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Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014

FourSquare -- fun, or privacy risk?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

I have to say, I don't "get" FourSquare.

I originally said the same thing about some other Internet services which I now enjoy, so perhaps I'll change my mind over time. But I'm not sure I will.

In any case, I'm trying it out for a few days for the benefit of you, the reader, to try to see what the fuss is about. If I don't like it, I'll delete my account.

FourSquare (foursquare.com) is a location-based web service -- it's got aspects of a game, a social networking tool, a customer loyalty program and a consumer recommendation tool. Here's how it works: you sign up for an account, and, ideally, download the FourSquare app onto your smartphone. I believe there are ways of using FourSquare without a smartphone, by way of text message or the web site, but they're a lot more trouble. This particular service is definitely geared towards smartphone users.

Once you've downloaded the app, you use it to "check in" to various locations through FourSquare as you visit them in real life. If you go to your favorite restaurant or store, you tell the FourSquare app that you're doing so. If a particular venue is not already in FourSquare's database, you can add it.

Hook up with friends

FourSquare can, if you like, be set up to publish your checkins on your Twitter and/or Facebook accounts. (For example, "John is now at Shelbyville Times-Gazette," plus a link to the page for that venue at the FourSquare web site.) Your checkins will also be available to the people who are your friends on the FourSquare service. Friending someone on FourSquare is a two-way process, like Facebook, where both parties have to agree to the relationship.

Supposedly, if you're a socially-active teen or a 20-something, you can use FourSquare to hook up with friends. ("Oh! Look! Justin is at McDonald's. Let's go see him!")

You can also leave tips related to a particular venue. For example, for a restaurant you might say "Try the artichoke dip ... it's really good" or "I always get lousy service on Tuesday nights." Someone who checks in to that venue in the future, whether they're your friend or not, will see your tip.

Be the mayor

There's also a competition aspect. If you check in to a location more than any other FourSquare user, you become the "mayor" of that location. You also get badges on your FourSquare profile for reaching various milestones (many based on number of checkins).

Of course, there's no way to keep someone from checking in to a location on FourSquare even if they aren't actually at that location. One can imagine some unsportsmanlike crank checking in to a location over and over, without actually being there, just so that he can get the mayor badge.

FourSquare has begun offering tie-ins with various corporate partners, and it encourages venues to offer specials in return for FourSquare check-ins. For example, according to the FourSquare web site, Chili's in Shelbyville offers free chips and salsa if you check in on FourSquare during your visit. Business owners can claim their venues at the FourSquare web site so that they can announce and promote such specials to FourSquare users.

By the way, the FourSquare web site promotes apps for the iPhone, Android and Blackberry operating systems, but there's also an app for Windows Mobile. It's called WinMoSquare, and it's available from the Windows Mobile Marketplace. It's still listed as being in beta, which may be why it's not showcased on the FourSquare site, but it seems to work fine for me.

Privacy concerns

There are, of course, privacy issues implicit in any location-based service. Do you really want to tell people where you are? Your actual FourSquare status is available only to your FourSquare friends, but if you let FourSquare publish that status to Twitter or Facebook it may be more widely available, depending on your privacy settings for each of those applications.

I've done keyword searches for unrelated things on Twitter and, as a part of the search results, I've seen teenagers whom I don't know making FourSquare "check ins" at home. That pretty much gives out their home address, assuming they've actually set up their home as a FourSquare venue using the real, specific street address.

There's little if any reason to ever "check in" at a private residence on FourSquare, and I would strongly recommend never doing so. Remember, you make the decisions about if and when to announce your location.

If you use FourSquare, be aware of your privacy settings -- not only for FourSquare but for any other services with which you've connected FourSquare, such as Facebook or Twitter. Make sure you know what information you're giving out and who has the potential to see it. And, parents, make sure you know the answers to those questions for your teen who's using FourSquare, or some other location-based service.

--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.

John I. Carney
Loose Talk / Charge Complete
John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette.