After quite a bit of personal debate over the past week, I deleted my Foursquare account today. Lee Kolbert‘s December 21st post, “Why I Deleted Foursquare, and Why You Should, Too!” was the catalyst which encouraged me to seriously weigh the benefits and potential drawbacks of using Foursquare. 2346 checkins, 501 “friend” connections, 377 shared photos, 34 tips, 50 badges, and 8 mayorships after joining Foursquare, my account has been deleted and all those digital footprints are (I think) erased. The process of making the decision to delete my Foursquare account and stop using the service gave me an opportunity to consider as well as define my own “personal privacy boundaries” in an era in which some claim “privacy is dead.” In this post I’ll recap the how and the “whys” of this process.
Foursquare has been a significant part of my digital life as a learning consultant the past couple years, and as a member of my local community in Oklahoma. One sign of this is the fact that I’ve kept (until today) the Foursquare iPhone app on my homescreen, outside a parent/enclosing app folder. There are very few members of that app club.
Foursquare has been, for me, largely a game. It’s mildly interesting and entertaining to see what other people I know are doing and where they are in real time, but I’ve also had lots of people follow me who I don’t know personally. Seeing their status updates in the app has therefore been less interesting or valuable. Unlike Twitter, Facebook, or other social networks I use, in Foursquare people don’t generally share links or ideas… It’s basically a place to share your current location along with an occasional photo. I’ve taken pleasure in claiming the “mayorship” of different locations, and spent some brain cycles (not a huge number, but enough to notice) using the app and thinking about information from the app. Foursquare has been in my “digital headspace” a fair amount over the past several years.
Aside from the minor amusement / entertainment value of Foursquare, the other significant benefit I can identify from the app is the opportunity it provides to add photos to significant places in our lives which others can see and browse. For me, the most important of these places has been our church. I’ve shared around 20 different photos at and in our church over the past year or so. All those photos are now deleted, since my Foursquare account is gone.
I have shared “my status” attending our church and events there primarily because I think as a Christian, my life in and with Christ should “leak out” for others to see. It shouldn’t be hidden. I don’t share anything about my faith or walk with Jesus because of any desire to boast or seek attention for myself, but rather because of my desire for God to be glorified and my need (as a sinner) for God’s love and forgiveness to be highlighted for others to see – so they will seek Him too. I want to share my journey of faith because I believe I’m called to be a witness to the amazing things God has done and continues to do in my life, and because “our digital witness” for God can bring more people to start a life-changing relationship with Christ. Losing the opportunity to share these photos and glimpses into our church life is the most significant drawback I see to deleting my Foursquare account.
Before elaborating more on the “why” of deleting my Foursquare account I’ll share about about the “how.” First, I chose to delete all the Foursquare cross-posts to my Facebook account. This may happen auto-magically when you delete your Foursquare account, but I wasn’t sure so I deleted photos and posts in Facebook first. On my Facebook profile page I clicked the PENCIL icon in the upper right corner of my Foursquare checkin widget to edit my settings.
I next chose to REMOVE THE APP.
I checked the box to REMOVE ALL FOURSQUARE ACTIVITY ON FACEBOOK before removing the app. If I hadn’t done this, I suspect my geo-located photos would have remained on Facebook.
After deleting my Foursquare cross-posts to Facebook, I followed these instructions to delete my Foursquare account.
In my Foursquare settings (using a laptop web browser) I clicked privacy settings and chose DELETE ACCOUNT.
After confirming my password, the account and its content evaporated into the digital ether. (Allegedly)
The “how” of this process is faster and easier to explain than the “why,” but the “why” is the more important part of this post to consider.
There are significant negatives or “cons” to using and sharing on Foursquare, and Lee Kolbert highlighted a big, recent policy change in her December 2013 post. Foursquare no longer allows users to share privately. I’ve always shared on Foursquare publicly, so this policy change didn’t affect me. The reason Lee is wary of public sharing, and the primary reason I decided (finally) to delete my Foursquare account, is because of the potential which exists for people with harmful intentions to stalk someone or members of a user’s family using realtime as well as longitudinal location information.
Is it silly and/or paranoid to worry about people using location information to stalk you or a member of your family? That, in my view, is the key question to consider in the context of deleting a Foursquare account and choosing NOT to disclose location information on social media websites. What should our “personal privacy boundaries” be when it comes to the information we share about ourselves and our lives? Deciding whether to keep my Foursquare account and keep using it helped me define my own privacy boundaries, which have (up to this point) been minimal. I’ve deleted or prevented the posting of geo-location information for photos at our house on Flickr, but other than that I’ve been pretty lax and open about sharing location info online. I’ll share three stories to support my contention that this concern for location privacy IS valid, two about other people and one which is personal.
Story 1: Allison Stokke
I cited the May 2007 Washington Post article, “Teen Tests Internet’s Lewd Track Record,” in my January 2008 post, “Understanding and respecting copyright a problem for many.” It tells the story of then-18 year old Allison Stokke, whose photograph shared on a sports blog led to the viral sharing of her picture on social websites in sexual contexts she and her family found offensive. This went beyond a post in a larger forum, people created entire websites on custom domains they registered in her name and created pseudo-social media accounts for and about her. Based on what I read about this situation, it didn’t lead to real world / face-to-face harassment or harmful physical encounters, but it certainly created a lot of emotional stress for Allison and her family. She maintains infrequently active Instagram (allisonstokke) and Twitter (@StokkeAllison) accounts, and I haven’t read any more articles about her since I wrote that 2008 post. The website registered five years ago in her name is now parked without content, but hundreds of photos of her are scattered around the Internet on different sites.
