Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Watch out for foursquare!

And you thought foursquare was just a cool little social media tagging tool. Well, it is. You use your cell phone to add a metadata tag to anyplace, and you can set up a game. "Earn badges!" urges the website, "Unlock your city." Or your campus. And the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the game is taking off at campuses, in an article titled, "Will Your College Be Covered in Virtual Graffiti?" by Marc Parry. There is a lot more than what I quote here:

Since Foursquare's debut last year, students have diligently labeled, praised, and, in some cases, profaned college campuses. Take this note, easily Googled, that somebody calling himself Mock Redneck Jr. left at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte: "The library has Free Wi-Fi, Barely Legal girls and a warm place to drop a deuce."

Now imagine this nightmare scenario: A prospective student's mother goes on a college tour. She pulls out a phone. Her expression screams oh-my-gosh as she reads Mr. Redneck's note. Maybe she goes on to a dorm, and perhaps its residents have left other goodies online. The teacher they loathed. The room they smoked pot in. The couch they had sex on.

Here's how it works. Foursquare players see a list of nearby places. They can "check in" to any of them, and, if they want, have their arrival broadcast to "friends" on Foursquare and other networks like Facebook and Twitter. They can create new places and leave public "tips" about existing ones, like the "free Wi-Fi" at the Charlotte library. They earn "badges"—for example, "gym rat"—for checking in at various spots. If they check in at one spot often enough, the game crowns them "mayor."

As in, Wesley Chen is mayor of the Original California Taqueria.

"It's kind of like a passive-aggressive way of telling your friends where you are," says Mr. Chen, 21, a junior at New York University who has checked in some 460 times and holds the hizzoner title at eight different locations.
A Growing Trend

Foursquare is still a microtrend of the digerati, one that doesn't come close to the even-your-grandmother-is-on-it ubiquity of Facebook. But whether or not this particular company becomes the Next Big Thing, signs suggest that the basic technology behind the game—that ability to contextualize information to your location—will go mainstream.

Another smartphone application, Gowalla, has similar features. Twitter now lets users attach locations to their messages. So does Buzz, Google's foray into social networking. And Facebook will reveal a feature in April that may use your friends' locations as a new form of place-based status update, according to The New York Times.
The Chronicle article goes on to tell how some universities, like Harvard and North Caroline State University, are embracing the technology. I know librarians have considered whether the technology could be used for library assistance (where is this book? or give a tour with foursquare), but the locating technology is not fine enough yet to work on something like a library tour. It will help you find Harvard Yard, but not where inside the library the ALRs are shelved. Maybe one day!

The article has a lot of great info, and interesting, thought-provoking aspects. The author takes you to people who are embracing the technology joyfully and thinking creatively about what educators and students can do in educational settings with it. But there are also more dark sides than just the embarrassing graffiti mentioned above. For one thing, by announcing to the world that you just arrived at one place, you may also be alerting burglars that you are not home. Or be telling muggers that you are about to pass by their lair. So, students should be exercising safe practices (lock your doors when you leave home, travel in groups), at any time, but maybe especially if they are using this kind of technology.

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