Where It’s At with Location-based Apps

FourSquareWe’re at the point in the digital age where we make choices almost every day about how much personal stuff to share online.

Some struggle with this. We’re told by news media that Gen X doesn’t sweat it at all. I have several Baby Boomer pals and slightly younger friends who’re engaged in an internal wrestling match with themselves right now. They know the world has changed, and they’ve adapted to being online for work, but they can’t quite make the leap to placing life details out there – whether it’s joining Facebook or posting career history on LinkedIn.

I’ve been there myself. When I joined Twitter in 2011, I did so under a pseudonym. I considered it my “training wheel” Twitter account. And I resisted Facebook – long and hard. But I get it now. Being on Facebook, reading and interacting with messages and photos that friends have posted, and having folks respond to my posts…well, it takes using Facebook to feel comfortable with it.

Same thing all over again for location-based platforms, like Foursquare. Geolocation tools are typically apps you download to your phone and permission to <gulp!> access your exact current location.

Freaky, right? I mean, who needs a phone stalking you? Your own phone. One that you’ve allowed to stalk you.

A lot of women have said a big “No, thanks” to this kind of online interaction. When the makers of location-based apps survey potential users, the No. 1 obstacle to adoption is privacy.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Foursquare

Most of my close friends would be appalled to know I use Foursquare given my stance on privacy. Nevertheless, I’ve somehow become a Foursquare addict. How did this happen?

While I would never push anyone to use an online app or service that made them uncomfortable, here are a few thoughts from a relatively new user:

Just a Small Circle of Friends – The thing I didn’t understand about an app like Foursquare is that it’s a lot like Facebook. In other words, I have some choice about who I’m connected with and thus who sees when I check in at an event, restaurant or work. So far, I’m only sharing this information with 10 friends, far fewer than on Facebook or in my Google+ circles.

The Wider World – That said, when I check in somewhere – or score a mayorship – Foursquare does share that information more widely than my chosen friends. When I tap the Check-in tag, the app shows me how many other Foursquare users have checked in at the same location today, and I may even see their avatars (their photos and names). So, if a stranger wanted to find me, it’s not impossible. This makes it incumbent on me to be careful about the types of places I check in – always public, never at home – and to do so only when I’m comfortable sharing. It’d be highly unlikely you’d be singled out at an airport or concert check-in, where there are crowds of people. On the other hand, I get my mail at a retail mailbox service, and I never check in there.

The same is true when the app makes me “mayor” at a favorite restaurant – Foursquare shows me who I’ve ousted as mayor. Likewise, when I lose a mayorship, the app tells me who’s nabbed the office from me (and informs that person that I’m the one he or she has ousted).

On the other hand, I have control over whether I share my Foursquare check-in further afield, with social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook.

Coupons, Discounts and Freebies, Oh My – This is what really got me hooked. I checked in at the Getty Museum one sunny Saturday – my very first use of Foursquare at the Getty – and was rewarded with a first-timer’s discount at the museum store, good just for that day. The discount was tasty enough that I bought a photography book I wouldn’t have otherwise purchased. Now I wonder why more stores and restaurants aren’t offering discounts, incentives and engagement opportunities for their Foursquare fans.

Same As It Ever Was – When I access Foursquare, it zeroes in on my location and shows me a list of possibilities in the immediate area. For a creature of habit like me, this at first seemed silly, but even I tire of my habitude – hard to believe, I know – and the chance to experience an undiscovered gem of a restaurant or art gallery is more and more appealing.

It’s Got Game – Leveling up – earning points (and scoring higher than your friends) and badges and mayorships – is, yup, totally dorky. But, it’s designed to entice you to interact more often with the app, and it works. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be plotting how to win back my mayorship of Hollywood landmark Pink’s Hot Dogs now that I’m working 9-to-5 for a client and can’t pop in for lunch whenever I want.

Know Your Privacy Settings – If privacy is your utmost concern with digital assets, I highly recommend that you learn how the location-targeting function on your phone works and check to ensure your settings are where you want them each time your provider pushes a network update to your handset.

The Dating Game – Don’t use location-based apps for online dating. Unless you’re looking for a Mr. Goodbar-type encounter, there’s enough risk of people disguising their identities and their true intentions online. Many dating geolocation apps are designed to pinpoint when matches are in your immediate area. You need to vet strangers you meet online carefully and never agree to an in-person meeting without a friend or group accompanying you for safety’s sake.

For those in Los Angeles, who want to learn more about location-based apps and their use in marketing and social media, join the Social Media Club of Los Angeles on Tuesday, July 23, for an enlightening panel discussion, starting at 6:30 p.m. More information and RSVP here.