Commentary

For Foursquare, Social Media Challenges are Fourfold

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I hate the word "buzz," especially when it's being stoked by a calculated PR push, so I'm going to start using a new word, "puzz" (publicity + buzz) to describe that phenomenon.

The last couple weeks have seen a lot of puzz about Foursquare, a very interesting, cutting-edge social media application that combines digital, mobile distribution of data with the real-world physical locations of its users. Basically, it's a social network site that tells your friends where you are. This is a very cool idea, bringing online social media -- previously restricted to the infinite, abstract Internet -- into the limited, concrete geography of the real world. The latest Foursquare puzz has it partnering with IGN Entertainment's AskMen.com site, for a deal that will distribute content about local travel and entertainment from the AskMen A. List newsletter to Foursquare users, complementing the highly targeted local social focus of the latter.

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Foursquare is certainly puzz-worthy, but for me a large part of its interest springs from curiosity about its strategy going forward: will Foursquare be able to avoid the kind of privacy-related screw-ups that have plagued Facebook and Google? The Foursquare management team must be especially vigilant, because privacy screw-ups in the abstract, infinite Internet are one thing - but screw-ups with real world ramifications are potentially far more serious.

(This question assumes that Foursquare is going to introduce new functions over time, like other social media sites -- but I could be wrong. Do any readers have ideas for interesting new Foursquare applications or features? I'd be interested to hear them).

Even before the issue of new features, I have a couple questions about the existing Foursquare system. As always, one of my main concerns is how to avoid people you don't like with a minimum of awkwardness. This is easy enough when the entire scope of interaction is limited to the virtual space of the Internet. But when a social network informs other users of your real world location, it gets much more complicated.

For example, say someone you don't like asks to be included among your Foursquare followers. Of course you have the option of just rejecting them outright, with all the attendant awkwardness. But supposing you cave in and accept their request, you must now engage in a subtle dance of disinformation and exclusion. The most obvious step, of course, would be excluding them from your active alert list, so they don't get location updates.

But it's not quite that simple: what if they are also following one of your friends, who tracks you down via Foursquare and happens to post your shared location? Then the non-friend shows up, putting you and your friend in an awkward position: either your slight to the non-friend will be revealed, since you were using Foursquare but excluding that individual, or your friend will be forced to lie - saying he or she didn't find out about your location via Foursquare (provided this wasn't already disclosed on the site, e.g. "going to meet Jim at the Cupcake Cupola").

The more friends who come to meet you (who are followed in common by the non-friend) the harder it becomes to lie: if the non-friend arrives to find nine people gathered in a spot, all of whom he is "following" on Foursquare, and there's just one who didn't alert him to his/her location, the non-friend is bound to suspect a dis.

In the old days, you could ignore someone's call and say you didn't hear your phone ring, or didn't have cell service where you were, or claim you haven't checked your email for the last couple hours, etc. But the transparency and simultaneity of social network technology makes it much, much harder to come up with these kinds of excuses - if your other friends know where you are, the non-friend will know he or she has been deliberately excluded.

While it's incredibly petty (I'm just going to issue this as a blanket disclaimer when writing about social media) these kinds of things matter to people, and have a potentially decisive impact on the quality of their user experience with social networks. As sites like Foursquare move to integrate virtual social media and real world locations and events, is there any way to avoid this kind of awkward disjuncture and collision? Or is this simply an essential, unavoidable aspect of real life, which can't be engineered away?

2 comments about "For Foursquare, Social Media Challenges are Fourfold".
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  1. Annette Holbrook from WolfBrook, February 26, 2010 at 8:47 a.m.

    This entire "problem" sounds like an issue for 14 year olds. Seriously, does anyone really need to worry that someone who doesn't like you is going to go to all this trouble just to show up somewhere you are. I doubt it.

  2. Brian Asner from Upshot, February 26, 2010 at 12:43 p.m.

    Foursquare doesn't automatically update your location - you have the option to check-in (or not) at any given venue. If you're worried about running into someone, just don't check in.

    We'll be posting an overview of the marketing implications for Foursquare today at <a href=http://theawesomeblog.net target=_NEW>theawesomeblog.net</a> that will answer these questions more in-depth.

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