Location-based social media in Boston

photo by ogilvypr

As part of the Social Media Collective this summer, I’ve been working on a couple of projects involving location-based social media, Foursquare in particular. For one of these projects I’ve been interviewing a range of Foursquare participants, as well as a variety of Boston area vendors who utilize Foursquare for their respective businesses. I’ve been gathering information and working to understand how and why managers of Foursquare’s “claimed venues” and their patrons use location-based services; how information sharing occurs over these social networks; how participants understand their own participation and the audiences for their actions; as well as attitudes about location announcement and locational privacy over these networks. There has been a significant amount of important research about sharing, privacy strategies and concerns, context collapse, social status, and illusions of control within social media networks — several of these publications have come out of the Social Media Collective at MSRNE. I want to expand on these studies by considering what changes and what remains the same once location and physical place are explicit parts of these social networks.

Location-based social media like Foursquare have been praised as premiere trends in social networking and criticized as systems that allow unwitting users to reveal too much information over a social network. Discussions about the benefits of location-based services (LBS) for commercial enterprise, as well as concerns over the intentional, accidental, or automatic disclosure of location have become central to policy debates, industry analyses, and popular practice and discourse. While many people and businesses are continually opting-in to location-based social media, several disparate imaginations of how location announcement can be profitable and purposeful or risky and dangerous are circulating. Although conclusions are being drawn about “why location matters”, relatively little is known about how people actually use location-based social media — especially concerning the physical/digital relationships and information flows between venues and the people who check-in to them.

So, when I found out that Boston’s “Social Media Day” was devoted to conversations and perspectives on the “evolution of location-based social media and content sharing”, I couldn’t stay away. The moderator and audience posed several interesting questions that echoed some of the themes in my study: what’s important or meaningful about location; how do you understand users attitudes about disclosing personal information; why would or should a business find location disclosure useful? One of the most interesting moments (aside from realizing that the majority of the crowd was probably too young to catch the moderator’s Phil Donahue reference! — see Twitter feed #smdaybos) was when the subject of privacy and privacy protection was broached. A rich spectrum of opinions about privacy protection were voiced among the panelists: privacy should be a major consumer concern and businesses should work hard to protect privacy; if you opt-in to social media then privacy is probably not a major concern; even if privacy is a concern, you’re still subject to the policies of social media companies and other entities beyond your control; maybe you’re not concerned about privacy because you really don’t know what’s happening with your data. All are fascinating perspectives that I’ve come across in my interviews as well.

However, a telling moment was when one of the panelists (who, like the majority of the other panelists, deals in location data to some extent) asked the audience to raise their hands if they had privacy concerns about disclosing their location. There were a lot of hands in the air. Surprised by this result, the panelist added: “I’m surprised because I’m not [concerned], and I’m in the business. I’m surprised by the number because I figured we crossed that path.” This sort of tension between business logics, realities, practices, and strategies, and those employed by consumers in regard to location-based social media is what I’m particularly interested in — not solely in regard to privacy and surveillance but in respect to the meaning of location announcement, the use of location data, and the desires, fears, and expectations surrounding location and social media as well.

I’m still working on analyzing and collecting interviews, so I’m going to hold off on offering any conclusions or suggestions just yet. But as I interact with more Foursquare participants and more vendors who participate in location-based social media, the stories they tell about reading and understanding location announcement converge and diverge in meaningful and unexpected ways. Both categories of Foursquare users tend to tell stories about location as some sort of “context” for “connection” — but often these stories tend to be very different. (Genevieve Bell’s presentation at Where 2.0 [especially around 7:20] gets at this idea as well, although not in regard to Foursquare). Additionally, ideas about who’s “listening” to location and who’s responding to information about location, when, why, and how has been brought up by several participants as both a strategy for interaction AND as a point of concern. Perhaps as a bit of a teaser for the final paper, I’ve found that: monitoring customer location isn’t always unwanted (nor is it always about monitoring the customer); announcing location doesn’t always mean you want to be heard; and rendering information about location as physical when it’s meant to be virtual (and vice versa) is as much about place as it’s about power.

As the use of location-based social media is becoming more pervasive among commercial enterprises as well as consumers and the public at large, I think it’s increasingly important to understand perspectives from all the parties operating within these mediated, location-based networks. If policies regulating privacy and commercial use of location information are going to be drafted, and vendors and consumers are going to continue to interact over location-based social media, we need to understand they ways in which they understand their own participation on these networks. Needless to say, I think ethnography can help with that.

If you’re a business that uses Foursquare or other location-based social media, or if you participate in location-based social media and would like to be included in this study, please contact me. I’d love to hear from you. Thanks!

4 thoughts on “Location-based social media in Boston

  1. Federica Timeto

    Since I’m starting a new research on this same topic, I would be extremely happy to share opinions, research methods and views with you (I am at the very beginning, though). I am a PhD candidate in Sociology of Communication at the University of Urbino Carlo Bo, Italy. Let’s keep in touch!

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