V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer

New Mayor in Town


Ryan Taylor is the mayor of JetFuel Coffee Shop on Foursquare.

Published in The Toronto Star, March, 2010.

Meet Chris Tindal, the new "mayor" at City Hall.

He has checked in at 100 Queen St. W. so many times on Foursquare, a new social networking site, that he earned the title the same day he registered to run in the real world for city councillor in Ward 27. He considers it a cosmic cyber sign.

"I thought this bodes very well to register for my candidacy and become mayor of Toronto the same day," says Tindal, 28, a website content manager.

Foursquare is the latest in social media tools to take North America. It is gaining momentum in Toronto, too, but is meeting significant road bumps along the way. While some laud it as a powerful marketing opportunity and claim it's the next big thing to hit the cyber-networking world, others are upset over the privacy and security issues.

Here's how it works: Users download the mobile application on their GPS-enabled device and can choose to connect with friends by "checking in" to different locations.

If they're at a coffee shop, they can check in to the venue using their phone. Foursquare then broadcasts the user's location to his or her network and alerts friends who may be nearby, facilitating spontaneous meetings.

The more you check in, the more badges you unlock. For example, repeat visits to venues tagged as karaoke joints will garner the "Don't Stop Believin'" badge. The application also rewards loyalty and bestows the title of Mayor to users who've frequented a venue more than anyone else – until someone steals that title.

Tindal, a 28-year-old website content manager, has since earned the title "Super Mayor" after holding down 10 mayoral titles at venues like The Annex Live, The Ben Wicks pub and Rosedale United Church.

He sees Foursquare as another way to communicate and be more accessible to the public. Politicians could use it to let constituents know when they're in their campaign office, for instance, or when they've checked in to community events, he says.

Meanwhile, Ryan Taylor is pretty chuffed about being Mayor of Cabbagetown, where he lives and works. The application allows users to leave tips about venues visited. When Taylor, 33, went out for drinks in the city's west end, he received a random tip from a friend who recommended the mac and cheese at a restaurant across the street. A few days later, Taylor went back to the restaurant to take up his friend's suggestion.

It's precisely this type of consumer-driven city guide that Taylor hopes to tap into as the owner of a recently opened small business, Fair Trade Jewellery Co. By engaging in his community and telling his Foursquare friends about his favourite neighbourhood hangouts, he hopes to bring people to the area.

"Checking in to the local pub broadcasts to the broader community that these are places Ryan eats and drinks and engages locally," he says while sipping on a coffee in his cafe-kingdom, JetFuel Coffee Shop, where he's the reigning mayor. "It's about being able to interact at street level."

Dave Fleet, head of social media practice at Thornley Fallis Communications, is also an early adopter of online networking tools. He agrees forward-thinking businesses could benefit from location-based applications that can pitch directly to customers who are on their doorstep in real time.

"Instead of targeting everyone in the city by advertising in the paper, targeting people who are outside their door right now is very powerful."

Pizza franchise Magic Oven, for instance, is set to advertise on Foursquare. But instead of randomly luring people in the area, founder Tony Sabherwal wants to attract customers who share the same values in health, wellness and sustainability.

That includes targeting attendees of major events in the city like The Green Living Show, the Toronto International Film Festival or the upcoming G20 Summit.

Common marketing strategies include offering discounts or free drinks to customers in the area or special incentives to mayors. But therein lies a glitch. Users can cheat by checking in to nearby venues from the comfort of their sofa, and still rack up enough points to become mayor.

Tindal assures his visits to city hall were legitimately on-site, mostly to observe council meetings. More than cheating to score a free muffin, former user Erin Bury, 24, was worried about her safety. Bury had linked her Twitter account with Foursquare and was getting friend requests from cyber acquaintances – people she had met once or followers she had never met.

At her boyfriend's urging, considering the potential for stalkers, she deleted her account.

"I'm a young girl living in the city and I didn't want to advertise my whereabouts to quasi-strangers. Knowing where I am is a privilege I only want to extend to my friends, family and boyfriend."

Privacy and security threats from geo-locating software are also what inspired the recently launched site pleaserobme.com, which warns that by publicly declaring your whereabouts, you also announce to the world the one place you're not –home.

To prove its point, the Dutch site gleaned status updates from Twitter, which is linked to Foursquare accounts, to list "recent empty homes" complete with a timeline of when users left their residences.

But even Bury is considering rejoining Foursquare. She had been an early adopter and says she would be more selective about her network the second time around.

Avner Levin, director of the Privacy and Cyber Crime Institute at Ryerson University, says Foursquare is similar to the latest thieving strategy to strike car and homeowners in the GTA.

Car thieves know many drivers program their home addresses into their GPS. The system leads them to the owner's home and provides the crook with the perfect chance to break and enter.

"The more information you post out there, the more opportunities (there are) to exploit you," he says. "All this shows us is the unexpected ways our personal information can be used."

Vivian Song can be reached through her website www.viviansong.com.

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