I recently had a look over my profiles on Foursquare and Gowalla (the latter always being my favourite on aesthetic grounds) and seeing my patterns of behaviour spelt out in check-ins made me feel a bit uneasy. Even though I was always careful to never check in at home, or any locations near home I could instantly see that every Saturday I go to the same organic deli. Once or twice a week I take a train from the same mainline train station. I’m the ‘mayor’ of the MySpace UK office and have made it clear which places in proximity to work I hang out at. Basically I’ve made it incredibly easy for people to find me. People who I do not know.
I get a lot of friend requests on Foursquare and Gowalla, all from people who are listed by their supposedly real names like Alex Hunt or Jenny Vergara, to take two random examples from my Gowalla friends. Despite the reality that they’re no less of a threat than if their handles were ‘s3ri4lki11er’ and ‘SocMedManiac666’ it feels fairly harmless to accept their requests because one imagines that they, like me, are just trying out this cool new thing and if they have iPhones and are into new social media fads they must be pretty harmless, right? Well, far be it from me to demonise the internet but we all know that the online revolution has been to paedos, murderers and stalkers what the advent of the chainsaw was to lumberjacks and whilst I can’t even say for sure what the real risks are to me of releasing this data, it just feels too much. And for what payoff?
People often ask me about social media, and the most common question, usually delivered in a fairly incredulous tone, is “why?”. When it comes to Twitter, MySpace, Flickr, Tumblr etc the answers are easy because these services have such obvious benefits which when explained and demonstrated can fill even the most staunch Luddite with dumb wonder. My sister recently asked me why I use location-based services Foursquare and Gowalla. My honest reply was that location is a factor which is playing an increasingly significant role in social media so it is in my interest to know everything about it so that I may wield this new technology to further my own projects. Outside of this reason, I could not find any purpose for it whatsoever. This is not to say that I think LBS (location-based services) have no use or future, I think you can do amazing things with geodata such as The Museum of London’s ingenious ‘Street Museum’ app which, using the iPhone’s built in GPS and compass, can tell exactly where you are and which direction you’re facing and overlay old photographs from their archive over the physical scenery before you. You could expand that idea and have a location-based content-sharing network so people could leave media in places, or dump files. The possibilities in that area are endless and very exciting.
Now I do understand that the ‘check in, get points to beat your friends, get badges’ mechanic taps into what we call ‘game theory’ which dictates that if you give people things to do and rewards (even ones without any real value) they will have a natural compulsion to complete the tasks and collect the rewards. That’s great for Foursquare, the mechanic is getting people using their service in droves. But to what actual end? What use is any of this to its users? When I’m on my deathbed am I going to think to myself “what was this life all about? What did I do for the world? Oh, I got the ‘Douchebag’ badge and ten others on Foursquare! I wonder if I can check in at heaven’s gates… Byeeee!”. Probably not. You might of course be tempted to level this sort of trivialisation at tweets, blogs and shared photos or videos, but content and information sharing has some indubitably genuine value. It educates, informs, entertains and drives the effort to make the world a smaller, more accessible and hopefully democratic place. This, which was once referred to quite sincerely as ‘Web 2.0’, has truly driven a human revolution. Is checking in at McDonald’s this afternoon and earning the ‘Super Size Me’ badge supporting a crucial pillar of this step-change in human history?
OK, so I hear you thinking “what’s the alternative? How do we pull together groups or conversations around a geographic location?”. Call me old-fashioned but in my mind a tweet saying “having coffee at Frank’s café, a guy just walked in with a cat on a lead twitpic.com/xxxxx” is of more value than a check-in through Foursquare from that same place. Not only is Twitter a bigger, more established network and easier to access and use but you can now geotag tweets if you so wish. It’s first and foremost about the content, which is after all the important stuff, with location being one of several optional identifiers, or meta data, attached. Conversely the LBS is firstly about location and has barely begun to start implementing content-sharing. Furthermore, the hashtag is yet to be written off as a great way of stringing tweets together. Nothing beats it for conferences and events as it’s very easy to track, search for and generate RSS feeds from. So seriously, if anyone reading this can provide a solid explanation outlining why we need Foursquare and Gowalla I will literally check in at my own house with an attached photo of my stretched, Gowalla-branded scrotum.