Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Foursquare Minefield

What's the best thing about social networking in the digital age?  Ease of stalking!

Let's take a look at Jessica G. and her Foursquare profile.  She has provided a photo, so I can recognize her should I see her.  She's the current mayor of the Boston University College of Communications, likely a student based on her age.  She's the mayor of 646 E. Brookside Lane,  a residential area in New Jersey (where she's also the major of a bagel shop), so this is likely her hometown and her family house.  Finally, she's the Mayor of "The 157," another residential area in Brookline, Massachusetts, much closer to school.  This is probably where she's living now.  Furthermore, she's listed it as a "gay bar," suggesting that the girl hugging her in her profile photo is probably her girlfriend.  

Maybe she's not into keeping her relationship a secret, but she probably doesn't want a random stranger (i.e. me) to know exactly what she looks like, where she goes to school, where she sleeps at night, and who with. 

Now, let's look at Arielle V.  I also get a profile photo here, for easy recognition.  She doesn't appear to have her home listed on Foursquare, so kudos there.  What I do get from Arielle is access to her Twitter feed, where she has a steady stream of all her Foursquare check-ins.  She checked in at the BU George Sherman Union, a hang-out for BU students.  She also checked in to Starbucks shortly after. 

I can check out her routine with remarkable clarity.  If I choose to follow her twittter stream, I get an automated update anytime she checks in anywhere. I'll know where to go and who to look for, and even how to build some common ground and trust between us. (Oh, student life, the early mornings and the drudgery. So do you love coffee as much as I do?...)

Finally, we have Tristanne L.  Tristanne holds several mayorships, including a Starbucks, a Gamestop, a Carter's, and a Target in Massachusetts.  Tristanne is also the mayor of two train stops:  JFK/UMass and the Central Square station.  Bus-stop mayorships aren't easy to obtain or retain because so many people cycle through there routinely with nothing to do but fiddle with their smartphones.   

Tristanne, generous person that she is, has also provided links to her Facebook page and her Twitter stream.  She has her Facebook page relatively locked down to strangers, but I've found her full name - and I can harness the power of the search engine to my advantage.  By now I've discovered that she's from the UK, she plays soccer, and she used to live in Somerville, MA but moved to Boston within the last year.  

It's not necessarily dangerous, but it's creepy.  Foursquare provides a fun and rich service, the poster-child for gamification successfully utilized to build community, and I'm not knocking it.  I've been competing for mayor of my building for a while, and it's harmless and fun, but mayorships can't be locked down to a "friends only" view.  Much like in reality, being mayor makes you visible, and that's a responsibility that merits informed consent.  

The lesson here is simple:
  • Don't list your own house, however tempting it may be to be mayor of something. If you already have, you can log in to Foursquare via the website and relinquish your mayorship.  
  • Don't check in to bus-stops, or other places you're likely to be alone and vulnerable on a dark evening.  In fact, don't check in at all if you're alone and vulnerable on a dark evening.  
  • Don't provide a how-to list for following your footsteps or mapping your routine.  


  1. Great cautionary post re. complete strangers creepily monitoring our lives.

    Signed, A Complete Stranger

    P.S.: Congrats re. Florida engagement!

  2. haha, thanks sidlinger, and touche!