Foursquare, Facebook, Gowalla: Stranger Danger?

by francine Hardaway on March 30, 2010

I’ve been checking in on location-based services¬†Foursquare for over a year, and added Gowalla about six months ago. As a result, I’ve become rude, opened my life to danger, and donated my personal privacy to research.

First let me tell you my circumstances. I’m a woman of a certain age, widowed, living alone. In theory, I am at a point in my life where I should be respected. But when I walk into a meeting, a bar, a gym, a restaurant, the event or person I am there to see can never get my attention. I spend the first few minutes staring at my iPhone, searching for the name of the place we’re in and thinking of a clever tip to enter in Foursquare. Then I switch to Gowalla, where I pick up and drop off squirrels and watering cans and barbells. When my work is done, I look up at my angry companion, smile, and ask forgiveness.

Typically, that person (the barista, the gym attendant, the client, the old friend, the policeman who just stopped me) thinks I am rude and/or nuts.

Not only is it rude to use geo-location services in front of others, but it is dangerous. I’m careful 1)never to give away my home address or exact location 2) never to friend someone on these services that I don’t already know 3)never to say I’m on vacation for a few days out of town. But it’s not hard to figure all that out, even if you are NOT my friend. ¬†The data is there. While I choose not to live in fear of being robbed (two large barking dogs, one of whom has big teeth don’t hurt)m not everyone wants to spend $100 a month on dog food.

Last, my data will be mined. Last Friday night I went to the bachelor party of an old friend — part of the geek team of a tech company I co-founded ten years ago (it failed long ago). The corporate culture of the company was stellar, and the people have stayed connected, and this was the second bachelor party I’d been to. But the first was during a different era. Last night, normal people on Facebook with nothing to do on Friday night got to read about me pole dancing on a party bus, checking into a known night spot in Scottsdale, and then turning up in a strip club. Imagine if I were trying to get my old job at Intel back! (no way, Jose)

Worse, this will have future consequences. My data will be mined, as Tom Foremski points out, and from now on Facebook will serve me ads for Bourbon Street and Christie’s Cabaret.

Update: Jeremiah Owyang tells me Facebook itself is planning such a service:


The last time we updated the Privacy Policy, we included language describing a location feature we might build in the future. At that point, we thought the primary use would be to “add a location to something you post.” Now, we’ve got some different ideas that we think are even more exciting.

So, we’ve removed the old language and, instead added the concept of a “place” that could refer to a Page, such as one for a local restaurant. As we finalize the product, we look forward to providing more details, including new privacy controls.

So much for the privacy of 400,000,000 normal people who don’t want the world to know they are hanging out in strip clubs.

Worst of all, as I always point out, if I were still married and wanted to have an affair, there would be no chance. Friends, fans, followers, and family, noticing that I had left the grid for an hour, would be sending the ambulances and police cars.

On balance, this addiction I’ve developed to checking in has no more positive value than any other addiction. One of these days, I will kick it. But probably not today. I have to check in one more time at the Washington dog park, where I am the Mayor.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

nilandmortimer March 30, 2010 at 11:27 am

This raises many interesting questions as to why we engage in these geo-locating platforms. I use Foursquare and Gowalla, too. I don't use them to get the associated promotions. I am mildly amused to see how frequently a friend in New York checks into his day spa. Only once have I actually been walking past a venue where a friend had just checked in and been able to connect on that basis alone. I would love to be the mayor of the San Francisco Bay Club but am just not enough of a gym rat. So why do I do it? I think its because it's new and growing, that I keep anticipating deeper relevance as time progresses, that I work in social media so ought to practice what I preach. I try to be discreet when checking in if I'm with others, but it is often all too noticeable. I don't check in everywhere. Even still, my children think I'm nuts. But like you, I'm not ready to give up yet.

hardaway March 30, 2010 at 11:56 am

Exactly. I am waiting for the hidden value to manifest. But I hope it's MY
value, and not just value to the marketers.

lindavandevrede March 31, 2010 at 7:56 pm

Interesting to read your perspective on these, Francine. I've been reluctant to use them for the privacy/safety reasons you describe. I can see value in it if I'm travelling and want to hook up with people, but for the most part, I'd rather not have people know EXACTLY where I am at any given time. And I find I'm not really interested when people post their locations, either. I'm trolling for information that will help me better apply PR and social media, and location info doesn't really do the trick.

hardaway March 31, 2010 at 8:35 pm

I feel that way, but at the same time I am reluctant to kiss them off
because I suspect we are just at the beginning of having their value
unlocked. For example, what if I used them as a kind of “Life Alert”
service, in which if I checked in some place and then was not traceable
after, my corpse could be trace to my last venue. I know that's macabre, but
it's not out of the question and it's why I don't rule anything out.

Cheryl Marquez April 3, 2010 at 6:17 am

As much as I hate to admit this, I share your check-in addiction to Foursquare, Gowalla, and additionally Yelp who added the functionality to their iphone app. I keep telling myself I'm going to pick one and delete the other two or at least stop using the other two, then I get a new pin or badge or get a compliment on Yelp and the decision to drop a service gets postponed. My way around the iPhone rudeness, which is an addiction itself, is by checking into the venue when I'm early (hardly ever) or when whomever I'm with excuses themselves to go to the restroom, failing that I excuse myself to go to the restroom to check-in. Mashable recently posted an article about a website called Checkin Mania which has a mashup of Foursquare, Gowalla, and Brightkite on a map. You enter your city then click on points in the map or the name of the business in the right nav to see whose checked in along with their quick tips. A mobile app might be a helpful application of the location-based service to see what people are saying about a place, however not everyone leaves a quick tip.

hardaway April 3, 2010 at 6:22 am

I put myself on the list to beta test CheckIn, which is Brightkite's new
universal check-in service. I hope it will be like Ping.fm for checking
in:-)

Cheryl Marquez April 4, 2010 at 11:47 pm

Wow, one more thing to checkin to, let me know how you like it. I need to pare down this obsession to just one service.

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