Checking In Has Yet to Arrive

I see GPS as the third major player in the triumvirate of mobile technology. First, we put in place a ubiquitous network connection. Second came the cameras, so we could record what we saw. Finally, the GPS chips, so we can track where we've been. Beyond mobile phones, now laptops and tablets are coming with GPS built in, as well as point and shoot cameras, cars and a wide range of other devices. On anything that moves, you could imagine adding GPS.Location is a subversive technology, at once willfully tracking our moves and broadcasting our position. With a camera, GPS becomes corroborative evidence. In a car, GPS is an escape route.It's also very, very creepy.[Image credit Walter Elly]

Of all the technology blossoming over the last five years, GPS and location-based services have the potential for true, creepy danger. I know this is an alarmist attitude. Sharing has become a norm for online communities, and anyone who argues in favor of safety over too much social networking involvement sounds both over-cautious and out of touch.

After all, we've been sharing for years, now. Personal information and attitudes were always already all over the Web; they are part of its backbone (or circulatory system, at best). Social networking sites just brought all of these disparate likes and preferences together into a social profile. There are certainly socially unique aspects to social sites like Facebook, MySpace, Friendster and others. The way we relate to people may change because of the connectivity online social networking brings. But the information we share is usually not so unique. It may spread farther than it would have ten years ago, but the nature of the information we share hasn't changed much.

So, I worry about the creepiness of Facebook, but not enough to do much about it. I control my privacy settings, a feat both easier to accomplish and harder to fine tune since the great Facebook Privacy Brouhaha. I worry about the creepiness of photo sharing online, but never more than since I started adding location data to my pics.

A few weeks ago, one of my photos on a photo sharing site was marked as a favorite by someone I don't know. Never heard of him. It was a picture of my wife holding my 18-month old son in our pool. You could also click on a button and see where that picture was taken, on a map. Data hidden within the photo showed GPS coordinates.

This is a feature I had to enable on my camera, but I forgot it was turned on. More importantly, I forgot the implications of posting personal pictures with location data. It's much more creepy. I've posted plenty of pictures online. Usually I have to send links to friends and family, because they don't regularly check my photo bucket. I've never worried about who else sees them because there was an element of anonymity. Okay, you've seen my family, my backyard, the dog. But you can't find me. You don't know where I live. Until now, that is.

Thankfully, most of this technology is still completely opt-in. You have to give most mobile apps permission to use your location data. You have to enable the feature on cameras, laptops. But sometimes we spread this information around without thinking about it. For instance, we might send out Foursquare or Gowalla updates over Twitter. Is that what our followers want? Is that what we want? Do you really want to drop a pin on a map and tell everyone on Twitter where to find you?

I use Foursquare, though my use has been waning dramatically. Foursquare has not caught on yet down here in Texas, though there are plenty of active users. Only about a third of the locations from which I check in already had a mayor. Basically, Foursquare is a game, and it's an endearing one at that, because it isn't about winning or losing. It's about tracing your steps and remembering your life.

But not really. Techcrunch ran a story recently analyzing how and where we check in. The most popular venues for a check in include Subway, Starbucks, McDonald's, Burger King and Walgreens. That means we're telling everyone when we're picking up prescriptions or antacids at the pharmacy. We're letting everyone in on our three-cup-a-day coffee habit. We're working hard to become the mayor of McDonald's.

McDonald's already has a mayor.

I check in at the movie theater. I go to a lot of movies, at least once every weekend, and I like the idea of staking ownership in my favorite theater. It was easy to become mayor. Too easy. Foursquare might be more useful when thousands of people in my city are using it. If I could read what my Foursquare friends thought of a movie when I check in at a theater, that would be useful.

Instead, it's still just creepy. I'm not telling my friends what movie to see. I'm telling people that I'm going to be out of the house for a couple hours. Here's my exact location. I'll be sitting in the dark, and I won't want to be interrupted. I probably won't even answer the phone if someone calls me. I'm isolated. And I have popcorn.

I don't usually friend people on Facebook who I don't know, and if I do, I usually cut them very quickly. On Foursquare, I've never added someone I don't know, but I get requests all the time. I worry about people who are new to social networking, feeling the rush of being connected with hundreds of people at once. Getting all that attention, and wanting to build up a friend list on every social service imaginable. I worry about people with too many Foursquare friends, especially friends they don't really know.

According to that Techcrunch story, the most popular venue for checking in, across Foursquare and Gowalla, is "Home." With GPS coordinates. So, if I'm your Foursquare friend, I know when you're home, and I know when you've left. I know how long you'll be gone, and I know when you usually turn in for the night.

It's creepy, right? Maybe I'm going too far, but I think the reason Foursquare bugs me so much is that it's mostly useless for now. The creepy dimension far outweighs the game. There are a few venues giving discounts and benefits to Foursquare users, but there isn't much that users are getting in return for all the free promotion and frantic brand loyalty that Foursquare is creating. Starbucks had a special recently offering $1 off a Frappuccino to Foursquare mayors. Not a dollar off every time, one $1 discount over the entire length of the 2-month promotion. Do you know how many times I had to check in just to become mayor?

23 times. I found that out on Then I got my discount. I don't even like Frappuccinos. I'm unfussy with my coffee. After that, I felt bad holding onto the mayorship. I wanted to pass along the discount to someone else. I stopped checking in, and soon Jennifer F. was mayor. From my Foursquare app, I also know that Jennifer F. is the mayor of "All Tune and Lube," "McKinney Tavern," and "Jennifer's Palace." Also, a Subway.

Once, someone who overtook me as mayor of a local movie theater posted a message on Twitter telling people that he had stolen the title from me. Then he tried to become my Foursquare friend. Sure, so he can take away my movie theater, then my Starbucks, then what? I thought about becoming his friend just so that I could start checking in at his house. I would be the mayor of Geoff Manor, or whatever he called it.

Creepy, I told you.