Why Do People Lie About Check-Ins on Foursquare?

By Chris Dannen

The beauty of Foursquare, the social networking app, is that it appeals to one of the most beneficent of human instincts: togetherness. The app allows users to “check in” at bars and restaurants, mostly to see if they have friends nearby. There’s also a game built on top of the concept: Checking in earns you “points” and “badges,” largely silly metrics of how often you socialize. The metrics are supposed to make you feel good about being so gregarious.

(GPS doesn’t lie)

But Foursquare has also cultivated some bizarrely anti-social behaviour in a subset of its users. Naveen Selvadurai, one of the company’s two co-founders, says that Foursquare’s data has revealed that some people fake their check-ins: While at one GPS coordinate they tell Foursquare they’re at another. There’s an obvious incentive to be dishonest on Foursquare; like any game if you cheat you get ahead. Checking in at, say, the bar you’re at and the bar next door will yield you double the points. Except that the game in this case has no end point — there are no winners or losers. What little victory you can attain — namely a “mayorship” of a venue — is based on how frequently you’ve checked in there in the last 60 days. That means your title is liable to change.

Like your actual social life, progress in Foursquare may feel linear, somehow additive, as if it’s all going to culminate in something. But in actuality there are no pieces moving forward on a game board; the only thing moving forward is, well, time. This makes cheating at Foursquare something of a loser’s game. When you’re playing a game purely for social capital it’s impossible to be a hoarder; social capital isn’t bankable and it can’t be traded in for anything useful. So why bother to cheat? Selvadurai has hypothesized that some people are using the game as a beard to evade friends, build an alibi, or mis-direct a stalking spouse. The motivations for gaming this system could be as dark as they are diverse. And while it’s fun to imagine why Foursquare users would take a social game and turn it into a piece of interpersonal weaponry, the reasons are almost beside the point.

Who decides what the “legitimate” use of social media is?

A more interesting question is whether people are using the social Web the way its designers think they are — and should they be allowed to? For social scientists this is a fun phenotypical question: Give humans a tool and watch it engender all sorts of odd behavior. But for technologists this question is more troubling because they’re the ones setting the rules — not just for the game itself (in Foursquare’s case) but for what the technology itself can and cannot do. The programmers are the ones that have to decide what constitutes “legitimate” use. This is an uncomfortable role that will eventually haunt a litany of traditional companies, too. The most successful web companies of today — Facebook, Google, Twitter, even Digg — are much more serious about being platforms that anyone can build on.

More traditional players in e-commerce, payments, banking, retail, and services industries have come to think similarly. MasterCard has released developer tools that let anyone build their payments system into their software. Ford has built an in-car computing platform open to all sorts of smartphone developers. Amazon has a variety of developer tools, as do PayPal and a whole slew of startups. More and more of the services we rely upon are becoming modular, open, and documented so that they can be used in all sorts of novel ways. Foursquare is no different; it has documented APIs, or “application programming interfaces,” that many developers have used to include Foursquare features inside their apps. (One phone service, Twilio, will forward your home phone calls to your work line when you check in at your office in the morning.) Some coders have even built other more complex games on top of the original Foursquare game. The technology is meant to live in a (free play) “sandbox” open to all kinds of use and interpretation. But the one unwritten rule of platforms — that the community must be protected from exploitation — isn’t too nuanced when it comes to an issue like fake check-ins.

Is anyone actually having their Foursquare experience degraded when another user fakes a bar visit? How many people must cheat before the admins take action? Programmers are creatures of parsimony, and the most elegant solution in this case may be to let the market (by way of complaints) dictate the pace of enforcement. But as Foursquare and other platforms begin to make money, the stakes grow. The conundrum becomes the same one lamented by engineers and designers in all fields: whether to build something with the ideal user in mind, or to build defensively against the misanthrope who wants to wreak havoc.

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