What are the takeaways from this story and situation? For me, it made me think how quickly photos can go viral and be used in ways that spiral out of anyone’s direct control. The 2007 Washington Post article specifically mentions parental concerns about stalkers, and if location information about Allison had been available at that time I can imagine it would have provided potential stalkers with data which they could have easily used in harmful ways. As the parent of three kids, including two daughters, this made me and still makes me rethink the value as well as potential danger of sharing not only photos but also location information. The Allison Stokke story comes to mind readily when I consider the issues surrounding social media sharing, location data, and potential stalker situations. It gives me pause to consider how I might compromise the future safety of my family by sharing digital photos and location information online, regularly. This story hasn’t encouraged me to stop publicly sharing family photos, but it has encouraged me to stop sharing location information with Foursquare and similar apps.
Story 2: Digitally Saavy Burglars
The second story which comes to mind and informs my thoughts about location data sharing and privacy involves a newspaper reporter a few years ago who shared his vacation via social media, and returned home to find his house had been robbed. I can’t find the link to the story I remember reading now, but the gist is captured in the February 2010 post, “Over-sharing and Location Awareness” by the founders of the website PleaseRobMe.com. The February 2010 Mashable article, “Are We All Asking to Be Robbed?” and September 2010 TechCruch article, “Facebook In New Hampshire Turns Into A Real-Life PleaseRobMe.com” drive the same point home. Location sharing has been used and will likely continue to be used by burglars in the 21st century. Unfortunately we’ve had friends as well as family members robbed in the past few years, and I don’t think social media played a role in any of those crimes. That potential definitely exists, however, and has made me change my social media sharing habits on family vacations in the past. It’s also something I’ve thought a lot more about in the context of Foursquare and broadcasting “patterns of behavior” via location sharing apps. As the numbers of people following me on social media sites like Twitter and Google+ has grown in the past few years, my concerns about this have as well.
Story 3: The Donut Palace
The last story is a personal one, and is a tale I haven’t shared online previously. About a year ago on a Saturday morning, our family went out for doughnuts at a nearby favorite store. I checked in with Foursquare when we arrived, and while we were standing in line an extremely strange and unsettling thing happened. The phone in the donut store rang, the employee serving us answered it, and then turned to us and said, “Is one of you named Wes? The phone is for you.” They handed me the phone and the person on the line asked if my name was Wes. I asked them how they got this number, and as I recall they didn’t answer or speak further. I think I handed the phone back to the employee, they hung up, and together my wife and I decided to immediately head home after buying our donuts. To this day I have no idea who did this, if it was just a practical joke, or what the situation was. It not only shook me up but also frightened my wife and our three kids, and made us all much more aware of the potential impact of realtime location sharing with apps/services like Foursquare.
I considered deleting my Foursquare account at that time, but decided to share less instead, especially when I was out with my family. I also almost entirely stopped cross-posting Foursquare checkins to Facebook and Twitter, which I’d done selectively in the past. I didn’t have another experience like that one, and without another catalyst to think about these issues I guess I just put them out of my mind. When we’ve been on family vacations in the past few years I’ve shared fewer realtime photos and less information about where we were, but I haven’t stopped entirely. This was, without a doubt, the most personally “jarring” social media situation I’ve experienced involving privacy and safety. The story ends there, nothing bad happened, but it gave everyone in our family a fright I don’t think anyone will forget. That experience and those emotions also influenced my decision today to delete my Foursquare account. The slight benefits of using the service don’t outweigh the risks of potential harms it presents.
I’ve written a large number of posts over the past decade concerning privacy, photo sharing and location sharing. In general, my position has been to advocate awareness and avoid panic. A few examples are:
- Photo Geotagging Poses Privacy Risks, But Is NOT a Reason for Panic (Feb 2011)
- Photographic privacy is over (Nov 2009)
- Extent of a child’s right to online privacy (Jan 2008)
- Include Geo Location Info for iPhoto Exported Flickr Images (Aug 2011)
- Is it right to decide to make your children famous? (Jan 2011)
- Facial Recognition in Software Programs and Online (Oct 2010)
The challenge Lee’s recent post about deleting her Foursquare account posed to me, and I hope will pose to you (along with the other stories I’ve related here) involves our personal boundaries for digital privacy. Do you have a personal boundary? If so, what defines that boundary? What are the reasons you maintain that boundary? How has that definition of a personal privacy boundary changed over time?
Since I first started connecting with others and publishing ideas online in the mid-1990s, I’ve definitely grown more comfortable and positive about the benefits of digital sharing. I remain convinced there are tremendous positives to digital idea sharing, and will continue to share ideas via various social media and online channels / websites. There are definitely downsides to digital media use, however, and location sharing is one area where I’ve decided to draw a line in the sand.
What’s your take on digital location sharing and personal privacy boundaries? Have you deleted your Foursquare account? Why or why not? Are there important considerations and pros or cons you’ve used to make decisions about location sharing technologies which I haven’t addressed here?
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