Foursquare's Digital Graffiti, a Legally Nerve-Wracking Taste of the Future

foursquare graffiti

Foursquare is really on the ascendant as location-based gaming/social networking blossoms among smartphone users. But there's a novel side-effect happening...users are indulging in "virtual graffiti" on places and people, too. It's the future, arriving a little early.

The Chronicle of Higher Education is reporting on this effect, based on information gathered from U.S. university and college campuses. Most uses are benign and represent a clever way to use the location-based-powers inside smartphones and apps like Foursquare. Harvard, for example, is using geotagged locations around the site to act as a virtual tour, rich in information, for newcomers. North Carolina State U has a clever system that delivers geolocated history-on-the-spot information, such as letting users view images from the campus taken years ago at the spot where they're standing.

The geotagging powers do have less benevolent uses though, and Foursquare campus virtual graffiti is on the rise. The tags vary from relatively low-impact, such as leaving a tag on a professor's office that says something like "watch out for lame jokes!" to more serious personal comments, which either reveal information that people would prefer to remain personal or are disparaging or libelous in some way. Of course, it's a highly dynamic effect, and the implications depend on where you draw the line. Said professor may enjoy having an invisible "lame joker" tag on her office, or students may get a cuteness kick out of tagging the sofa where they first made out. But, considering that notions of digital privacy are changing and challenging, and that there've been a number of legal cases—such as the Yelp extortion case—sprouting from novel uses of social network-connected digital media (of which Foursquare represents an extremely cutting edge example) it really won't be long until someone somewhere fights a legal battle over digital graffiti.

FoursquareAnd when this does happen, it's going to get extremely complex. For example, does a real bricks-and-mortar business or building own the "digital airspace" around it in the virtual world? Peeling a fly-poster off your door or window is one thing, but doing the same in the virtual world...which in this case is owned by Foursquare, is a different matter. Plus digital graffiti is infinitely preferable to the usual low-skill spray paint graffiti you see dotted around your city...and has the advantage that if you don't want to, you can easily choose not to view digital graffiti by not using the apps concerned (and in the future, you'll be able to "filter" what you can see.) It's something similar to the virtual art that's viewable in augmented reality apps like Layar...just not as welcome perhaps. Ultimately, in a Snow Crash-like world, we may be walking around wearing imaging goggles with a cloud of digital tags hovering over our heads (already a familiar phenomenon to World of Warcraft players.) Foursquare, and apps like it, are just beginning to delve into this new way of looking at the World.

To keep up with this news in the real or virtual world, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter. That QR code on the left will take you to my Twitter feed too.

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