Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Dirty Underbelly of Foursquare (Session 7)

Part 1: Official Rules

The SNS I am examining: Foursquare

Foursquare is a geo-social network that is accessed through a smartphone. A user dashboard is also found on the web. The link above lists the "house rules" for foursquare. This page is not accessible via the iPhone app though a savvy user could point their mobile web browser towards it. Personally I find this to be a bit problematic as nearly 100% of the time users access the SNS it is done via the smartphone app.

The house rules go through all of the DOs and DON'Ts of Foursquare. The DOs are helpful for people seeking questions about the basic use of the site like finding friends, checking in and leaving tips. The DON'Ts are basically a quick summery of the policies. In summery the five DON'Ts are:

          1)   Don’t check in when you’re not at a place

I imagine that many people break this rule but it would be difficult to find any data to really know for sure. The location in Honolulu with the most check-ins is the airport (HNL). The user who holds the mayorship (most check-ins) has checked in 47 times. This seems high for an airport so my guess is that this user works at the airport or is checking-in without actually being there. However, either way there is no real value gained by being the mayor of the airport so it might be an accurate check-in count according to Foursquare rules. Needless to say, this would be an extremely difficult rule for the Foursquare team to monitor and enforce.

          2)   Don’t create venues that do not exist

It is much easier to find data concerning this DON’T as all venues on Foursquare are searchable. The rules state specifically not to post locations such as “stuck in traffic” yet in Honolulu alone there are 34 different locations that violate this rule.

 I also found a place in downtown where you can check into outer space. (Disclamer: Outer Space does exist but not on earth. This might also be a real venue I just don't know about).

          3)   Don’t check into someone else’s home if you’re not there

This rule goes on to say, “Home venues are sensitive and it can creep people out to see non-friends checking in.” On Foursquare home venues are encouraged but to help with privacy they do not show up through a location-based search. Instead guests would need to search for home venues by title. I agree with this rule but am unsure how foursquare is enforcing/monitoring it. There are few (if any) options to report/block a user who are checking into people’s homes.  

          4)   Don’t leave tips with inappropriate language or negativity directed at another user.

[Warning: Explicit Language Below]

This is straightforward. Yet, what constitutes “inappropriate language” is always debatable.

I'm not really sure what to make of this tip:

          5)   Don’t spam via tips.

It always bothers me when I see tips suggesting people to try a different venue for a better product. I always assume these are written by the competition. (I see this more on Yelp then on Foursquare). After doing some quick searches on Foursquare I was unable to find tips that looked like spam. Venues will sometimes add their own tips in an effort to promote their product. I am not a fan of this either but there are no rules against it.

Part 2: Interpersonal Conflict

Interpersonal conflict is difficult to find on Foursquare. There is very little “chatting” that happens on this SNS. I also was unable to find any evidence of any official actions or warnings happening.

Below are a couple of tips left on Foursquare that lie outside of the way this SNS’s intended use.

And my all time favorite (More funny to me then anything else):

Part 3: Taking Action

One of the things that attracted me to Foursquare was that the features can be used in several different ways. Gazan [2009] states, “In a Web 2.0 environment, there are often multiple communities operating simultaneously within the same site, at different levels.” With this being the case on Foursquare, I imagine it would be difficult to manage all levels equally. If the purpose of using the site is to keep a digital record of places a user has been then the content in the tips might be of little importance. If, on the other hand, the user wants to know more about a venue then tips that contain little or no “chat” would be useful. However, if users want to communicate with other users than more “chat” in the tips would be what they are looking for. Regulating this so all the different levels work and benefit each other would be difficult. Gazan [2009] goes on to make the point that users continually reshape the communities and that the designers cannot plan how the reshaping happens but that they can be ready when it happens. It seems for this to be effective designers would need to keep a close eye on how features are being used on the SNS.

