The Chronicle of Higher Education had an interesting piece about a new trend on campus where students are using mobile geosocial networking platforms like Foursquare to "tag" professors, students and campus facilities with "virtual graffiti."
Some universities, like Harvard, are using Foursquare's location-based service as a way to create a "virtual tour" by leaving tips and advice at various locations around campus. This is a brilliant way to use technology to deliver an useful information to the student community.
At North Carolina State University, mobile users are able to view historical pictures of campus buildings based on where users are standing, "including a snapshot of the first freshman class, from 1890, when the agricultural college's hot mobile technology was horses."
The article cites how one student "recently used it to leave some virtual graffiti on the spot of Mr. Kratz's office: Watch out for lame jokes!" Pretty harmless stuff.
But students at other universities are using (or have the potential to use) Foursquare in some, uhm, creative ways:
Since Foursquare's debut last year, students have diligently labeled, praised, and, in some cases, profaned college campuses. Take this note, easily Googled, that somebody calling himself Mock Redneck Jr. left at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte: "The library has Free Wi-Fi, Barely Legal girls and a warm place to drop a deuce."
Now imagine this nightmare scenario: A prospective student's mother goes on a college tour. She pulls out a phone. Her expression screams oh-my-gosh as she reads Mr. Redneck's note. Maybe she goes on to a dorm, and perhaps its residents have left other goodies online. The teacher they loathed. The room they smoked pot in. The couch they had sex on.
Now none of these activities are really out of the ordinary for most college students. What is different is that they are much more public. I'm certain that at some point, some college administrator will overreact and ban Foursquare from campus. Not smart.
Foursquare tagging should be bundled in that digital media mantra from the late 90s: think before you post. Just like Facebook, Twitter and other social networking services, most likely your Foursquare check-ins and tips will follow you for life. And students should just reminded that they are leaving digital crumbs that they may not be able to clean up later in life. And privacy? That's an illusion. Or is it?
But beyond the campus tagging, this article left me wondering what the implications for brands? There's nothing stopping a group of angry environmentalists from standing outside Nestle headquarters and tagging them on Foursquare with negative tips.
For me, this raises a lot of questions. Who owns Foursquare content? Me? Or Foursquare? Will a brand have to sue Foursquare to get negative content removed? If Foursquare removes negative content, how will their community respond?
Imagine another nightmare scenario where high school kids use Foursquare to bully a classmate by tagging their victims physical location with slurs (i.e. slut, fat, stupid, whore, gay). As many of us know, teenage cruelty has no boundaries.
While it seems like social networking has been around for eons, the reality is that for the most part this is still uncharted territory and we are still trying to navigate the pitfalls of this new world.
I'm the first to admit that at this point I don't have all the answers. The one thing I do know is that when these things do happen, and they will, we shouldn't overreact.
January 2011 Update: I ran across this example of Foursquare Grafitti for a high school in Australia. I wonder if the school has any idea?