the culture and values of social media

Loopt, Locative Media, and Prescriptive Social Software – Part Three

Posted: April 28th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: social media | Tags: , , | 54 Comments »

This is the third part in a series of articles looking at how mobile social software prescribes certain types of social behavior. Part One discusses foursquare; Part Two discusses Brightkite. This part looks at Loopt.


Loopt is a website and mobile app that, in the words of their website, “transforms your phone into a mobile compass. Connect with friends and get alerted when they are nearby. Share your location, photos and comments with friends and social networks. Explore places and events recommended by friends and Yelp.”

Loopt is a lot like Google Latitude: rather than voluntarily checking in to a particular venue, and broadcasting that information to a social network (the foursquare/Brightkite model), Loopt automatically tracks your location and shows that to your friends. But while Google Latitude is building a platform, Loopt is a standalone application.

My experience signing up for Loopt immediately made me uncomfortable. When you add someone on Loopt, it sends them a text message, which is much more intrusive than an easily ignorable email (the reason for this is that you don’t provide Loopt your email address right away; more on this in a bit).
While many social software applications use the term “friends” in a very generous sense (Facebook: everyone you’ve ever met), “friends” on Loopt should presumably be people you really trust rather than people you’d be comfortable with hanging out in a bar. The software doesn’t indicate this, though; it goes through your phone book/contacts list to find potential friends and suggests that you add all of them. Two people friended me back– both very close friends. And both of them, within minutes, had IMed and texted me to say that it was sort of “creepy” to see exactly where I was on a map. If all three of the people involved in this transaction found it creepy, then it’s likely to be violating some sort of social norm. (And, several days later, only one additional person has responded to my friends request.)

Friend: wait, did it check me in when I started the app?
me: i guess it must have
it says you checked in like 1 minute ago
did it send you a text ?
Friend: heh, ok. didn’t realize that would happen
me: that’s kind of annoying

While you can configure Loopt not to check you in automatically, it does so by default. Additionally, if you turn this feature off, the next time you open the application, it asks you to turn it on again (I suppose that without this auto-tracking, the app is fairly useless, but it makes it clear that the preferred behavior is auto-checkin).

There are fairly intense implications of always knowing precisely where your friends are, which is not information I would always want to have. This is particularly true when you’re talking about someone you’re dating. You wouldn’t necessarily ask your girlfriend where she is all the time, but once that information becomes available, there’s a temptation to use it. Of course, you can turn off Loopt (or Google Latitude) whenever you want, but if you usually use it, turning it off implies that you have something to hide.

Loopt also has an intriguing feature called “Loopt Mix” which connects you with people you don’t know in your neighborhood. To use it, you provide Loopt with an email address. The email address you provide will be used by random Loopt Mixers to send you messages, so Loopt says, “Make sure to remove any contact info that may have been added in your email signature!” This is an annoying user experience which signals something about possible privacy/safety violations.

The next screen gives you various options for filling out your profile: name, picture, “About Me,” age, gender, interested in networking, friendship, dating women, dating men, tags, and “featured communities” – TechCrunch, Imeem, Rock the Vote, and the National Resource Defense Council. Once you’ve filled this all out, you can view people in your area. Here’s what this looks like in practice:

Loopt Mix Profile other Mix users

In other words, this is a great example of people using social media to hook up. Loopt Mix displays your picture and info to people near you, who can then anonymously email you using the tool. The vast majority of people using this app in my area, as you can see from the second picture, are gay men (I live in San Francisco — this may differ in other cities). I’m not surprised about this; the safety issues involved in people putting their locations and pictures of themselves online are gendered, and other hook-up sites like Craigslist Casual Encounters, Adult Friend Finder, and Manhunt are overwhelmingly used by men. One Loopt Mix user’s profile recommended Grindr, which is an iPhone app specifically designed for M4M hookups — a clear sign of the audience Loopt Mix is appealing to in SF.

On the website, there’s a “journal” feature which lets you view where your friends have been over time. There is also some recommendation component, although none of my friends have shared any information yet, so I can’t evaluate this feature. If it’s entirely dependent on information provided solely by my friends– people who I’m close enough to feel comfortable with them knowing my location all the time– it won’t have comprehensiveness like Yelp or any other venue-based review database.

So what does Loopt value?

