Obviously, I am female. (Well, I hope that’s obvious.) And I clearly have a vested interest in the study of social media, as evidenced by my role in editing this site. Ahem.
Personally, I’ve used and written about social media for quite awhile. To say I was unaware of some concerns (ones I personally feel are slightly overstated) surrounding the use of location-aware social networks and safety would be disingenuous- often when I aggregate my check-ins to Facebook, I inevitably receive some comments about whether I worry a crazy stalker will track me down through my new badge and murder me in full view of everyone playing Skee Ball in Greenpoint or drinking out of a hollowed out coconut on Smith Street. My favorite came courtesy of an old high school friend- “Don’t you see how this exposes you to the creeper element?”
Being a reasonable woman, I feel that the chances of such an event are low. (And being a web writer, I do sometimes consider the amount of posthumous coverage my death would receive… Death By Foursquare!) So I was surprised to read this post on The Economist alleging women overall were reluctant to use the networks for fear of the “creeper element” causing them some level of discomfort or harm. The post starts out citing a cautionary tale of some woman who used Foursquare and then a person knew where she was and referenced it.
Is anyone else not really all that creeped out by such a possibility? I mean, talking to people can be a big pain in the ass sometimes, but a deterrent? Is it rational to make the leap from “some loser wants my digits” to “OMG, raped and dead in an alley?!” The author described it as such:
It occurred to me that I have yet to hear a woman brag about getting a badge from Foursquare, and that I never will. In fact, come to think of it, I barely hear women mention such services at all. Over the following weeks I kept a sharp eye (and ear) out, and only found one friend—tech-savvy and typically an early adopter of all manner of gadgetry—who described herself as a Foursquare fan. Just the other day, she said, she had been sitting by herself eating a lonely crepe. Killing time, she checked in to the restaurant and, as luck would have it, a friend who was in the neighborhood dropped by.
Out of my 58 Foursquare friends, it would appear only 16 are females- so to a degree, the post at The Economist is correct. But is it safety concern that causes the gender imbalance on Foursquare? We all know women outnumber men on sites like Facebook, so why the disparity? The author offers two possible reasons- one I believe is somewhat bunk, and one I believe is wholesale toss:
The first is that women’s concerns about security differ from men’s and are warier of broadcasting their physical location.
If the former is true, it is a sad commentary on the playing field for women as far as tech and apps like this go. If we are not participating fully- whether out of fear or out of lack of inclusion- we’ll never be equally represented here. And I truly believe I’ll never regret saying that the risk of broadcasting your location generally as a female translating to harm is so astronomically low it’s not worth considering.
But mostly, I hate the undercurrent here- yes, the undercurrent. If you, little woman who thinks you’re clever, use such apps and services to act like men, you’re responsible for what happens to you. It seems to be a variant of the advice that women shouldn’t dress provocatively or drink to excess, because rape often follows. (My friend Sarah recently covered this issue independent of the location aware angle, explaining why this is a logical fallacy. This chart will also kind of sum up the issue for you.) It’s a subtle dismissal/threat that for some reason calls to mind, to me, that old mafia cliche: “that’s a nice vagina you got there… shame if anything happened to it.”
So it’s no surprise the thinking segues into… women use location aware apps less because they are naturally less competitive:
The second is that Foursquare and Gowalla are partly about competition: if users check in frequently, they can win points and badges. And broadly speaking, I don’t think women are as motivated by badges as much as men are.
Again, seems innocuous, but the assumption is pretty harmful. It’s okay to recognize these patterns, but we should more be discussing how the fears of actual, physical or emotional trauma coming to a user simply because they use apps like Foursquare or Gowalla are slim to none. Do I admit women may be, as a whole, warier of these functions than our male counterparts? Yes. But should we be? I say firmly “hell to the no.”