As a user of Foursquare my biggest complaint is that sometimes I cannot find a venue or a venue is being called something other then what I know it by. A more rare problem is that sometimes a venue is listed more then once. Both of these issues are solved through member-generated input. Using this method has its pluses and minuses. As Cosley et al. states concerning member maintained communities, “Some people will do a poor job, while others may deliberately sabotage the community.” Members can always create unlisted venues but this would require an active member to actually go in and do it on the SNS.

Kollock and Smith state, “The temptation is to enjoy a public good without contributing to its production, but if all reach this decision, the good is never created and all suffer.” This is an interesting statement when looking at it through the lens of Foursquare. Very little activity happens on Foursquare as opposed to the larger SNSs. There is also very little interaction between users outside of following social patterns. Looking back at the check-ins at HNL, there are a total of 24,123 by 11,356 different users. This venue has 89 tips. Some users have left multiple tips but the list cannot be organized by user so it’s difficult to know exactly how many are repeat tippers. With all this being said only 1 in every 128 users are leaving tips. This is less then 1% of the users communicating in ways other then simply checking in. To put this another way, less then 1% of the Foursquare community is contributing while the over +99% is benefiting. (A more in depth analysis would need to be done to get more accurate numbers).

This leaves a lot of room for unintended use to take control. The “Patriotic Nigras” example by Dibbell is interesting in the sense that these websites seem very vulnerable when interactive use is so low. It would be easy for rouge users to punk the system and when this happens the very large number of casual users will become annoyed and loose trust in the system.

If I were a systems administrator for Foursquare I would want to make sure there was a system set up for users to edit venue information by making it open source. Users then could clean up things like multiple venues or wrong venue names. As of right now all a user can do is flag a venue [See screen shot below].

 It would also be a good to add a “flag this tip” feature for inappropriate tips.

Foursquare has an option for some users to be come “supersusers” (SU). There are different ranks of these SUs. Depending on their rank they can edit venue information. As of right now Foursquare is not upgrading anyone to SU.

4: 5 Unwritten Rules

          1)   Only leave tips that will be of benefit to the largest undefined consensus of people. Inside jokes or day specific information is useless and might result in user distrust.

          2)   Only check into venues during operating hours.

          3)   Do not check into a venue if you are an employee. (This is actually a difficult rule because I think employees should check in so customers can know who is working but I think it would be more useful for Foursquare to develop a feature for employees specifically. One tab for who’s here and another for who’s working).

          4)   Do not leave tips that redirect users to another venue.

          5)   Do not create multiple pages for the same venue.


  1. That birther/Obama post was funny. A nice creative, non-traditional use of the community.

    I have never used foursquare, I think a part of me does not want people to know where I am. But I can see where some people think it is useful to have a digital record of where they have been. I guess, if these things were verifiable (cameras, body scans or other futuristic stuff) law enforcement could utilize this OC.

  2. I am surprised they don't have the ability to flag tips as inappropriate or incorrect already. Of course, that could start wars where a user who really likes a place will flag all of the tips that criticize it, and vice versa. But you are right, it would be really easy to manipulate users' opinions of a location by getting together with a couple of friends to post certain types of tips.
    Can you rate places? I think more users would participate if they could give an anonymous star rating that is aggregated. Then fake tips criticizing a place with mostly high rankings or complimenting a place with a very low ranking would be easier to spot.

    It is interesting that the rules aren't available on the mobile app! I wonder if this is a common problem or if other applications have found ways to incorporate them nicely.

  3. @Marnie - I think I may have said this before, but when I was doing study abroad in Israel we were going to 5 or 6 different places a day that each had significance but each looked exactly the same. I now I have a pile of pictures of hills and ruins but no idea of where they were taken. Foursquare could at least of helped me make a quick log of everywhere I went. (Maybe if my camera could auto check-in every time I take a picture we could eliminate a step.

    @Andrea - I have no idea what the superusers get to see and do on this SNSs. I imagine they can flag or delete. The closest thing to rating a venue is to add a tip to your "to do" folder. This elevates a tip to the top of the list. You can also rank by date added. I imagine at some point Foursquare will add rankings to places so they can create predictor applications.

  4. Interesting post, Philip. I overheard one of our cohort at last week's LIS Career Symposium talk about "checking into Foursquare." I didn't realize that the venues need to be pre-determined.