  • Persistent knowledge of location of friends (always-on location tracking)
  • Persistent self-disclosure of location
  • Meeting people based on location (for whatever, although in practice seems to be for sex)

The overwhelming value here is that location is a useful piece of personal information that should be revealed. I suppose this an obvious feature of locative social media, but whereas Brightkite and foursquare voluntarily ask for this information, and tie it to a specific location, Loopt’s ideal seems to be seamless location tracking. While this is certainly valuable, as with Brightkite, it’s not necessary actionable. The automatic nature of the app means that you never know whether someone wants to be “found” or not. Generally, while Loopt doesn’t prescribe social behavior, it seems likely to give rise to all sorts of etiquette/social problems if widely used. The potentially negative social implications of the technology seem to outweigh the (non-obvious) advantages of using it.

On the gender neutrality of language

Posted: April 27th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: feminism, language | Tags: , , | 2 Comments »

“The idea that some terms encode a male worldview is initially a puzzling one. One thing that is meant by it is, roughly, that the meanings of certain terms seem to divide the world up in a way that is more natural for men than for women. Good examples of this come from the terms ‘foreplay’ and ‘sex’.‘Sex’ is generally taken to refer to an act that is defined in terms of male orgasm, while the sexual activities during which many women have their orgasms are relegated to secondary status, referred to by terms like ‘foreplay’. These terms, then, can be seen as based in a male perspective on sex. (It is worth noting that the ‘male perspective’ claim need not rest on the (implausible) idea that this perspective is shared by all men. Rather, it can rest on claims about what is typical for men, or on the claim that the only perspective from which certain understandings make sense is a male one.) As a result, these terms may serve as a barrier to accurate communication or even thought about women’s experiences of sex. ”

Jennifer Saul, Feminist Philosophy of Language, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

BrightKite, Locative Media and Prescriptive Social Software – Part Two

Posted: April 27th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: social media | Tags: , , , | 6 Comments »

Last week, I posted my analysis of how foursquare prescribes certain types of social behavior. Next, I’m looking at two other locative media products, or “mobile social software”: Brightkite and Loopt. To simplify this comparison, I’m focusing on the iPhone applications rather than websites or applications for other platforms. (These apps are primarily made for mobile phones with GPS anyway.) I’ll also disclaim that I don’t really use these apps, so my understanding of them is based on the signup process rather than habitual use. This part discusses Brightkite; Loopt will follow in Part Three.

To recap, I’m looking at how mobile social software prescribes certain types of behavior. This isn’t to say that it causes specific behavior or that users don’t have agency. Instead, I’m interested in how locative social media has certain assumptions about social life built into the software.


According to their website, “Brightkite is a location-based social network. In real time you can see where your friends are and what they’re up to. Depending on your privacy settings you can also meet others nearby.” The Brightkite interface is really clean, well-designed, and sleek, with great integration with the rest of the iPhone. It’s clear they’ve spent a lot of time on the product, and they claim something like two million users. (Active users or user accounts?)

Like foursquare, Brightkite users “check in” to specific venues, but can also add notes and photos. In practice, Brightkite is a combination of foursquare, Twitter, and the Flickr photostream. Here’s what this looks like on the iPhone app:

Brightkite checkin screen

Unlike foursquare, Brightkite gives you two viewing options: friends (wherever they happen to be), or people near you (who may or may not be your friends):

  Brightkite Friends stream Brightkite nearby stream

The Friends stream doesn’t filter by location, so it’s more “keep up with what your friends are doing” than “go meet your friends.” The purpose of the Nearby tab seems to meet people near you, or people who frequent venues that you do, but in practice, this is difficult. Location data is most useful when a relationship has already been established; establishing a relationship based on shared location (as opposed to shared interests, or friends-of-friends) is sort of like becoming friends with the people on your hall freshman year of college. They’re fine to go to the dining hall with, but you’ll eventually want to meet people you have something in common with besides living space.

Brightkite says on one of their help pages that users can “Message, browse, and see what people are up to around your current location. View visitors at your favorite places.” So presumably Brightkite should help you find cool stuff going on around you – if Harry posts a picture of a lightsaber battle going on in Washington Square Park, and you’re two blocks away, you can hustle over and join in the wacky fun. Or, if you see that Angelina J. is always checking in at your favorite coffee shop, maybe you can offer to split a blueberry muffin with her (“I saw you on Brightkite.”).

