Mar 24

Why I Can’t Get As Excited About Geolocation as Scoble

I was partially responsible for choosing Gowalla as the Texas Social Media Award winner for 2010. While I am happy to support Gowalla and use it myself, I feel compelled to drop a little vitamin C in the geolocation Kool-Aid to make sure people are okay.

I’ve had some not so pleasant experiences with someone who felt compelled to tell me that I couldn’t block him from certain circles of my life, even though they were circles he didn’t know. When I’d tweet that people should go to an event, he’d friend everyone involved. He was basically trying to be everywhere I was both online and off and it was very scary. I’ve mentioned this to other people who are avid social media users and some of them have actually been targeted as well. It is not fun and it makes you think you are going totally crazy.

Here’s the scoop: it doesn’t matter if you think you aren’t going to be stalked. By accepting friend requests from people who you don’t know in any way shape or form, you are jeopardizing yourself along with all of your friends. Why? Imagine I hang out with Person A a lot. Person A befriends Person Q who just so happens to be someone who makes me feel generally unsafe or uncomfortable. Person Q can generally assume that they can hang around along the peripheral of Person A and eventually, I’m going to show up. Thanks a lot, Person A. You’ve just put me in harm’s way because you like the idea of having a million friends on FourSquare. That sucks.

Or, say I check in to all my local spots on Gowalla. I have fairly consistent patterns. If I tweet where I am at, it goes into a public timeline which Person Q can easily see. Person Q can figure out my routines and intercept me this way. That is why I do not care how friendly you are. If I can’t track you in person, I will not friend you. Even if I’m met you once or whatever. I don’t care if I lose out on a few serendipitous meetings.

I’m not saying Scoble is like this by any stretch, but I just felt that someone should bring these points up. Someone shouldn’t have to die for us to figure out that posting your location to total strangers is not a good idea. Geolocation is cool, but don’t use it without putting some thought behind it.

  • Vidya A.

    I totally agree & it’s something I’ve certainly begun thinking of too. First step is when I see a friend request, & if I can’t remember who it is, or someone I don’t meet on a consistent basis, I do ignore it.

    You raise important points that we all should certainly be aware of.

  • Chris Lorenz

    I agree with you wholeheartedly. It is really unfortunate that it seems woman have to be so much more weary about these types of things than men do. Like all great things in life it just takes one person to ruin it for the rest.

    The bottom line is that people need to use common sense and be weary. It’s unfortunate but true. There have been so many great serendipitous meetings that I have had with people but none of them are worth risking my or my girlfriend’s safety over.

    Great article!

  • Eric Doggett

    This is exactly why I’ve switched my “social model” to where I update where I’ve been in the past, not where I am. Of course, sometimes I fall short of that and get caught up in what’s going on. But, for example, tweeting that I am at a photo conference in Vegas while my home is empty is not a smart idea.
    .-= Eric Doggett´s last blog ..Cultivating A Client Relationship: A Year-By-Year Approach =-.

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  • Robert Scoble

    I agree if that’s the way you look at these things, but it looks like you haven’t considered:

    1. You don’t need to share your location when you check in on Foursquare.
    2. You can lie about where you check in (I say I’m at the Ritz when I’m at home, I live down the street).
    3. You can check in at the end of your stay someplace. That won’t give your stalkers enough time to disrupt what you’re doing.
    4. You can choose your friends and what they see on Foursquare. So, if you do have a stalker you just unfriend them and don’t share with public.
    5. You can change your name and not use your real name, but you can let your friends know what your new “stalker free” name is.

    Other solutions:

    1. Hire a bodyguard (I have a producer who has tatoos, huge arms, and drives a Harley, enough said).
    2. Live in a gated community (I do).
    3. Have so many friends around all the time that the assholes blend into the furniture (done).
    4. Mace the stalker. (I haven’t had to try that yet).
    5. Travel a lot so the stalker can’t afford to follow you everywhere.

    Anyway, I’m not scared of thousands of random people knowing where I am. If I had a problem with stalkers it probably would be someone who already has access to my life and that would be a lot more scary.

    If I lived my life in fear I’d be afraid of driving. 40,000 people a year get killed in the US in their cars. How many get killed by stalkers on Foursquare? None? So why should I be afraid until a real threat comes up?
    .-= Robert Scoble´s last blog ..Where oh where did the great startup launch go? (Startup events have killed it) =-.

