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.

The War Over Your Child’s Social Profile

There’s been a lot of talk about revamping the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, originally passed in 1998, to reflect the realities of our social media age.

Many legislators, who voted for the law back when websites were a new thing, want to give COPPA more teeth. This includes updates to ensure social, apps, mobile and gaming platforms – and anything else developers might launch in the future – are clearly specified under its rubric. And they want to incorporate a no-tracking rule to tighten regulations around the collection of personal information from children.

On the other side of No Man’s Land are the companies that seem to define social networking. You’ll hear their concerns couched in terms like “education,” “more targeted services,” even “First Amendment rights,” but underlying the lobbying efforts to defang COPPA is one thing: Money.

Signing Up the iGeneration

With 20 million tweens in the United States wielding $40 billion in spending power, plus the ability to influence the purchases of their parents, businesses – from movie studios to record labels to clothing and toy manufacturers – want to target this demographic.

Tweens are generally pegged between 7 or 8 years old and 12 or 13. (I’m using “tweens” somewhat generally, however the social networks lobbying against COPPA have yet to define, at least publicly, an age group or limit for the under-13s they want to target.)

The tween demographic is “hyper trend-aware,” according to Jason Dorsey, chief strategy officer for The Center for Generational Kinetics, a marketing firm. And social networks, which make their money from aggregating information in social profiles and selling it to marketers, advertisers and app developers, are hyper-aware of the profits to be made from tapping into the demographic data of the iGeneration. They’re willing to spend money to make even more down the line.

Facebook has doubled its investment in lobbying this year ($650,000 in Q1 alone) and, in 2011, started a political action committee that donates to representatives on committees that oversee technology issues.

Google, the search giant and developer of Facebook competitor Google+, is also active in the halls of the House and Senate, while Microsoft, founder of Bing, has been lobbying in D.C. for years. Similar efforts are under way in state legislatures.

COPPA and the Cyberbullies

One goal of social network lobbying is to relax requirements set out in COPPA that deal with advertising and other business practices aimed at children, including the collection of information. COPPA defines a child as “an individual under the age of 13.”

The law places the burden on online services – whether they’re websites, social or gaming networks, or mobile platforms – to ensure certain safeguards are in place, including:

  • posting policies regarding the confidentiality of information collected on the site;
  • securing parental permission before gathering data from children;
  • ensuring parents have reasonable access to children’s data;
  • allowing parents to delete data; and
  • restricting the sale of data collected from children without parental consent.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg signaled his intent to take on COPPA “at some point” in a keynote at the 2011 NewSchools Summit.

“My philosophy is that for education, you need to start at a really, really young age,” Zuckerberg added.

In response to these comments, technology journalist Audrey Watters, on the Edutopia website, posed several interesting questions: “Do we need better legislation about online privacy or do we need better education (or both)? After all, it’s pretty clear that children under 13 want to be – and already are – on sites like Facebook.”

Are the Kids Alright?

Facebook and other social networks do have established processes for removing unauthorized and underage users (some 20,000 a day, according to Facebook). They guard against and quickly delete offensive content and images. And, as PC World notes, Facebook has tighter privacy controls for its teenage members:

“Users between the ages of 13 and 17 get what Facebook’s privacy policy calls a ‘slightly different experience.’ Minors do not have public search listings created for them when they sign up for Facebook, meaning their accounts cannot be found on general search engines outside of Facebook.”

But, children have a way of circumventing such controls – much like kids 40 years ago snuck in to theaters to see films they were considered too young for.

Recent research, by Consumer Reports, finds that 7.5 million children under 13 use Facebook despite being below the official age limit for creating a profile (5 million of those kids are 10 or younger).

“Kids are already doing it” isn’t a particularly strong justification for deflating COPPA. Educating children on the use of social platforms, how to protect their privacy, safeguard themselves from online predators, and ignore the constant bombardment of advertising – certainly, it’s a module that could be added to the packed curricula at grade schools and middle schools. But, we know already that the majority of time kids spend online and on Facebook doesn’t happen during school hours nor is it supervised by parents or teachers.

Facebook especially has shown time and again that it doesn’t respect the privacy of adult users, fessing up only when caught. For this, the social network is subject to a 20-year order by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, “agreeing to regular privacy audits to resolve complaints it misled users by making some data public by default without adequate notice,” reports the Wall Street Journal.

But Facebook isn’t alone. Literally as I was writing this, stories began circulating that Google would agree to a $22.5 million settlement with the FTC – reportedly the largest ever against a single company – in order to “put to rest charges that it violated iOS users’ privacy by intentionally bypassing the built-in privacy controls in Apple’s Safari Web browser so Google could track their browsing habits,” according to Digital Trends.

This is one of the reasons the Do Not Track Kids Act of 2011, a proposed amendment to COPPA, attracted strong bipartisan support.

“Facebook and Google have earned the scrutiny they’ve received,” states Marc Rotenberg, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, in the May 2012 Wall Street Journal article, “Social Network Pumps Up Lobbying.” “I see privacy as an ongoing question for Facebook that is not going to be solved by lobbyists and PR experts.”

What Are We Fighting For?

Finally, the most cogent argument against efforts to weaken COPPA is that the law doesn’t ban social networks, like Facebook, from having under-13s as members.

So, what’s the deal?