The problem with this latter scenario is that it’s creepy. It’s non-normative social behavior. Even using Dodgeball (foursquare’s pregenitor), there were plenty of times when I went to meet a friend who had checked in to a nearby venue, only to find that they were on a date, out to brunch with their girlfriend, or otherwise engaged in a pursuit where a random additional person was uncomfortable. Smoothly navigating these scenarios with strangers seems close to impossible, let alone leading to new friendships. And location information itself is not enough; how could I use the information that “cman checked in at Williams-Sonoma 15 minutes ago”?

Because Brightkite doesn’t have a points system or a leaderboard like foursquare, it’s not as cut-and-dried to describe it as “prescriptive.” So what does Brightkite value?

  • Documentation (encourages users to create a persistent record of where you’ve been, with photos and notes)
  • Connectedness among friends (encourages frequent check ins)
  • Ambient awareness (being able to see what everyone on your friends list is up to)
  • Meeting new people based on location (through providing a “nearby” stream)

Because Brightkite is more open-ended than foursquare, it’s less prescriptive. If your interest is in self-documentation, BrightKite works very well– the addition of photos and notes allows you to put together a diary-like stream of actions. But in some ways it’s just a weaker, lesser-used Twitter/Flickr stream; the lack of local specificity for “friends” makes it harder to use for socializing, and there’s no clear use case for meeting new people. Foursquare is more prescriptive, but ultimately more useful: it’s obvious how you’re supposed to use the software. The argument amongst foursquare users that people shouldn’t check in to “home” or “work” makes this clear. Brightkite would encourage users to check in at home or work; that way, they create a persistent record of their life, and broadcast that information to friends. Foursquare, on the other hand, is based on a particular kind of action– meeting up with friends for nightlife socializing– which arguably doesn’t include “home” and “work.”

If anyone reading this is a huge Brightkite fan, I’d love to hear your experiences with it in the comments.

Tomorrow: Loopt.

A Quick Ethnographic Quote

Posted: April 22nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Dissertation | Tags: , | 1 Comment »

“In San Francisco, Web 2.0 is the new indierock. I liked Twitter, like, two page redesigns ago.” – Nick

“I was into them in closed beta.” – Micah

Foursquare, Locative Media, and Prescriptive Social Software – Part One

Posted: April 22nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: social media, social networking | Tags: , , | 45 Comments »

This is the first in a three-part series. Part Two discusses Brightkite; Part Three discusses Loopt.

Today I went to a local coffee shop to eat soup and read my 40+ pages of notes (so far) on what is supposed to be a 10 page chapter of my dissertation. I’m a frequent user of the iPhone app created by foursquare, location-based social software that lets you check in to venues (restaurants, bars, clubs) and broadcast your whereabouts to a network of friends.

4sq screenshot

Foursquare is not the only software out there that does this; similar applications include BrightKite, Google Latitude, Whrrl, and Loopt. What interests me about foursquare is that it’s a terrific example of prescriptive social software: applications that encourage particular social behaviors and provide very clear rewards for behaving in the “right” way.

Let’s start with foursquare. When I “checked in” at The Grind, here’s the feedback I got:

foursquare screenshot of checkin points

Foursquare gives you points depending on when, where, and with who you check in, and keeps a weekly leaderboard of high scorers in each city. In this instance, I get 5 points for checking in at a new venue (don’t ask where the 22 points comes from; I didn’t check in anywhere last night after midnight [Edit: apparently this is a bug that’s since been fixed]), and I’m told that Jay A. is the Mayor of The Grind, which means he’s checked in there more times than anyone else in the last 60 days.

So I go check my place in the Leaderboard:

4sq screenshot

Social butterfly Charles G. has checked in 18 times since Sunday (it’s Wednesday), with a grand total of 114 points. Naomi M. has checked in more times (20) but gotten fewer points, so she trails Mr. Charles for second place. (Don’t give up, Naomi, you’ve still got four more days!)

