Don’t Know What Foursquare Is? You’re Not Alone

Plenty of people don't know what the hell people are talking about when they get nervous about social media.

The Foursquare-based iPhone app Girls Around Me has been the subject of much media attention and controversy for the last few days, ever since the website Cult of Mac wrote a detailed explanation of the site’s functionality, describing it as a creepy tool that could be used for stalking. As we speak, more mentions proliferate, this one included.

While the controversy—and the app’s resulting hiatus—provides an excellent test case for discussions about online privacy, I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of people (even those interested in privacy issues and public safety) have no idea what the whole thing is about. So let’s bring you up to speed.

First of all, Foursquare. Don’t know what it is? That’s completely okay. Here’s an example of how it works. I decide to go to the cafe at Barnes & Noble on Rittenhouse Square for a scone. I open up my Foursquare app and “check in.” If Foursquare friends are in the neighborhood, they can “see” where I am and I can “see” them. Maybe someone sends me a little note: “Hey, I’m in the park by the fountain. Come by!” Or maybe someone surprises me as I’m brushing crumbs off my face. If I’ve configured the settings appropriately, I should be happy with the company. Other apps—Facebook, Twitter—allow for location disclosures too. It all fosters engaging with other human beings.

Some apps take it to another level. They synthesize the separate platforms (Facebook, Twitter). Here’s why: When I check in on Foursquare at Barnes & Noble, it does me no good that my old friend Gina Marie has tweeted she’s in the park. But if we use a tool like Sonar or Banjo, we can see each other. I can also access her personal Facebook info like her birthday and photos she’s taken. In the best of all possible worlds, I learn that she’s nearby and that it’s her birthday, and I quickly buy some flowers and pop out of a bush in Rittenhouse Square singing “Happy Birthday.” (That’d be a birthday to remember.) In the worst of all possible worlds, I’d find myself visited at Barnes & Noble by an angry, resentful ex saying, “You have crumbs on your face, bitch. Oh, and you forgot to unfriend me.”

Girls Around Me is like Sonar or Banjo: It’s an application that ties threads together. It got into trouble, I think, because of its marketing. Let’s take a look at some promo language for Sonar:

Sonar is a mobile application that uncovers the hidden connections you share with people nearby. We bottle the 1000s of connections that you miss every day—friends, friends of friends, fellow alumni, like-minded strangers—and put them in the palm of your hand.

Now let’s take a look at Banjo:

With Banjo, never miss the chance to connect when it alerts you about friends you didn’t know were nearby. Banjo can take you global people-watching to view and learn about people anywhere in the world.

Girls Around Me gets it wrong from the start. First, the name. Then the logo: a female silhouette fit for a mudflap. Finally:

In the mood for love, or just after a one-night stand? Girls Around Me puts you in control! Browse photos of lovely local ladies and tap their thumbnail to find out more about them. This Foursquare-based tool helps you see where nearby girls are checking in, and shows you what they look like and how to get in touch!

Girls Around Me’s technology isn’t the problem; it’s the target audience. It blatantly appeals to frat-boy chauvinists who are urged to take advantage of the fact that so many people keep their Facebook profiles public (almost a quarter of those between the ages of 18 to 29, according to Pew). The app panders to guys who want to walk up to a woman in a bar and say, “I bet you’re a Taurus …” and know that she is.

Unlike Grindr, a gay dating site that’s consensual, Girls Around Me is not for two parties. It’s simply parasitic code that takes advantage of women’s ignorance about how much of their information is accessible. Some female commentators are offended by the notion that adult women don’t know what’s public and/or can’t protect themselves from Girls Around Me. No offense intended. The reality is we all make poor decisions sometimes, whether about men or about privacy settings, and Girls Around Me plays on both blind spots.

Don’t take it for granted that you know exactly how much of your information is public and how it’s tracked by other apps like Girls Around Me. Before the FTC’s settlement with Facebook over privacy issues last year, the social media behemoth changed privacy settings without alerting users—meaning everyone, regardless of age or tech-savvy, was blindsided. And Cult of Mac makes a pretty good argument that women weren’t aware of Girls Around Me until, well, now.

Rather than delete your profiles, make doubly, triply sure you’ve changed your settings. Cult of Mac has a great guide here.