In many ways, technology is chipping away at the public-ness of public space. Cell phones enable us to walk down the street while doing activities – answering email, fielding phone calls – that we've traditionally done in private places. WiFi has turned public parks into open-air cubicles. Personalized maps now deliver a million individual representations of a single shared streetscape.
The risk in all of this is that we experience less casual serendipity and fewer of the encounters with strangers that public spaces can create.
But then there is a service like Foursquare. For all the ways that technology can distance us from one another in the public realm, Foursquare illustrates that it can also do the opposite, nudging us online toward offline encounters we might never otherwise experience.
Cornell University researchers Lee Humphreys and Tony Liao give an entertaining account of this effect in the new issue of the digital journal First Monday (the entire issue is devoted to "media and the social production of urban space"). Their paper, "Foursquare and the Parochialization of Public Space," relied on in-depth interviews with 18 serious Foursquare users from 10 cities. These are the kind users so into the platform that they regularly vie for "mayor" of libraries, office buildings, and post offices. Each subject was "mayor" of, on average, two dozen places at the time of their interviews.
Humphreys and Liao wanted to know how Foursquare influences our sense of shared public space, and whether the competitive nature of the Foursquare app had an impact on how users perceive that space (they included semi-public spaces like restaurants and stores in their definition).
The interviews produced some endearing stories of people who engaged with other Foursquare users in real life (even a guy who found his girlfriend through it). Not all of these connections were meaningful ones (or even connections that took place in person). But for many of these super-users, Foursquare clearly created heightened awareness of the people around them, and a stronger connection to the actual places where those encounters might take place.
Here's the guy who met his girlfriend in a gym:
I just friend requested her because, you know, I did to other people at the gym. And I had done that a few other places — not thinking of a girlfriend or anything like that. Just, I’m new in town. So I did that at the gym and when I was there, she accepted my friend request. And she approved it and she told me later on it was primarily because I had a lot of mayorships — I don’t know if I had 75 or 100, whatever it was at the time. I had a lot of mayorships and I checked in a lot, you know, all over the place and she said it seemed like everywhere she’d go after that, I was the mayor of that place. (Howard)
(As of the paper's writing, these two people had been together for two years.)
Several people reported looking up the photos and profiles of other users who regularly checked in to the same locations (or who fought to be mayor there), and then hunting for them in real life:
Bob explains: "I do that all the time. Especially in places where I frequent. I'll pull up a photo and I'll look around."
Here's a woman who intentionally uses Foursquare as a conversation starter:
I would recognize people based on their mayorships and it would be a way to break the ice. I could be like, 'Oh, I've seen your picture before. You're the mayor of such and such.' And they'd be like 'Yeah you're on Foursquare?' and we'd meet that way. And I’ve actually made a few friends that way. (Jocelyn)
John lives in a large city and feels like his Foursquare badges allow him to feel like a "regular" even when people don't treat him as one:
A lot of places I go to have, you know, the same baristas or the same bartenders for years. A lot of places don’t. So especially in that type of scenario, being a mayor gives you that sense of belonging. Even if you don’t get name recognition from the barista, you’ll get that validation from the system.
Technology's net impact on public space – for good or bad – is still impossible to gauge. But these anecdotes reinforce the possibility that technology might make us more attuned to our surroundings even as it offers myriad other ways to tune the city out.