Leighton Evans – Buying and Selling People and Places: The Political Economy of Mobile Social Media

Leighton Evans, a research associate at Cardiff University with a PhD from Swansea University under his belt, is as a researcher chiefly interested in location-based social media services. His article How to Build a Map for Nothing: Immaterial Labor and Location-Based Social Networking dealing with this topic appeared in the Unlike Us Reader, and at the Unlike Us #3 conference he spoke on the ever increasing worldwide adoption of mobile devices, the location tracking that goes along with it and the implications this has.

Photo by Martin Risseeuw

Evans’ main point was that when dealing with mobile services and devices, one should always be aware of the materiality of the software and hardware involved. A huge volume of user data is tracked when using online services, for example, and much of it location-based. Following that, location data constitutes an important aspect of the data gathered about us and tells a great deal about our lifes. It is therefore important to pay attention to this material nature of the data that’s collected.

This is all the more important as our telephones often are no longer just phones, but fully-fledged computers; continually connected to the internet, able to track your location using GPS and perpetually collecting this data about your whereabouts and activities. This “locational layer” of user data can then be utilized by, for example, advertising campaigns.

Evans used the location-based social network FourSquare as an example. FourSquare records all kinds of data related to location; not just where you are, but also what you’re doing, who you’re with, when you’re there and whether you’ve been at a place before or not. This allows for very precisely targeted advertising. Evans used his weekly visits to a nearby football ground as an example; FourSquare could use this data to offer him a discount at a local StarBacks around the corner. In this sense, it is not just the user that is a commodity (through their value for advertisers); the places themselves become commodotized as well.

Though there have been other social networks offering this kind of functionality, FourSquare is by far the most succesful. Evans pointed out that a big factor in FourSquare’s success was its gamification of “checking-in” to a place. Facebook had originally introduced a system of checking-in at places around the same time as FourSquare launched, but was less succesful; it lacked the points system that made checking-in to FourSquare rewarding.

While Evans has not focused on Facebook specifically in his work, it is of course still a big player in the field of location-based user data collection, even in spite of its comparatively limited success. Through Facebook’s acquisition of FourSquare competitor GoWalla in 2011, the company not only acquired a software platform but also a huge amount of location data. This data, collected by users checking in at places through mobile devices, allows Facebook to make its services tailored to a user’s location.

While such acquisitions are a way for companies to gather location-based user information, ‘live’ data collection through smart phones are still the bigger method. This requires the users to own a smartphone to begin with, though; an obvious problem in markets like Africa where smartphones are far less commonplace than in the western world. On the other hand, in Africa but also in developing countries in other parts of the world, ‘dumbphone’ penetration is usually very good. Even in countries like Somalia, where there has been no functioning government for over a decade, there’s good telecom coverage and relatively low tariffs. In countries like Indonesia and Vietnam and several Central American countries, mobile phone penetration is around 100%. This often goes together with air time becoming a commodity in itself; companies run marketing campaigns where buying a certain brand of product gives free air time.

Facebook has capitalized on this and introduced Facebook Zero, a version of the social network that can be used through dumbphones and over the normal telephone network. This allows them to collect data from dumbphone users as well. These people are as mentioned earlier often well-adjusted to the combination of marketing campaigns and mobile devices, as it’s often a major source of air time.

This all means that more and more locational data is gathered in any context where a phone, smart or dumb, is used, and this practice is closely tied to marketing and economy in general. The question then, argued Evans, is whether this increased commoditization of not just users but also places changes our perception of these places and influences our everyday behavior. While an answer to this question is hard to provide, it is still one that must be asked – and is becoming increasingly relevant.