Introduction to Social Media Investigation: A Hands-on Approach, 1st Edition (2015)
Chapter 10. Foursquare
Foursquare is a location-based social media service. It works primarily on mobile devices, like iPhones and Android phones. Users check in at places like stores, restaurants, sporting arenas, and other venues. Their friends can see where they checked in. There is also a game element of Foursquare. Users receive points for each check-in, and they can see a leaderboard that lists all their friends ranked by the number of points they have. Foursquare is the most popular location-based social media service behind only Facebook, which offers location-tagging abilities to all of its 1.4 billion users. Foursquare has around 45 million users, with around 6 million check-ins per day. This chapter presents an overview of the different types of information people share on the site and how to find those people.
Foursquare is a location-based social media service. It works primarily on mobile devices, like iPhones and Android phones. Users check in at places like stores, restaurants, sporting arenas, and other venues. Their friends can see where they checked in. There is also a game element of Foursquare. Users receive points for each check-in, and they can see a leaderboard that lists all their friends ranked by the number of points they have.
Foursquare is the most popular location-based social media service behind only Facebook, which offers location-tagging abilities to all of its 1.4 billion users. Foursquare has around 45 million users, with around 6 million check-ins per day.
When a user launches the Foursquare app, they see a list of places near them where they can check in. If a place is not on Foursquare already—for example, if a new restaurant opened—the user can add it. Figure 10.1 shows an example list of nearby places.
FIGURE 10.1 A list of nearby venues for a user.
When a user chooses a place, they see information about the venue, including the address and hours, business details when appropriate (like if they accept credit cards), tips provided by other users, a map, and the name of the mayor.
Figure 10.2 shows the venue page for the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The “mayor” of a venue is the person who has checked in there the most, with higher weight given to more recent check-ins.
FIGURE 10.2 The Foursquare venue page for the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.
On that page at the top is a “Check In Here” button. A user may press it to check-in at the venue. At this point, they are shown information that gives them details about their personal experience with the venue. Figure 10.3 shows an example.
FIGURE 10.3 Example information shown to a user when he or she checks in at a venue.
After dismissing the check-in info, the user now sees additional information about the venue, including other people currently checked in there. Figure 10.4 shows the additional information that appears on the venue page. Profile pictures for other users are blurred to protect their privacy.
FIGURE 10.4 Additional information appears on a venue page after a person checks in. In particular, a list of other people checked in is available. Their profiles are blurred here to protect their privacy.
A user receives points for each check-in. The game component of Foursquare allows them to see how many points they have relative to their friends. Through their profile page, a person can see his or her leaderboard, which ranks the user and his or her friends according to points (see Figure 10.5).
FIGURE 10.5 A leaderboard for a user. Friends and points for each user are shown in this screen.
Foursquare users tend to be male (60% male vs. 40% female) and college-educated (60% have a college degree). It is roughly as popular with younger users (ages 18-29) and slightly older users (ages 30-42), with both comprising about 40% of the user base. The average income is around $50,000 per year. Hispanics also tend to be more frequent users of Foursquare, using check-in services at twice the rate of the overall population.
By Facebook, Twitter, or Contact Info
If you are connected to a person on Facebook or Twitter, you can link your accounts and add them that way. If you know the person's email address or mobile phone number, you can put them in your contact list on your mobile phone and then add people that way. These options are shown in Figure 10.6.
FIGURE 10.6 The screen for adding friends on the iPhone Foursquare app.
Figure 10.6 shows that you can also search for a person by name. If you choose this option, you can search by first or last name. Users' full names and profile pictures will appear in the search results, but the results are usually limited to roughly 100 results (even for searches with common names like “Smith”). Figure 10.7 shows a search results page.
FIGURE 10.7 The result of a search for users named “Smith” on Foursquare. Names and faces are blurred for privacy.
By Friends' Profiles
You can also locate people through social contacts. When you look at the public profile of a person, you can see a list of that person's friends. That means even if you are not friends with a target, or if you want to avoid connecting with a target, you can still get to their profile if you can find an associate.
Figure 10.8 shows the profile page for a user. The grid underneath the profile photo includes a “Friends” section. You can see this grid for any user. Clicking on that Friends section will link to a list of friends, which appears much like the list in Figure 10.7.
FIGURE 10.8 The home page for a user. The grid in the middle of the page includes a box that links to a list of friends.
By Other Search Methods
As mentioned above, when you look at the page for a venue, the mayor is listed. Clicking on the mayorship (the bottom of Figure 10.2 is one example) takes you to the public page for the mayor.
Similarly, when you check in to a venue, you see a list of others checked in there (shown in Figure 10.4). If you click on the title “You are here” in that section of the page, it brings up a list of everyone checked in. This list is shown in Figure 10.9 (with blurring for privacy). Clicking on anyone's name in this list will take you to their public page.
FIGURE 10.9 A list of other people checked in at the same venue as the user. Clicking their name will take you to their public profile page.
These features mean that, even if you cannot find someone in a search or through other social contacts, you may be able to find them if you know where they are checked in at a given moment—or if you know places they check in frequently and may be listed as mayor.
Once you have found a person, you can find out information from their profile. Depending on whether or not you are friends with them on Foursquare, different data is available.
Figure 10.10 shows a profile page for Malcom as it appears to a nonfriend. This is the view you will have if you locate someone through a mayorship, check-in, or someone else's friend list.
FIGURE 10.10 The view of a user's profile when you are not friends with them.
This has a grid of icons. The “Friends” square in the upper left links to a list of Malcom's friends. The “Stats” square in the top center links to a list of mayorships that the user holds. This can be extremely informative. A user becomes mayor of a place when they check in there very frequently. If a person has many mayorships, it can paint a detailed picture of the places they frequent.