  • Candy

    I recently signed up for both foursquare and gowalla (in fact, my first check in was from the social media awards). I was careful from the get go about accepting friends, if I don’t know them and don’t think they have a reason to know where I am, then oh well, I just ignore those. Yeah, they can see me checked into certain places unless you are off-grid. I think the real problem here is that people tweet every place they go and check in everywhere from their gas station to their house. They aren’t using their brains, you’re right Michelle. And yeah, you gotta be a little careful, I’m sure you are much more aware of it than I am, although I try to use common sense.
    .-= Candy´s last blog ..A simple little takeaway from the Statesman =-.

  • Terry

    Well said.

    I’m selective about who I allow to follow my tweets or ‘friend’ me on Facebook. Periodically I delete people whose tweets are mostly rants or who sign up and never contribute anything.

    Your caution is timely and strategic.

  • Michelle


    I use geolocation, so it’s obvious I’m not totally against it. I like it.

    Rather than divert people as you have eluded to in your suggestions, I’d just assume be real and just forgo the serendipitous meetings w strangers. It’s one thing if they are vetted through friends. I just have no desire to meet with people I don’t know. I can’t afford a Rocky or a gated community.

    I’m not telling people to avoid geolocation altogether. I just want to warn people to be smart about it before someone gets killed.

    Regarding your first #4, it doesn’t matter if you unfriend a stalker. It matters if your friends do. If I hang out with certain people a lot, eventually, a stranger can figure out that by tracking them, they can track me. That’s the whole reason I wrote this and it’s based on EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENED TO ME.

    This is something people take casually until they become victim to it. I was physically hurt and needed a restraining order to live a normal life. I am just trying to warn people before they open themselves up to getting hurt.

    BTW, FourSquare’s security settings suck, which is why I won’t use it. .

  • Robert Scoble

    Well if I were stalking you there are lots of other ways to find you. I know you tweet about Austin startups and that would make you likely to show up at startup parties. There aren’t many in Austin. I bet if I went to three of them I would see you at least once. And there are other ways of figuring out where you are without bringing Foursquare into this. Stalking was a human problem long before Foursquare.

    On the other side, I have randomly met lots of excellent people through Foursquare. Myles, for instance, who runs SFBeta, came over when I checked in near his house in Sausalito.

    I have had many great reactions like this.

    Sounds like you just need to let your friends know there is an asshole in their midst. If you told me who it was I would block him.
    .-= Robert Scoble´s last blog ..Where oh where did the great startup launch go? (Startup events have killed it) =-.

  • Gits

    I’ve seen security holes in travel websites where you could easily see when somebody was going on a trip by just manipulating something in the URL. Now that’s scary because you’re gone a lot longer on a vacation than a quick run to the coffee shop.

    But I think most of these geo-location services have privacy settings where you could block other peoples. The modern “web 2.0” companies do a great job with this. Foursquare and Gowalla seem impressive in this regard from the bit I’ve checked them out.

    However, what is sort of scary is that the service that not only doesn’t have any privacy controls, but also gives out intimate privacy details about people with no way to remove them including phone numbers. is pretty much the only site out there that really scares me right now.

    I also think facebook is getting so complicated that there are going to be numerous security holes detected there very soon. I’ve seen ways to use their api to spam people with email and other crazy things.

    It sure is interesting how much the net has evolved these past few years to affect peoples lives so much and I love that technology can affect us so much.

  • Max

    Call me a jerk, but I think that the blame is on no one but you. If you do not want the risk of being stalked, don’t go public. Restrict your connections to only the people you want to know. It’s naive to think that everyone has good intentions, so how could you possibly expect not to be stalked if you show everyone where you are, what you are doing and what you are thinking at every moment of every day. Of course, Gowalla and Foursquare have responsibilities, but it’s your personal life you might or might not throw in recklessly 😉

  • Michelle

    Max, you are a jerk. Read the blog post. I can restrict who I take in as a friend to only people I know, but if my friends don’t take this same precaution, it puts me in danger.

  • Jeremy Tanner

    Michelle, first off, I’m sorry for what you’ve gone through. It seems most of the folks in the comments who’ve been dismissive of your problems are men. I have the luxury of being a 6-foot 200-pound guy. I’m not going to have near the same kind of security issues / threats that girls on location based services are going to see. I don’t see too many easy solutions, other than deciding who real friends are, by that I mean if someone decides to be a friend of Q, you don’t hang out with them. Don’t associate with people who tolerate the bad behavior of their friends. Saying it is easy, living it is horribly complex.

