Foursquare’s unprivacy Twitter ‘feature’ (or Foursquare, privacy and gender)

I love Foursquare and any one of my friends will tell you how obsessed I am (complete with an eye roll). I’m a level 1 super user and religiously check in where ever I go. I’ve added a lot of new locations and will fix location information or duplicates when I see a mistake. I’m not entirely sure why I’m so taken with Foursquare, but I think that is part of why I’m so taken with it. I’m fascinated by this new way of experiencing the world and the potentials for privacy, identity and social interaction. And I’m fascinated with why my geeky friends and I spend so much time contributing to it without any financial incentive.

angry baby

But, as a woman, I am very aware of the safety issues inherent in sharing where you are and the places you frequent. When I was teen, I received death threats from some dick on IRC by who had managed to find my home address. I’ve spoken to other women who are Foursquare users and they, too, were concerned about stalking and were surprised how many guys check in to their homes on Foursquare. But, regardless of your gender, there are of course all sorts of potentials for misuse of this information by governments, law enforcement, businesses, marketing agencies and so on. This is why I used a fake name and profile photo on Foursquare (By default, a user’s profile URL is a number with a dash in front of it. The name used on the site is a user’s first name and last initial.)

The other day, I decided I wanted to twiddle with my settings and link my Foursquare account with my Twitter account. There were clear (or so I thought) options for deciding what this would mean. I could check or uncheck boxes saying what information I wanted to be shared on Twitter. What I did not realise was that linking my Twitter account would also mean that Twitter username would get pulled to Foursquare and become my new profile url. Sure, at first glance this seems totally harmless. But like may other internet users, I’ve consistently used the same nick for years, across many services. So, it’s pretty easy to link my ‘real’ identity with my online self through my nick. So, to put it simply, this was a pretty big privacy violation which comes with all the issues associated with outing. I no longer feel comfortable checking in as my activity is no longer anonymous. I’m not the only one with this issue.

But there’s nothing we can do about it. There’s no option to undo it (just like there was option to do it in the first place, it was just done without my permission. Foursquare hasn’t replied to any of my Twitter messages to them or my post on Get Satisfaction. What is so infuriating to me is that Foursquare provides no way to contact them about this sort of issue, except by posting on Get Satisfaction. Which is ridiculous, given 1.) the sensitive nature of the information gathered and shared on the site and the potential safety issues that could result and 2.) how much value I, like most users, have added to the site.

The situation also calls to mind a recent privacy issue with Google Buzz, where ‘feature’ aimed at making the service more intuitive resulted in a woman’s information being automatically shared with her abusive ex-husband. I think the same thing is going on here. The designers at Foursquare probably thought everyone would want to have the same username on Twitter as they did on Foursquare, so, of course, there was no reason to give the user a choice in the matter. A the Google Buzz incident shows, design choices online have real life implications, which is why designers need to start thinking beyond their own life experience and situations. They need to start designing for the rest of us.

But for now, if I don’t hear back from Foursquare soon, I’m going to cancel my account.

Update March 15, 2010: Finally heard back from a Foursquare employee named Chrysanthe on Get Satisfaction who contributed this nugget: “If you link your foursquare account to twitter, then your foursquare user URL will correspond to your twitter handle.” Really? You don’t say. Now how about warning people AND telling me how to undo it, like I was asking (pretty please)? And, not leaving it for three days would also be nice (timeliness is kinda important when privacy is an issue).

Update April 12, 2010: Still nothing back from Foursquare. But David Fono had the smart idea of unlinking my Twitter and Foursquare accounts, which worked like a charm. This was counter intuitive to me – usually moving from a random number to a nice username is seen as ‘upgrading.’ Plus the person designing it obviously thought it having a nice username was feature users would want, so why would they want it to go back to the ugly random number again? But Fono’s a coder (so he has better insight into that kind of thinking than I), and he said it made sense that it would work from his perspective. This again speaks to my observation that the people making social media think differently than most of the people using it, which is why we get ourselves in such situations.

So, what’s the big takeaway? If someone at Foursquare had just TOLD me this solution (like I had requested) none of this would be a problem! You gotta be responsive to privacy concerns when you’re playing with such sensitive data, guys.

PS if you’re in Toronto on June 19th, this incident was a big motivator in my decision to put together a Privacy Unconference on these very issues – PrivacyCampTO: Privacy for everyone!

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