It is, in fact, Facebook’s choice to impose an age limit because more controls equal less data, and the company wants to be free to collect and sell as much data as possible from its approximately 900 million users. This is Facebook’s prerogative; and Facebook members agree to this transaction with their personal data when they sign up for accounts and every time they provide status updates or click “Like.”

Parents, however, may prefer to keep safeguards in place when their children’s personal data is at stake and for sale.

What do you think about the debate over COPPA? Is it a matter of educating children about privacy and the commercial aspects of social networks? Do laws need to change as new media evolves?

Note: Specifics of COPPA in this post are drawn from Robert McHale’s excellent new book, Navigating Social Media Legal Risks: Safeguarding Your Business. McHale offers a more nuanced and detailed discussion of the original law and the 2000 Children’s Online Privacy Rule in his chapter on social advertising.

Is Privacy Still a Choice?

It happened in the middle of a Liz Phair concert. One moment I was dancing with friends and singing along to songs I’ve known by heart since “Exile in Guyville” came out in 1993. The next I was in turmoil.

Phair asked for a volunteer to join her onstage at the Troubador to sing “Flower.” Hands shot into the air, begging to be the chosen one. My friend turned to me and said, “You should do it!”

“Absolutely not,” I responded.

“Flower,” for those not familiar with “Guyville” or Liz Phair’s oeuvre, is an explicit song about a sexual act. This frankness is a hallmark of Phair’s early albums and, as an artist, it’s her choice to create a stage persona who shares supposedly intimate details. As a public figure, presumably she understands that singing about certain subjects is going to bring her both adulation and unsavory attention from fans. But, what of the average concertgoer, plucked from the audience? Is she given a choice?

Phair selected a young women in her mid-twenties. Let’s call her Jennie. Jennie’s friends giggled and cheered as she made her way to the stage and Phair whispered encouragement in her ear, showed her to the mic, and counted out the beat.

As the last lines of the chorus echoed around the venue, Jennie thrilled to the applause and her moment in the spotlight. When she rejoined her friends in the crowd, the first thing one of them said was, “I got the whole thing on video.”

And that’s when I grew terribly worried for Jennie. Because while her friends might have her best interests at heart and agree not to post the video to Facebook or YouTube, there were, of course, dozens upon dozens of recordings of Jennie, all taken by strangers.

If even one of them doesn’t have scruples about invading Jennie’s privacy, then she may have to live with a video of herself singing a salacious song, out there where everyone and anyone can see it, for the rest of her life. Who knows? Someone might recognize her and tag the video with her name, or perhaps her friends already have on their Facebook pages.

When she’s 27 and applying for a job. When she’s 32 and needs clearance to do research. If she wants to run for office some day. When she meets the man of her dreams. If her parents Google her. Because of one innocent and spontaneous moment in a club, she’s going to have to face the questions and consequences (like not getting a job) that stem from those four minutes of fame.

Okay, maybe this doesn’t happen to Jennie. But, if you visit popular social sites, it’s obvious that inviting audience members onstage to sing this song is a regular part of Phair’s repertoire. There are plenty of other Jennies online, dueting on “Flower” for eternity.

(This is not about Liz Phair, mind you. Obviously, I’m a fan or I wouldn’t have been there that night. What this is about is claiming privacy that we all have a right to.)

Perhaps these women posted those videos themselves, but I worry that they may never have had a choice about keeping this moment private. Moments that, when I was 23 and attending concerts dressed in safety pins, dog collars, ripped T-shirts and studded bracelets with purple hair, I never had to spend a second worrying if someone was going to video me and my friends. Think of all the crazy, fun, messed up, spontaneous things you did before the days of smartphones. In retrospect, how many of those times would you revisit if someone pressed Record and turned a camera on you?

There are so many benefits to the transparency and connection of digital and social media, along with the simplicity of online publishing: making library resources available to people who couldn’t otherwise access them, opening up the practices and processes of government, helping people find and reconnect with family during a disaster. It’s hard sometimes to see the downside.

Choose Privacy Week, which takes place from May 1 – 7, isn’t a bunch of Debbie Downers wagging their fingers at Facebook. Rather it’s about creating a conversation about privacy – and what it actually means – in the digital age as the boundary between public and private morphs and becomes more permeable.

The goal is to give people, especially young people, resources to make informed choices about how they use digital/social media and where they might want to draw the curtain.

There’s a fascinating Choose Privacy video featuring authors Neil Gaiman and Cory Doctorow, Camila Alire, past president of the American Library Association, and other librarians, as well as children and parents. It explores the practical approaches that families are taking to protect personal privacy and looks at the efforts of libraries to protect intellectual freedom. As one librarian notes, only you should be trusted with your information.

The privacyrevolution.org website offers more information, a video gallery and links to resources, events, position papers and surveys related to Choose Privacy Week.

I still worry about Jennie. But, it’s nice to know there are organizations out there, including the American Library Association, dedicated to keeping the discussion going about digital privacy and helping everyone who uses these platforms to educate themselves about the issues involved. To paraphrase one of the speakers in the Choose Privacy video, it’s indifference to privacy that makes you vulnerable.

Writing that inspired me this week:

Moss: “My mum’s on Friendface! My mum! I’ve opened up another channel of communication with my mum.”
Jen: “Isn’t that good?”
Moss: “No, it is not good. She’s put down her current mood as ‘sensual.’”

~ “Friendface” episode of the British TV series “The IT Crowd”