Monday, April 26, 2010

Foursquare and the impact of an information revolution on privacy

Some time ago I decided to continue my experiment with FourSquare without hitting the 'share with Facebook' or 'share with Twitter' buttons.

I didn't want to irritate those who chose to follow my tweets, for example, but hadn't opted in to be my FourSquare friend.

I also thought there was some wisdom in limiting the people with whom I was sharing such precise, personal real-time geo-location. (image courtesy Robert Couse-Baker)

So I was a bit miffed to find that if a friend of yours is in the same location and you are both checked in, and he chooses to auto-tweet his FourSquare update, then the default is that he will share in Twitter that you are with him, too. ("Y is at X with @davidcushman).

And if his tweets aren't protected, (whose are?) then your location, who you were with and when, becomes, by default, public domain - and plenty searchable.

Whether or not the unintended sharing of my real time geolocation against my preferences matters or not doesn't sound like much of an issue - until you want to do clandestine stuff. An adhoc job interview, political deal making, affairs of the heart, etc.

Now of course in those circumstances, the wise man may choose not to geolocate themselves within or without FourSquare.

The problem though is that we may be mentioned in a tweet or status update by who ever we are with.
I don't blame FourSquare for this. I don't even seek to single them out. We are still scrabbling for the social etiquette of all this. I rarely ask, for example 'do you mind if I tweet who I'm with?'

Mostly we have the good sense to know what is right and what is wrong - when to seek permission and when to just go ahead (Antony Mayfield's excellent book, Me and My Web Shadow discusses some of this - I'll be reviewing it in detail before too long - disclosure, Antony and I sit together on the board of CitizensOnline).

But we are going through an information revolution; not just in who controls publication, distribution and user experience, but also in the volume of what has hitherto been viewed as personal, private and, to anyone other than our peers, trivial information.

In revolutions it's fair to say there's plenty of stuff that needs living in and through before we start reshaping definitions of wrong and right.

Indeed in a networked, group-forming world it's perfectly reasonable to expect niches of etiquette to emerge. One man's over-sharing may be another man's under-sharing.

If etiquette is the aggregated social conventions of a society, then 'societies' (adhoc communities of purpose) will be manifold, niche and global. One size won't fit all.

Which is all well and good when what is shared about you is shared by people you know. But that's just part of the issue.
Take a look at the picture below (that's Tory leader David Cameron at Starbucks at St Pancras).

What if either party hadn't wished to be known to be in the presence of the other, or to share that they were at x location at y time (google streetview, anyone?).

This picture was taken by someone neither of us knew and published to people that we (at least I) did.

I'm not objecting (at least not on this occasion), merely pointing out the reality of concepts of privacy about geolocation in a connected world.

Privacy seeks to obscure truth. Often to an individual's personal benefit.
Perhaps we are just going to have to get used to living in a state of truth - with the wider - by necessity less personal - benefits that may offer.
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  1. I was a little unsettled by that feature of Foursquare too - although in my case it led to a useful meeting. The key issue in much of the discussion around privacy is control - I control what I tell my Facebook friends, and my Twitter friends, and blog readers and so on. When those lines are crossed that becomes uncomfortable - because we tend to have slightly different identities for our family, friends, colleagues and so on.

    In the end it seems the only sensible option is to assume that anything you say in public can be seen by anyone, and to, in a sense, have a 'public' identity along those lines. So I ended up embracing that feature of Foursquare and share location on Twitter more in order to see who else might be there (but not that often).

  2. Really thought provoking post! Having been obsessed with Foursquare for a while I thought for sure I knew everything about it, but I had no idea about my location information being shared through friends!

    I am interested to hear what other people have to say regarding the idea that we may have to get used to living a life more "out in the open" or less private. I personally apply privacy settings to separate my business associates from my friends and I'm wondering if there will come a point that I won't be able to do that anymore....interesting.


The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?