    Another surprising thing I learned is that administrators have a rule warning about checking into places without actually physically being there. I would think that with most portable devices GPS is available and would blow their cover...but I guess the technology where devices communicate (reveal and in this case verify) systematic info such as longitude and latitude, time/date to one another hasn't quite flushed out yet.

    Great point about the ability to log unique locations in a new area. It would be really cool to later analyze the data about your site visits....I walked 6 miles around the coast that day or we crossed these deserts and saw two temples. Imagine sharing your vacation pictures now.

    I wonder if users can retrieve and/or compare their locations over a span of time? via Google maps? And if it could be visually depicted and shared?
    Thank you for sharing this site. I look forward to checking it out myself.

  5. @PL - Thanks for your comments. Foursquare has an API available for developers to build off of the data on their platform. There are tons of apps that take advantage of this. One I have used is called Blacktop. There is another one called and you can also integrate your Foursquare data onto Google Earth. It is all really fascinating.

    Personally I am most curious about where the Foursquare platform will go from here. I have yet to find a really good way to use Foursquare to communicate with friends like you would on Facebook.

    If you begin using Foursquare you should friend me!

  6. Palabra, I think you can also 'create' a venue if you cant find the place name you're looking for.
    The GPS system sometimes can only be accurate up to a mile radius so even when I am in Sinclair Library, 4Sq actually showed SL as being 300 feet away. I was considered to be much closer to Sinclair Circle bus stop.
    Anyway, this is the next frontier of Social Media and Foursquare is the best bet. It was Gowalla last year but just like Facebook took over from MySpace, its happening again with location based SNS.
    cool entry, Philip. I look forward to figuring out ideas to incorporate location based SNS to the library or how we can use these SNS to promote library use.

  7. Erenst - Thanks for the encouragement!

    Here's a link I found the other day:

    I think foursquare is more then just a flash in the pan and I think your right about them being the "next frontier". Like much of what we have learned this semester, users have the ability to make or break an SNS. Foursquare might be a place right now for businesses/libraries/universities to find real potential in location sharing communication.

  8. Another outstanding, well-illustrated post--you've made Foursquare something many folks want to check out. One of the things I find most interesting about online communities and social computing tools is how they can create situations that reflect our views in other domains. For example, if you're car shopping on Yahoo Autos and investigating one brand, ads for a competing brand often pop up on that page. On the Web it seems generally okay for competitors to invade each other's space with ads, at least on neutral sites. Does it restrict you as a Foursquare user (and limit the value of the network) if you aren't allowed to say "I had coffee here and didn't like it, this place down the street is way better"? Balancing the potential value gained and lost with different site policies was exactly the goal of this exercise, and some of your yelp analogies made that clear. Good stuff!

  9. Dr. Gazan, thanks for the comments.

    I guess I do not like redirector comments made online because it is difficult to really know the source. But you are right about the potential to help people find a better cup of coffee. Perhaps I need to think about it in this context more often.

  10. Thank you for introducing Foursquare. It seems very interesting, and I will definitely download and try the app. It’s weird that the page of house rules is not accessible via smartphones, since most users access it via smartphones as you said. I think that moderators should always take feedback and design their forums to provide user friendly features. Reading through the useful functions you posted, I became a little worried about privacy issues. If I consistently update my locations every second, isn’t this information revealed to anyone, including stalkers, who will know where I am, and thieves, who will know that I’m not at home? Should I check into a venue when I leave instead of spotting the venue?

  11. @Song - Typically I check into places as I am leaving. I probably do it somewhat for safety but probably more so because I am shy. I've thought a lot about the stalker scenario but am not really convinced anyone would ever want to stalk me. The robbery issue is a good concern to have. There's a website called which was created to help raise awareness of over sharing. Your questions very good ones to consider when you are using any website that will tag your location.

    Foursquare works much like an open guest book intended more for the user then the owner. Businesses, including libraries, can learn a lot by reading what people are saying about them on Foursquare.