway, Tim O’Reilly (of Where 2.0 fame) and adviser Clay Shirky, among others.

To this day, most geoloco startups are focused entirely on commercial businesses — restaurants, hotels — but Wilson looks at geolocation in more profound terms. “We began thinking about: What is a place? It could be as small as a corner of a table or as large as a skyscraper or neighborhood.” A wall mural on the side of a building in the Mission could hold as much meaning to someone as an art gallery.

In the end, the mobile ad services needed to sustain a business like Platial turned out to be very slow in the making. (Muses Wilson: “Why isn’t Yelp or Foursquare an ad network today? They have all those relationships with local businesses.”) Platial donated its location data to GeoCommons and closed up shop in 2010, with more than 5 million embedded maps being serviced by the site. Wilson (@fekaylius on Twitter — born in 2006, by the way) is now working as founder and Experience Designer at OuterBody Labs.

Platial may have been ahead of the market, but it was onto something.

Facebook pioneered the social graph and the not-so-open graph. There’s buzz about the interest graph. And today a new graph is emerging: the place graph. What interesting things will unfold when we layer the social graph on top of the place graph, or the interest graph on top of the place graph?

Imagine meeting new people and making new friends based on similar interests that you discover because they were in the same place as you at a different time, or they shared the same experience as you in the same place at the same time. Imagine a new set of social interactions whose rules have yet to be written around forging new relationships, tracking your digital footprints, defining our own identities based on places we’ve been or aspire to visit.

“That potential is still untapped,” Wilson said simply. Yes, a lot of startups are attacking the geolocation space, but no one has cracked that particular nut.

Six years ago this week, Facebook and Yelp were just getting underway, Foursquare and Instagram hadn’t come along yet, and the practice of geotagging images through smartphones was just being invented. A revolution lay in wait. Platial used mapping tools as its chief metaphor in helping people ascribe meaning to the places around them. Foursquare would use check-ins. Instagram, feeds of photos. Today dozens of other startups have jumped into the fray. We’re driving the vehicles even while the roadways are still being paved a half mile ahead.

I’ll be chronicling the geolocation scene — I hope with your help — in the weeks and months ahead. It’s still early days, but we owe a hat tip to Platial for helping to chart the way forward.

What do you think holds the greatest promise for geolocation services?

J.D. Lasica is a social media consultant, strategist, public speaker, journalist and author. He is founder of Socialbrite.org, a social media consulting firm for nonprofits and a learning hub with hundreds of free resources and tutorials on how to use social media. He also runs Socialmedia.biz, a social media consultancy for businesses. J.D. was co-founder of Ourmedia.org, the first free video hosting and sharing site, and has been named one of Silicon Valley’s top 40 influencers, one of the top 100 influencers in social media and one of CNET’s Top 100 Media Bloggers. He has over 18,000 followers on Twitter @jdlasica. Contact him at jdlasica@gmail.com.