retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon


Please rob me.

That’s exactly the message you unwittingly risk sending by sharing too much information on your whereabouts on social networking sites such as Foursquare, Gowalla, Twitter and Facebook.

And that’s exactly the name of the new website designed by three tech-savvy guys in Amsterdam to illustrate just that point. Since its launch last month, PleaseRobMe.com has been the talk of the town, from mainstream media to cyber-chatter. It’s been called satire, a spoof, and serious business.

The site’s founders make it very clear they are not promoting break-ins, just awareness, stating: “Our intention is not, and never has been, to have people burgled.”

They note that in our rush to embrace new technology and social engagement, we sometimes forget about privacy and common sense. Enter the newest Next Big Thing in social networking -- “social geolocation” services led by Foursquare.com and Gowalla.com. “Social geolocation” translates to “where are you?/I’m here.”

Members are asked to “check-in” by using text messages or applications for iPhones or Android phones to cite their whereabouts and connect with friends. The locations are positioned on maps, similar to a game board.

The “positioning” sets these sites apart from Facebook, which asks users “What’s on your mind?” and Twitter, which wants to know “What’s happening?”

Posting “I’m at the farmer’s market” sounds relatively innocent, right? Not so, says PleaseRobMe.com: “The danger is publicly telling people where you are. This is because it leaves one place you're definitely not... home. So here we are; on one end we're leaving lights on when we're going on a holiday, and on the other we're telling everybody on the internet we're not home.”

Dubious? Well an Arizona-based video editor sent out an innocent tweet last June saying “We made it to Kansas City in one piece.” When he came home his house was burgled and his MacBook Pro taken.

Boy Van Amstel, one of the founders of Please Rob Me, saw people foolishly listing their home address, or family members’ addresses, in their “check-ins” and thought it dangerous. His site is actually quite simple – it is essentially a page of Twitter search results that monitors the latest posts of users sharing their location via Foursquare. The listing reads “recent empty homes.”

Not surprisingly, Foursquare reacted quickly, saying it takes users’ privacy “very seriously” and notes that people who opt to send their check-ins to Facebook and Twitter expose the information to a larger audience. Many bloggers jumped in to support Foursquare, including one who wrote: “You might as well argue that you should never tell anyone you have a job from 9-5 every day because people can use the white pages to find your home and rob you!”

The lessons here?

The rapidly changing social media world allows quick thinking entrepreneurs to execute ideas like PleaseRobMe.com, adding one more example to the “Why didn’t I think of that?” file. It also means that as users and providers of social networking, we all need to think very carefully about what we are posting on the internet. As we’ve told our children time and again, once it’s out there, anyone can see it.

Do you use Foursquare or other geolocation services, personally or in your business? If so, please shoot me an email at kate@morningnewsbeat.com for an upcoming column.
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