Sanity Check-In

I saw this advertised as the topic for this month’s Social Media Club Kansas City breakfast:

In the blog post titled “A Cautionary Tale” Shea Sylvia recounted a terrible experience resulting from her presence online. More social networks encourage users to share their whereabouts using any of a number of new location-based services. While sites like Foursquare, Gowalla and others can be fun and interesting, Shea will explain, first hand, why people should be cautious about publicly announcing their whereabouts.

I don’t know Shea, though we have some common acquaintances. In no way do I think people should abuse available information shared through social media to be creepers or worse – but seriously, she (and many other people) are totally missing the point and misplacing the blame.

This all started when she checked in on Foursquare and used it to tweet her location. Tweeting your location is something that Foursquare does not require you to do, and something that I – an active user of Foursquare myself – have never done. Somehow, nowhere in her blog and nowhere in the ensuing articles and blog posts about it (linked here, here, here, here and many other mentions) did anyone say anything about the role Twitter played in this. Without Twitter, this story would not have happened.

Everyone is outright blaming Foursquare and other location-based services for this happening, as though these applications force you against your will to share your exact location at all times. Hey, guess what? They don’t update your location for you. You still have to manually go through the process of checking in. Beyond that, it is a separate, active decision to then tweet your location to your followers, and you have to link your Twitter account to Foursquare to make it happen. The general reaction of “OH NO NOW I MUST DISABLE EVERY LOCATION AWARE SERVICE THEY ARE JUST LIKE BIG BROTHER OMG” is short-sighted and reactionary.

Foursquare also has built-in security mechanisms – like only allowing people who you have confirmed as friends to see your location. Tweeting her location through Foursquare is no different than just directly tweeting where you are, and by tweeting her location to her over 2,000 followers, Shea was essentially disabling the security functionality that Foursquare has built in for that very reason. It is a security issue – but don’t blame the service that provided the security in the first place for you circumventing it intentionally. That’s like turning off your house alarm and blaming Brinks when you get robbed – it doesn’t make it right, but it doesn’t absolve you of all responsibility either.

People who strive to make themselves more visible through blogs, massive Twitter followings, public events and other means need to take their privacy and security seriously. There really are creepers out there, and if they legitimately wanted to hurt someone, there are ways to do it without Foursquare, Twitter, Facebook or any of those mechanisms. But to blame the service? I’d like to think that this is the type of thing that someone would want to just move on from – not draw additional attention, opening yourself up for copycats. Instead, the story keeps perpetuating, people keep talking about it, and somewhere along the way, Foursquare takes the full blame for the event, as if the company forced her to not only check in, but also tweet her location.

As I mentioned previously, I am an active Foursquare user, as well as Twitter and Facebook and a number of other tools. They can be great tools to meet up with friends and discover new places. There’s no wrong way to use Foursquare or Twitter, but it’s important to acknowledge that that’s all they are – tools – and that the decisions you make on how to use them can open you up to potentially unsavory situations. So can online dating, LinkedIn and the blog you keep to keep your out-of-town relatives up to date on your life. The vilification of location-based tools as this story grows is unfounded.

Seriously – can’t we take a step back here and look at the whole story? When you purposefully put yourself in the public eye, there are inherent risks. In general, the people using Foursquare right now are still early adopters. There are only so many times we can hear this same story until people start thinking that every check-in on Foursquare inevitably leads to being stalked. We’re doing more harm than good by continuing to harp on the bad things that come along with these types of social media while not taking responsibility for our own parts in the story. Foursquare does not deserve the wrath it is receiving based on this isolated incident. It offers a service you can either choose to use or not use. If anything, Foursquare was the last piece in a puzzle involving a blog, a Twitter account, a public presence through other online communities and a general interest in the spotlight. It wasn’t Foursquare that helped this guy find her – it was her own decisions on how to manage her online presence.

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