I’m not crazy for using Foursquare

Cross posted on the Huffington Post

Forgive me while I blow off a little steam but these types of news reports are only helping us be even worse at risk assessment than we already are.


“Parents are just bad at risk assessment,” said Christie Barnes, a mother of four and the author of “The Paranoid Parents Guide.” “We are constantly overestimating rare dangers while underestimating common ones.”

The video linked above is another one of these reports telling us about the dangers of GPS tracking our photos and locations. I love the opening line, “….it can be just as dangerous as posting your home address for anyone to see”. Guess what? I’ve had my home address posted for anyone to see since as long as I’ve been living. It’s called a telephone book and this technology lists the names, addresses and phone numbers of virtually every resident of every location. Scary.

People like danah boyd have been down this road for years hoping to get everyone to give their heads a shake around issues like online predators and the real risks of being online. I’ve done my share as well. This continual need to see the Internet as a scary place is more than disheartening to me. Location based services and tracking may not seem like an important and necessary addition to the already massive amounts of data but too often people are missing the point and this bothers me on a few different levels.

First, I’m not suggesting that posting your location to foursquare and geotagging your photos is something everyone should be doing. Many people feel uncomfortable with the notion of posting anything online. That discomfort often comes from a fear of the unknown, difficulty in understanding what audience might view the content and simply being self-conscious. I can understand and appreciate any of those reasons and if someone chooses to guard their privacy because of that, that’s fine. But to do so because you fear that something awful will happen is something I question. There may be a case or two of stalking using location based services but I’m not aware of them. Feel free to post them in the comments. But even if there are cases, they are not widespread. I have difficulty coming up with a plausible scenario. I would feel badly for anyone that has been victimized because of this but I would wonder if it happened simply because locations were posted online or if indeed it was likely to happen anyway. We could debate that but I still will argue these cases are rare or rarer than plane crashes. In the same way someone has the right not to ride in an airplane because they don’t feel comfortable but they are wrong to not fly because they think it’s too dangerous.

Secondly, many would say, that there is no value in posting locations and thus why risk any danger at all. I mean, does anyone really need to know about your foursquare check in at McDonalds? Without going into a whole other blog post about the value of presence online, you can read Clive Thompson’s article. Here’s an excerpt:

Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting.

So that’s one reason. For many who’ve never played around with these tools, it may be hard to understand and appreciate, I get that too. Clay Shirky’s study of cognitive surplus explores how the seemingly silly nature of things like LOL cats are actually important acts that lead to something more powerful and important. In particular when it comes to location based services, consider something like Ushahidi. Using crowd sourcing and check ins, people are able to submit location based data to deal with crisis such as the Haiti earthquake. The implications are growing and have potential to make significant impact and save lives.

But here’s the deal, you can’t have significant impact without allowing and encouraging exploration and play. So while I’m not suggesting we all need to be posting the location of our photos and checking into foursquare, I want people to consider  that your choice not to do so is okay but don’t perpetuate fear by telling your kids and friends that they will be in grave danger if they do. The culture of sharing that has potential to have positive impact on society comes with allowing people to test and play with these tools. Location based services accomplish a number of things including fostering relationships and potentially saving lives. Find something else to be scared about.

Photo by dcstyles