More on Foursquare and Gender (It's the Privacy, Stupid)
I hate having to admit that I'm wrong, so I'm not going to. However, I will concede that I missed a very important point in my post yesterday about the gender imbalance on Foursquare. Fortunately, a number of astute reader comments drew my attention to the fact that women may be avoiding location-based networks out of concern for privacy and personal safety.
On review this seems like a pretty obvious insight; in fact, I'm kicking myself, because I just wrote about a Webroot survey which found 49% of female users of location-based social networks say they worry about a stalker using their information, compared to 32% of men (who hope someone uses the information to find them). Further, readers pointed out that the 4-to-1 skew in Foursquare's reported male-to-female ratio is much more pronounced than the gender imbalance in the early days of other online activities I cited in yesterday's post, suggesting there are other factors at work besides (or in addition to) men rushing to adopt new technologies before women.
Before proceeding, I should note anecdotal evidence from other readers who say they found the gender balance pretty even, and Foursquare itself, which says it's now closer to 60-40 men-women. But it's still worth addressing the privacy and safety issues, which have broader relevance to other location-based networks besides Foursquare.
Everyone should be concerned about privacy and safety, of course, but the fact remains that the threat of certain kinds of physical violence and intimidation is simply greater for women in general: In 2008, the U.S. Department of Justice estimated that women were the victims of 182,000 rapes or sexual assaults, compared to 40,000 for men, and in 2005-2006 there were 20 cases of stalking per 1,000 adult women, versus seven per 1,000 adult men.
And within these statistics is a fact which could hugely complicate the issue of privacy for location-based networks: In most cases where the victim is female, the assailant is someone she knows. According to the DOJ, strangers are responsible for 31% of rapes or sexual assaults, 10% of stalking cases, and 10% of murders victimizing women; the rest are committed by acquaintances, often close acquaintances. In 2007, 21.5% of cases of stalking targeting female victims were committed by an ex-intimate partner, and 16.4% were committed by a friend, roommate, or neighbor.
Many women are probably already aware of these facts, but they raise some challenging issues for location-based social networks. Basically a user's particular privacy settings may be adequate one day but inadequate the next, for example if a partner or friend suddenly becomes abusive. And while there are some obvious solutions, they aren't foolproof. Sure, the user can block the threatening person from seeing her profile, but they may well have friends in common on their location-based social network -- and a determined assailant could seek out these people and (without revealing their intentions) casually glean the whereabouts of the intended victim.
Maybe this scenario sounds paranoid, but I can still picture it happening. Should the network be held legally liable in this case? How about the unwitting informant? Turning to prevention, should location-based social networks advise users not to share information about other users, even in face-to-face interactions? Meanwhile I'm made uneasy by reports that other social networks (not Foursquare, and not necessarily location-based nets) don't always implement profile changes right away, because of slow servers, software glitches etc.; the location-based nets have to be completely and immediately responsive, no small demand. I suppose the most secure course of action would be to stop logging in altogether, at least for a time, though this seems like a victory for the aggressor, who succeeds in isolating the victim.
These are just my immediate (superficial) thoughts about a serious and complicated issue, which could indeed hinder location-based networks if left unaddressed. I'm curious to hear what kinds of privacy policies and guidelines women would like to see implemented or published by location-based social networks to mitigate these kinds of hazards.