We’re commodities, but maybe that’s all right – what do we pay for using FourSquare?

Culinary tourism isn’t what it used to be. Two months ago, I spent a few days in London. Having never been there before, every evening presented a new challenge: where to eat? A decade ago, I might have consulted my Lonely Planet guide (or my Guide Michelin, had I not been a poor student) or asked a random passer-by for directions. Now, I consulted my iPad, and opened the Yelp app; within seconds, I had a conveniently large list of nearby places recommended by others before me.

While the nostalgically-inclined might lament the loss of the “romantic” quest for a decent restaurant in a city full of tourist traps, fact is that mobile, location-based apps such as Yelp or FourSquare have made finding a nearby place of virtually any kind a lot easier. And it’s all free, too – neither Yelp nor FourSquare even show advertisements in their mobile apps. You’d almost think it’s too good to be true – so, is it?

“If you’re not paying anything, you’re the product being sold.” This phrase has been making the rounds on the internet for a few years now and is often quoted when a wonderful online service is offered at seemlingly no cost. The notion is that, as a company still has to pay the bills, they have to be making money off their users in some way – presumably by selling or otherwise monetizing their input; for example, their personal information or the data they add to the service’s database for no monetary compensation.

The user as the “product being sold” is exactly what Leighton Evans describes in his article How to Build a Map for Nothing, from the forthcoming Unlike Us reader. Having had an experience quite similar to mine – though in York rather than London, and looking for a place to drink rather than to eat – Evans investigates what FourSquare gained by him checking into the bar he found through the app that evening.

On the one hand, argues Evans, apps like FourSquare present a unique new bottom-up approach to mapping our world; rather than a lone cartographer drawing up a map of York or London, representing only his own (or his employers’) point of view, via Location-Based Social Networks (LSBNs) thousands of users can contribute to a real-time, up-to-date map of these places. This allows for, among other things, the user-tailored recommendation lists and user-comtributed reviews these LBSNs offer. On the other hand, this information is invaluable to advertisers and the businesses that can be found through the apps; having detailed information about how and when a certain kind of person visits a certain kind of place at a certain time allows for laser-accurate marketing.

I’d say that another strength of LBSNs in this regard is the fact that they are especially well-suited to mobile apps; finding a nearby pub will usually be a goal when you’re out in the streets rather than at home. This makes for a rich stream of location-based and user-specific data that the companies behind these networks eagerly monetize. Mobile might just be the next frontier to conquer for social networks in general; with Facebook introducing a Facebook-branded SIM card and Twitter supporting updates via sms from the get-go, it is clear that location is not just the means but also the goal for a lot of networks.

Given this monetization of our input and personal data, it is obvious that we do in fact pay a price for using Yelp or FourSquare. The question is not so much whether this is a good thing or not, but rather whether the price is right; we’re providing FourSquare with our minute-to-minute location, and the data we submit about these locations, in exchange for using their nice app and the features it provides. Is this acceptable?

The problem in answering this kind of questions is that while it is sort of clear what kind of data the users provide to the services, information about what social networks do with this information is often foggy. The terms of the exchange between the social network and the user are not transparent to the user side of the matter, and perhaps this is the real issue with being the product that’s being sold. Leighton Evans found a nice pub in York, and I found an affordable restaurant in London, but what did Yelp and FourSquare find, and what did they do with it? Without an answer to those questions we cannot yet be sure whether it’s all right to be a commodity.

Leighton Evans will be speaking about mobile use of social media at the Unlike Us #3 conference, on 22 March in Trouw Amsterdam. The Unlike Us Reader, with the article ‘How to Build a Map for Nothing: Immaterial Labor and Location-Based Social Networking’, will appear at the end of February 2013.