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Escapist Technology

April 11, 2012

I've been thinking and reading about Foursquare a lot lately, although I don't actually use it (or even own a smart phone). A few weeks ago, I mused at length about the ways that apps like Foursquare affect their users' experience of the city, and yesterday I came across this blog post by Hue Rhodes, which dovetails well with what I wrote:

"You can have a million more Twitter followers than me. You can have a million more dollars than me. But you cannot drink a million more cups of coffee than me, because you cannot drink a million cups of coffee."

In other words, influence on Foursquare is evenly distributed and democratic. Rhodes concludes his post with a one-person, one-vote analogy: The constraints of reality, in which Foursquare is firmly grounded, limit how frequently you can check into locations or otherwise throw your weight around. There are no shortcuts by which you can earn or buy additional influence; therefore, Donald Trump cannot oust you as Mayor of your neighborhood Chipotle without actually going there more often than you do.

What this indicates to me is that Foursquare represents (and interacts with) reality much more closely than other web applications, and is less escapist. Foursquare, in other words, is “about” the real world. Twitter, as a contrasting example, allows users to construct alter egos that have roles vastly out of proportion to their real world counterparts. That guy you just bumped into on the subway could have 10,000 followers. He could be @pourmecoffee, who has anonymously amassed 76,000 followers. In fact, he could even be @Horse_ebooks. Twitter, like TV, is a break from reality, however short that break may last, and what matters on Twitter lessens in importance as it makes the leap to the world of flesh-and-blood humans.

I love Twitter as much as anyone (too much) and I don’t mind a regular dose of escapism. I can even accept the argument that the Internet is as real as what happens out on the street. Still, I welcome any technological development that exists in symbiosis with the real world as we have traditionally defined it.