The announcement is imminent: Facebook is about to launch its new Facebook Places service. Positioned as a competitor to the increasingly popular FourSquare, and the slightly less popular Loopt and others, Facebook Places is another of the location based social media services, also known as geosocial networking. Put briefly, it is a service that allows you to “check in” when you arrive somewhere, letting everyone who follows you know where you are (and, often, what you think of where you are). Other services that offer some variation of geosocial networking include BrightKite, Google Latitude, Gowalla, Socialight, Hotlist, Scvngr, Fire Eagle, and Gbanga.
While this list suggests the question “Which location-based social media service should I use?” the real question should be “Should I use location-based social media at all?”
And, we would say “no”, or, at least, if you must use it, use it with great care.
Here’s the thing – generally, people are getting less and less careful (or more and more careless, if you will) with their personal information. This is particularly true for people under a certain age, although not exclusively so. So, while there are precautions you can and should take when using location-based services such as FourSquare or the upcoming Facebook Places, unfortunately people rarely think to take them, and the younger the user is, the more likely they are to think they are unnecessary or, even, to scoff at them.
There are two basic issues with advertising to the world – or even just your online friends – where you are, or aren’t. With respect to where you are, a good way to think about location-based social media is to imagine that you are being featured in a national television commercial, with a big caption that says “Find me at such-and-such a location at this particular time.” You have virtually no control over who is actually going to see that message, and anybody could show up at that location at that time. Maybe they just want to meet you. But maybe they want to stalk you. Or harass you, sexually assault you, or worse.
With respect to the “where you aren’t”, imagine yourself walking around the streets of the city wearing a t-shirt that says “If you can read this then I won’t be home for hours, and my home address is 123 Main St..” Because while location-based social media says where you are, it means that you aren’t in any of the other places you would ordinarily be, such as home, work, or other regular hangouts. And make no mistake, those addresses (home, work, etc.) are easy to find. [Don’t believe us? Try Googling your name, address, and telephone number, both individually, and in combination with each other.]
“But I restrict who can see my social media message to just close friends and family,” you may object.
Sure you do.
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But you have no control over what they do with that information, do you? They can forward it to someone – and they can forward it to everyone. Everyone who follows them, everyone on the mailing lists they are on, everyone in their address book.
Not only that, but the social networking services with location-based services are storing your locations. As we wrote when Twitter offered its own location-based ‘enhancement’:
Of particular note is that even if you are only sharing a general location (i.e. the town, or region), Twitter is actually making note of your exact location, and they store that information, for every location-enabled Tweet that you make, for six months!
Says Twitter, “Similarly to how we store the time stamp that says when the Tweet was made, Twitter stores the location information that is publicly displayed with a Tweet for as long as the Tweet exists (or until you click the “clear my location history” button on the Settings page as described here). … If you chose to tweet with a place, but not to share your exact coordinates, Twitter still needs to use your coordinates to determine your Place. In order to improve the accuracy of our geolocation systems (for example, the way we define neighborhoods and places), Twitter will temporarily store those coordinates for 6 months.”
The social networking services like to let you think that you can control who sees your information and what is done with it. They give you that false sense of security, by allowing you to limit your networks – limit who has access to what you put out there. And technically those limits ‘work’ inasmuch as if you are not part of my “friends” network, then you won’t see my location in the first instance. But unless you limit that network to people you trust 110% to not share that information with anyone else at all – ever, then you really aren’t protecting yourself that well.
It’s important to keep in mind that there is a real perception that private information acquired on the Internet somehow isn’t really private. Because it’s being read on a screen, because it is not being relayed in person – because it is so once-removed – people often don’t think twice about sharing information they read online. Especially younger people, who are much more likely to share that information in their own social networking rounds (“Mindy’s mom is out of town and so I’m headed to a party at Mindy’s house.”)
So, again, we say don’t use location-based social media at all, and, if you “must” use it, at least understand the potential ramifications, and take what precautions you can.
In addition, it’s a really good idea to regularly Google yourself, doing separate Google searches for your name, your email address, your Twitter/Facebook/FourSquare/etc. usernames, your home address, and your telephone number. Quite often you will be astonished at what you find. How you react to that discovery will in large part be governed by your age. If you are over the age of 30, you may be horrified. But if you are a teen or young adult, you may have the opposite reaction, and think “Cooool!” And therein lies a large part of the problem.