When Foursquare Gets Creepy

"I saw that you checked in there on Foursquare," said the stranger calling the restaurant where Shea Sylvia was dining. He suggested they "hang out," adding, "You probably shouldn't be telling people where you are on Foursquare, should you?"

Sylvia lives in Kansas City and works in online marketing. Her story, first chronicled on her personal blog and reprinted in The Guardian, is creepy on unending levels. There is the fact that he chose to call the restaurant and ask the manager to find her, based on a description culled from her profile photo. There is the threatening, teach-you-a-lesson tone, shortly after she declined to be overjoyed at his advances. And somehow, the simple act of jumping platforms — hasn't he ever heard of tweeting at someone? — into the physical space, at an unguarded moment, is creepiest of all.

In a piece published alongside Sylvia's, Leo Hickman writes about how he was on the other end of the equation: as an experiment, he picked a woman off Foursquare, culled Internet data on her, and then apprehended her at a work event in a London bar. When she showed up, "sensibly accompanied by a male colleague," she was understandably not that thrilled with the whole thing.

And yet services like Foursquare are supposed to do this, at least in part: Create a kinship between people who use the same services and share the same spaces but might never speak. That's why people opt in to it, though that sense of real-time lack of privacy is exactly why I've stayed away from it, however enthusiastically I've embraced other social media. Every Internet user negotiates how much personal information to share and how and when, but I would argue that for women, the situation is far more volatile, the vulnerability more terrifying. (Is it a coincidence that both targets, experimental and otherwise, in the Guardian stories are women?). And once you invite people into an aspect of your private life in any sort of public way, it's difficult to order them out.

Last year, before Twitter had geolocation and before Foursquare really took off, I was at a party, rummaging through a fridge for a beer, when someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I was Irin. "I found your tweet!" he said triumphantly, waving an iPhone in my face. How, exactly? I had tweeted a mention of a "rooftop party," and the neighborhood where it was taking place; he had been demonstrating Twitter to someone at the party, typed in the neighborhood where we were. When he saw my tweet, he used the tiny thumbnail photo and asked around to find me.

Now, despite my initial alarm, it turns out this guy is not a total creep like the guy who called Sylvia, and we are still friendly — at my urging, he joined my salsa studio, and he in vain tried to teach me how to play squash. In fact, we have real-life mutual friends, including but not limited to the ones throwing the party. You could argue that Twitter had bridged the awkward gap of strangers talking to each other at a party, the broken social bonds of our fragmented society, and so on and so forth. And yet some of those social bonds are broken for a good reason: There are terrible people in the world, we shouldn't necessarily trust all of them implicitly, and drawing lines around what we share can be useful and necessary.

Sylvia wrote of her experience, "I'm angry. I feel like someone violated an understanding that all of us generally nice people online have -– you don't cross the line." Of course, even people you know well in your physical life can turn out to be not "generally nice people." But there, the possibilities are more controlled and limited, and you choose to share different levels of information with, say, your Mom as opposed to your co-worker as opposed to the guy who serves you coffee. When those lines are crossed, it's enough to make you want to stay at home.

How I Became A Foursquare Cyberstalker [Guardian]
The Night I Was Cyberstalked On Foursquare [Guardian]

Image Via Korn/Shutterstock