    .-= Jeremy Tanner´s last blog ..The Fun Returns =-.

  • Ryan Thompson

    @Michelle Right on. Your concerns are valid. iBelieve these issues will unfold at some point, so iSee this as truly a matter of “when” in my book.

    I use these services when I’m leaving a place most generally. But then again – there is nothing like hoisting a delicious beer and posting it live via tweetie.

    Ahh that sure sounds good right now, doesn’t it?
    .-= Ryan Thompson´s last blog ..RyanThompson: RT @TechCrunch What Happens When Apple Passes Microsoft In Value? Yes, When. =-.

  • idelette

    Thanks for the heads up. I can see it as a real issue. I’m really sorry you got hurt in the process … Keep spreading the news. xo
    .-= idelette´s last blog ..I have no Shepherd. =-.

  • Otto

    My general rule is if I haven’t cursed in front of you while sharing a beer, I’m not going to friend you on FourSquare or Gowalla or any other such location service.

    For Facebook friending, I have to know you reasonably well. Family, friends, high school people, etc.

    For Twitter, I don’t really care who follows me, but I do use TwitBlock to block spammers. I tend to not share my 4sq postings to Twitter, unlike many people. I’ve stopped following people for overshare of this sort of thing.

    Why would you ever share private information with strangers? It’s easy enough to not do, all you have to do is be conscious of who you friend and who sees your material. My default settings for sharing anything are super-private, I manually opt-into “public” every time I share anything.
    .-= Otto´s last blog ..Ottopress – A New Blog =-.

  • theharmonyguy

    “Stalking was a human problem long before Foursquare.” (Scoble)

    True, but as so often happens, new technologies can be exploited to make it much easier and more dangerous. Avoiding geolocation services will not prevent all stalking, but using geolocation services may increase the risks involved.

    “Call me a jerk, but I think that the blame is on no one but you. If you do not want the risk of being stalked, don’t go public.” (Max)

    Personally, I’m getting a little tired of this sort of reaction to a range of online privacy issues. We can’t place all the responsibility/liability on the services people use, but neither can we completely blame the people using them. There’s a balance involved, particularly when some of the users are not as tech-savvy.
    .-= theharmonyguy´s last blog ..How Facebook is Adding an Identity Layer to the Internet =-.

  • Carri Bugbee

    Michelle, I’ve been saying for awhile now that this would become a gender issue, but most men are relatively clueless about this.

    I was aware of the risks of tweeting my locations even before the popular geo-local apps launched. However, I was willing to take the risks so I could be on the front lines of what’s happening. It’s my job to advise clients and students (I teach a social media marketing class at Portland State). After being cyber-stalked by a couple of assholes who called a restaurant where I checked in via Foursquare and told me I was likely being “robbed right now,” I decided the potential rewards (virtually non-existent right now) didn’t outweigh the risks.

    To me, the ONLY value for users of geo-local apps is the serendipity of running into random people you are connected with online. So, what’s the point of using the apps if you only connect with people you already know well? That doesn’t solve a problem anybody has.

    If you talk to people who don’t live in the social media echo chamber (i.e., the bulk of the population), they are utterly incredulous that anyone would do anything so stupid as post their whereabouts online. Those of us who have drunk the kool-aid should think more about the risk-to-reward ratio as well.


  • Michelle

    @theharmonyguy EXACTLY. Stalking has now been made easier, which means we need to think smarter about it.

    @carribugbee Sorry about your situation. It’s amazing how these things don’t really hit home until they happen to us.

  • Otto

    “So, what’s the point of using the apps if you only connect with people you already know well? That doesn’t solve a problem anybody has.”

    @CarriBugbee : Actually, it solves a major problem for me. I have about 60-80 friends that I hang out with on a regular basis. With 20-30 of them on foursquare, there’s no more texting or calling everybody to see what’s going on or where people are gathering. I can just check 4sq to see where the venue of the night is, then go there (or not, depending).
    .-= Otto´s last blog ..Ottopress – A New Blog =-.

  • Martin

    I like Scoble’s idea of posting that you are down the street somewhere. Even men get spooked at the idea of broadcasting actual location to strangers, at least outside of business conventions where it should be obvious where you are. Men with money get stalked and I’ve found that, although some people cannot be talked out of their obsession, others just need closure or 5 minutes of your time. Doing that reduces the number of people one has to seriously worry about.

