Social: The Location-Based Gender Divide

Women's fear of predators is the biggest hurdle for location-based social media

MayorOne of the most interesting aspects of the new wave of location-based social networks is the wide disparity in adoption rates by men and women: in November a survey by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project found that men outnumbered women 2-to-1 on location-based networks, with 6% of online men participating versus 3% of online women.

While some of this difference might be due to men making up a larger proportion of tech-obsessed early adopters, a discrepancy which past experience with other online services suggests will diminish with time, the "real" reason isn't something that will just naturally fade away: women are concerned about their personal privacy and safety. The question is whether location-based social networks like Foursquare, Gowalla and Facebook Places can effectively address this concern, which is impeding the development of a huge and potentially lucrative market.

It's probably not news to most readers that the threat of certain kinds of physical violence and intimidation is 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. Complicating the situation, in most cases where the victim is female, the assailant is someone she knows - often quite well. In 2007, 21.5% of stalking cases targeting female victims were committed by an ex-intimate partner while 16.4% were committed by a friend, roommate or neighbor.

This last piece of information suggests that location-based social networks are facing a much more complex and intractable problem than anyone may have realized, because the usual nostrums - "make sure you adjust your privacy settings so strangers can't see your profile" - might not be sufficient. Indeed, strangers are only part of the problem - and a small part at that. Thinking about all the potential vulnerabilities quickly becomes an exercise in paranoia. For example, even if a female user blocks threatening users from seeing her profile, 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. While this might sound implausible, we shouldn't forget that angry, deranged individuals are capable of making huge efforts to achieve their goals.

Of course, it's still possible for women to manage their location-based social network profiles in such a way to keep their whereabouts private, but this may involve compromises that diminish the utility of the services to users and marketers. For example, some users don't "check in" to a location until they are leaving, but that obviously makes it impossible to use the services to meet friends (or become the "mayor" of a particular spot, if that's your thing).

In short, the safety issue seems likely to remain a major obstacle to further adoption of location-based social networks by women, unless their concerns are effectively allayed by comprehensive, convincing security policies - something I'll be following with interest over the next couple years.

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