Figure 10.11 shows the mayorships for Malcom on the “Stats” page. You can see he is listed as mayor of the IMF, where he works. He is also mayor of a Chipotle restaurant.
FIGURE 10.11 Malcom's “Stats” page showing his mayorships.
There are many of these restaurants, but clicking on the item in the mayorship list will take you to the venue page for that specific restaurant and show you its address. This could let you know which restaurants Malcom frequents.
Other items on the grid include “Photos,” which links to pictures the person has taken at different check-ins; “Tips,” which are tips associated with specific venues; “Badges,” which list accomplishments in the game component of Foursquare; and “Lists,” which may include lists of favorite venues or places the person wants to visit.
Much more information is available to friends. Figure 10.12 shows Malcom's profile page when we are friends with him. Beneath the grid in Figure 10.10, there is a list of the user's check-ins. The list can be scrolled to reveal more check-ins the person has made. Once you hit the bottom of the list, it loads the next batch of check-ins, allowing you to scroll continually back in time.
FIGURE 10.12 The view of a profile when you are friends, including a list of the person's check-ins.
Each check-in has a date, time, and the location of the check-in. When a user has many check-ins, this list can help you build a profile of their activities, including the places they frequent, the neighborhoods they often visit, and when they tend to be in each area.
Friends may also have access to one another's email address and phone number. In the top right of the profile page (as shown in Figure 10.12), there is a contact link. That will take you to the contact information that a user has made available to friends.
From Other Social Networks
Finally, some users connect their Foursquare accounts to other social media, especially Twitter. If you know someone's Twitter account, you may find links to their Foursquare check-ins there. This can give you access to individual check-ins, even if you are not friends with the person on Foursquare. Figure 10.13 shows what a Foursquare check-in looks like on Twitter.
FIGURE 10.13 A Foursquare check-in on Twitter.
If you click on the 4sq.com link in the tweet (or other social media post), it will reveal a Foursquare page for the check-in itself, which includes the specific location, date, and time of the check-in. Figure 10.14 shows the page for the check-in from Figure 10.13.
FIGURE 10.14 The Foursquare page for an individual check-in linked from Twitter.
Because location information is quite sensitive—especially a very comprehensive list of all the places a person goes, which is available for active Foursquare users—there are many privacy protections available on the service. As seen above, check-in data is only available for a person's friends to see. A user may also control which, if any, of their contact information is visible to friends.
Users can also control how publicly they can be seen. They can prevent themselves from being seen on the list of people checked in at a venue (as shown in Figure 10.9). They can also opt out of being eligible for mayorships, since that “office” is always public.
Users cannot opt out of appearing in search results, but they are not required to use their full name. Some only identify by a username, while others (like the author, whose account “Jen G” appears in some Figures) use a shortened version of their name.
Despite its privacy controls, Foursquare has been used to investigate people and catch them misbehaving.
In Middletown, Connecticut, the Community Health Center, a nonprofit medical clinic, used Foursquare check-in data in a complaint against its former information technology director.1 Ali Eslami, the IT director and “director of innovation,” was involved in a complex disagreement with the clinic. He claimed he was fired for revealing information about security weaknesses in the clinic's information systems. The clinic claimed he stole emails and posted them online, illegally obtained patient records, and threatened his superiors online.
The latter claim is where Foursquare entered the picture. After his firing, Eslami posted a message on Twitter, directed at the clinic, that read “911 dispatch, how can we assist. We need a swat team here” with a picture of the CEO's house attached. He then used Foursquare to check in at the children's museum founded by the CEO's wife. He also repeatedly checked in at the clinic on Foursquare as he drove past.
The clinic used this information as evidence of “threats” in a complaint filed against Eslami.
Credit Card Companies
Credit card companies are also using Foursquare to analyze people's habits and in particular to predict whether someone is likely to get divorced.2 The idea is simple: married people tend to patronize different types of businesses than single people. Credit card companies already have insights into this from people's purchases on their cards. However, Foursquare can provide those insights even when people mix cards or pay cash. This lets a card company use a person's behavior to predict credit risk and make decisions about extending credit and managing accounts. It's a large-scale way that Foursquare is used to investigate individuals.
And in one amusing way to use Foursquare to investigate people, an app called Avoidr connects to Foursquare and helps people avoid their exes.3 It will track your ex's (or other enemy's) check-ins and let you know where they are, so you never have to run into them.
Foursquare, a popular location-sharing social media site, allows people to check in at different venues, track where they visit, and earn points in an in-app game with their friends. You can find users by name or social connection or through venues they are visiting or frequently visit.
Without being friends, you can still discover the places a user frequents through mayorships and possibly through their external social media sites, like Twitter, where they may post check-in information. If you are friends with a person on Foursquare, you can see the full list of all their check-ins, which allows you to develop a detailed understanding of where they go, when they go there, and what patterns appear in their behavior.
Although Foursquare has conservative privacy policies that allow users to protect a lot of their information, there are many traces that can be picked up about a person and where they go.
1 Gecan, Alex. 2014. “Community Health Center Suing a Former IT Director.” The Middletown Press. Accessed 2014 July 22. http://www.middletownpress.com/general-news/20140624/community-health-center-suing-a-former-it-director.
2 Dash, Raj. 2010. “Foursquare Becomes Great Predictor Of Divorce.” SocialTimes. Accessed 2014 July 22. http://socialtimes.com/foursquare-becomes-great-predictor-of-divorce:b10007.
3 “Foursquare App Helps to Avoid Your Divorced Spouse”. 2011. The Law Firm of Charles D. Jamieson, P.A. Accessed 2014 July 22. http://divorcewpb.com/foursquare-app-avoid-ex-spouse/.