    Also, while it was clearly not the situation described by Michelle, if a man and a woman both belong to a certain social circle and they have a disagreement, it wouldn’t be fair for her to take revenge by saying “he makes me feel uncomfortable” and get key social gatekeepers to take that at face value and ostracize him without his input and as if she is more valuable to the social circle.

    Scoble hopefully meant “I would block him on your say so if he was a complete stranger to me and couldn’t explain himself”

  • Martin

    A plus-side for married women: if your man doesn’t mind truthfully checking in everywhere he goes, he is probably not cheating and you may have him properly trained. Those who date more than one person would be operating on 4Sq like the US Army 23rd in WWII (disinformation unit).

  • Michelle

    @martin, in my situation, a judge granted a protective order against him. I was not allowed to tell him where he could and could not go. He was just unable to get within a certain distance of me.

    Literally, it was a matter of “I want to go to this event, so I better show up early and beat him to it.” I also had to warn organizers (some of whom I didn’t know) that he was not allowed to be around me. It was not much fun.

  • Carri Bugbee

    Otto, I will concede that people who have loads of free time to just hang out and party may have more use for connecting with dozens of people randomly and spontaneously. I have long thought these apps were better suited to college students and club-goers than busy professionals.

    Personally, I don’t have time to meet up with people just because we happen to be in the same place at the same time unless I’m at a conference. I definitely wouldn’t do this in my home town. That would just suck time out of my day that I don’t have.

    This is why the geo-local check-in apps provide so little utility to most people. The notion of posting where you were after the fact is utterly narcissistic. Scoble needs to think twice about that idea. Then you couldn’t meet up even if you had the time! What’s the point of that? It’s just noise.


  • Paul Farkas

    Checking in is just part of the unprecedented big picture that is rapidly moving upon us. At present ‘checking in’ is part of voluntary geolocative sharing/gaming with services like Foursquare or Gowalla. A point well-taken from @scobleizer’s recent chat with Gowalla is that soon it will be about what happens after we check-in, namely, what will we do and how we will interact with friends and those environments once there.

    Beyond geolocative media though, or encompassed in it, soon a perfect storm of truly disruptive technologies that is being globally referenced as ‘The Outernet’ (including new and mobile technology, mobile augmented reality, the internet of things [social objects], ubiquitous computing, semantic web, social web, and [open] government) may be connecting with us beyond what is necessarily individually permission-based. The majority of us are carrying mobile devices, soon we may wear smart/social fashion as well, and various governments may issue universal ID tags, etc. So while we may or may not choose to interact with our open environments, the outside world will be more and more connected with itself and with us. This is reflected in the premise of the World Wide Web moving outside to the Web Wide World.

    A group of us are very interested in these ramifications and we started to develop global guidelines for this new space. Come find us:

  • Lindy king


    I am a little amazed that there seems to be a restraint order against this guy but you still feel the need to 4sq or gowalla. Thus makes no sense to me.

    Definitely (women especially) need to be pro-active. I have only cited a location on Twitter once or twice. My safety is most important – and if you decide you need to tweet your location, and you know you have a stalker, not sure what to tell you. Personally, I would stop – or as R Scoble said, ask your pals to unfriend him. But mostly, I would stop. Pro-active! :)

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  • Bryant

    I like @RobertScoble’s solution #4 (the first #4). I see the value in thinking of 4sq, etc. as a way of leaving virtual breadcrumbs (What did others discover that has value to me?). It seems there are two ways to use these apps, for real-time and left-behind. Use them in the way you feel comfortable.

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  • Sean M

    I know I’m arriving late to this party, but what the heck! Here are my 2 cents. It’s estimated that 1 in 20 women will be the victims of stalking in there lifetime, compared to 1 in 150 men. 75-80% of stalkers are male.

    The simple fact of the matter is that women who want to participate in social media, especially geolocation, have no choice but to put themselves at higher risk of an adverse social outcome then their male counterparts, if they are to participate equally. It’s a simple gender inequity.

    Rather than suggest that Michelle is doing it wrong, is some bizarre isolated case, or should simply get out of the proverbial kitchen if she can’t stand the heat, why shouldn’t we all be advocating for better privacy controls from all of our social media providers and better safety education for social media users?