After a month of using foursquare, I’ve found that it rewards the following:

  • Going to new places : you get a 5 point bonus every time you check in somewhere new.
  • Going to multiple places in one day/night: 3 point “travel bonus”
  • Going out after staying home for a few days: “First night out in a while” bonus
  • Going out many nights in a row

There are also badges, which reward particular things, such as checking in at 10, 25, and 50 new venues; checking in X number of days in a row (”Bender”); checking in at X number of venues in one night (”Crunked”); checking in at the same place three times in one week (”Local”); and checking in with multiple members of the opposite sex (”Playa Please,” which I got at the Austin airport). You get fewer points for checking in somewhere you go frequently.

Given that the application presumes moving one’s way up the leaderboard is a good thing, the model of social life valued/rewarded by foursquare involves going out a lot, in urban areas, to many different venues (bars/clubs/restaurants), many days of the week (”exploring” the city, presumably with a group of suitably soused friends). This is a very urban, American, and youthful model of socialization. If you’re the kind of person who likes to stay home and play board games with your two best friends, or go to the same bar every night, or if you live in the suburbs, or if you’re done with the phase of your life when bars and clubs seemed exciting, you’re not going to find foursquare very useful, and foursquare isn’t going to encourage your type of socializing. Foursquare values going out a lot; it doesn’t place value on catching up with your reading. But then again, if you don’t like to socialize or don’t like going to bars, clubs, and restaurants, foursquare wouldn’t have much utility for you, either.

[Edit: apparently you don’t get points for checking in during the day on weekdays, which obviously, prioritizes socializing at night.]

So does this prescriptive social behavior actually change people’s social behavior? While I have zero empirical evidence to believe this is true, I have plenty of anecdotal evidence, like any good blogger. A quick search on Twitter for foursquare found the following in the first page of results:

@rogersmithhotel I’ll be there, going for the local badge on @foursquare by tomorrow. Oh, and I’m mayor too :D

GushueIS: Wow i just realized I.m 1 in sf on @foursquare now i feel all this pressure to go to new places!

creasian: HAHAH I’m the new Mayor of the San Jose International Airport on !!! Sweet! #foursquare

There’s something here worth examining. What assumptions about “good” and “bad” socializing are built into social media? Locative social media is especially interesting because it directly affects how people move through the city. It can be terrifically fun and useful for people who fit its prescribed social model. Here in San Francisco, where I’m doing ethnographic work on social media users, foursquare has positively affected my social life. For example, on Monday night, I went to dinner with a friend. After dinner, I saw that two of my closest friends were at a local bar. We met them there, and over the course of the next four hours, about 10 other people showed up, all of whom found us through foursquare. Whether or not it’s wise to have a party in a bar on Monday night is arguable, but it was really fun. Likewise, last night, on my way to meet my friends at Cafe Du Nord, I detoured through Dolores Park to say hi to two friends who’d checked in there. We watched the sunset together and I went on my way.

Foursquare also contributes to ambient awareness. Like Twitter, you feel part of a group of people, but whereas you can follow anyone on Twitter, foursquare restricts the displayed information to people in your city, and friendships are bidirectional – nobody can friend you if you don’t friend them. People tend to be fairly picky about their foursquare friends, precisely because of the type of specific locative information that it provides. This creates a social map of the city – my friend Jane is at work, John is at the park, Josh is climbing, Jen is having brunch – which can be comforting and helps to provide a sense of social context.

But it’s important to remember that the social models built into social software are not value-neutral. In the second part of this post, I will look at the types of social behavior that other locative media services prescribe.

Disclaimer: I’m friends with the guys behind foursquare.

ROFLCON Talk from last April

Posted: April 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Conferences | Tags: , , | 50 Comments »

So my ROFLCON keynote on internet celebrity is finally online in its entirety at the Internet Archive. It took me this long to find it because it’s tagged as “Alex Marwick.” Oh well, we all need to start somewhere! It’s about a half hour long and touches on many of the things about internet celebrity that I’ve written/talked about elsewhere, but I wrote it to be funnier than a typical academic talk. I’ll upload it to YouTube eventually and post it here when it’s done.

We Didn’t Start the Flame War

Posted: April 14th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: internet culture | Tags: , , | 1 Comment »

CollegeHumor takes on contemporary Digg/YouTube/etc. comment culture. Full of meme references, internet wins, etc. Warning, this video is full of profanity and is not safe for school, work, or your mom:

See more funny videos and funny pictures at CollegeHumor.