First Monday

Foursquare and the parochialization of public space by Lee Humphreys and Tony Liao

The mobile social network Foursquare has gained popularity in the last few years among both users and businesses. This article explores how the use of Foursquare changes and impacts people’s sense of place. Drawing on the work of Lofland (1998) on the social production of space, we argue that as new socio–spatial information (i.e., who checks in where) is introduced via the mobile social network, it can change the way people experience a place. Based on qualitative in–depth interviews with active Foursquare users, we explore person–to–person and person–to–place connections and argue that Foursquare promotes parochialization of public space.


Literature review
Discussion and conclusion




The development and proliferation of mobile social networks have the potential to transform the ways that people come together and interact in public space. These services allow new kinds of information to flow into public spaces and incentivize certain types of behaviors in those spaces, which can rearrange social and spatial practices. Most people in the world today will be coming online for the first time via a mobile device (Donner and Gitau, 2009). Therefore, the first time most people encounter social media will likely be through a mobile. Additionally, more and more social media are moving to a mobile platform. Almost half of all tweets are now submitted via mobile device (Twitter, 2012).

As we engage with social media on–the–go, the context in which we use these services will change. As such, the information we access through social media has the ability to shape our understanding of and movement through public space. Similarly, our experiences of and within public space can influence how we use and engage with mobile social media. This paper begins to explore these issues and how users conceptualize and understand their practices associated with the mobile social network Foursquare.

There is a growing body of literature around mobile social networks and locative media. This research aims to explore social interactions occurring through these systems (Cramer, et al., 2011; de Souza e Silva, 2006; de Souza e Silva and Frith, 2010, 2012; Frith, 2012; Wilken and Goggin, 2012), the impact of mobile social systems on the urban environment (Bilandzic, et al., 2008; Foth, et al., 2011; Gordon and de Souza e Silva, 2011; Satchell, 2009; Sheller and Urry, 2006; Wilken, 2008), and the overall changing mobile media landscape (Farman, 2012; Goggin, 2011; Goggin and Hjorth, 2009; Ling, 2008; Sheller, 2013). One of the goals of this area of research is to critically explore and understand the roles and impacts that mobile media have on individuals’ everyday experience of place (Wilken, 2008). The current study seeks to contribute to this body of scholarship.



Literature review

Urban public space. Public space can be defined as physical territories that do not systematically limit the entry of people (Carr, et al., 1992). For the purposes of this study, we use public space to also include semi–public spaces such as restaurants, stores, and other commercialized places because entry is not limited as long as one is engaging in the sanctioned activity (e.g., eating, drinking, shopping).

Lofland (1998) explains that how we come to understand and experience urban spaces are largely based on our social relations therein. She argues that ‘realm’ is in fact a more appropriate term for the various territories that make up cities because it conveys sociality. More specifically, she identifies three kinds of urban realms based on various social relations: public, private, and parochial.

Public realms are characterized by people who are relatively unknown to one another, such as city parks or plazas. Private realms are characterized by known relations, that is, people who have intimate or primary ties to one another, such as individual apartments. Parochial realms are those urban territories “characterized by a sense of commonality among acquaintances and neighbors who are involved in interpersonal networks” [1]. An example of a parochial realm would be a neighborhood, wherein those living have a sense of familiarity or commonality with others in the area. The sense of connection comes from the expectation of a shared experience having lived in the same area within the city or potentially knowing some of the same people. Sometimes this sense of commonality comes from being acquaintances and having encountered one another previously. The parochial realm can emerge not just where one lives, but also where one works. Other examples of parochial realms are those professional relations that emerge around the workplace where people have a sense of commonality with those who work in the same building or area of the city.

The parochial realm is unique because not only is it a subset of the public realm, but it also is highly contextual. A café in someone’s neighborhood may feel parochial and familiar to one person, but another person may experience it as a very public realm. The parochial realm is not only determined by the relations among those in a place, but also may be sense of connection to the place regardless of one’s relations in the place. For example, a regular customer may be surrounded by new customers at a coffee shop but will still experience the café as familiar because of his or her connection to the place itself. In other words, parochial relationships can be both person–to–person as well as person–to–place (Lofland, 1998).

Person–to–person parochial relationships. One common type of person–to–person parochial relationship Lofland (1998) defines is “quasi–primary” relationships, which are transitory social encounters between strangers (e.g., talking with one another at the laundromat). While brief, these interactions can be quite meaningful and emotionally infused. Another kind of parochial relationship is what Lofland calls “intimate–secondary” which are longer lasting relationships among strangers than quasi–primary (e.g., frequent riders of a commuter bus). Lofland (1998) explains that the relationships we experience as parochial or familiar tend to be along routes and patterns of our everyday lives. However, mobile social networks have the potential to broaden the temporal, locational, and nonphysical possibilities of parochial relationships beyond the physical routes and observations.

Previous mobile social network research has suggested that these services can lead to the parochialization of public space (Humphreys, 2010). Parochialization is the process by which people share socio–locational information with one another through communication technologies such as check–ins on mobile social networks, such that the public realm, where people had previously encountered strangers, starts to feel more familiar due to the social exchanges through the network. Places that would have felt public could be experienced as parochial because mobile social network users were socially connected to others in the space (Humphreys, 2010). For example, mobile social network users could coordinate congregation by broadcasting their location, so they would have familiar social relations in the public realm and thus experience it as parochial.

The original observation was based on how friends and friends–of–friends used mobile social networks to coordinate meeting up in public places (Humphreys, 2010). It is unclear how the sharing of social and locational information amongst strangers on a mobile social network could encourage the same process. Can people have a new sense of familiarity with people unknown to them due to increased articulation and visibility of users through the mobile social network? In other words, do users perceive the check–ins of others on Foursquare as facilitating a sense of commonality such that they experience places differently?

Person–to–place parochialization. Lofland (1998) suggests that person-to-place connections are another means through which sociality shapes the experience of the public realm. Specifically, she argues that people do not just have connections to other people in space, but that people can have connections with places themselves. She identifies three kinds of places in the city that foster emotional connections: memorialized locales (e.g., statues and monuments), familiarized locales (e.g., routinized paths and ranges), and hangouts or home territories. In particular, the home territory is one where people have a sense of connection, intimacy, and control (Lofland, 1998). An example of a home territory could be a particular coffee shop or a specific street corner that one or one’s group tends to occupy and thus fosters a sense of connection to that place.

Human territoriality has been defined as the attempt to influence or affect something or someone by asserting control over a geographic area (Dyson–Hudson and Smith, 1978; Sack, 1983), and can occur “at all scales, from the room to the nation—state” [2]. Because this inquiry focuses specifically on urban public spaces, we adopt Lofland’s (1998) position that territoriality is primarily important within a social and communicative context. Lofland (1998) argues that ‘home territories’ are not limited to the private realm, but that people can develop these parochial relationships or connections with public places. Therefore, depending on who is there and what their relationship with a place may be, a ‘public’ place may be considered a territory at one point in time, but not at another point (Cavan, 1963). For example, a person may feel territorial over a particular table at a coffee shop, but if he or she moves or switches jobs to another area of the city, the sense of connection, ownership, and control over that table may change.

One’s territorial relationships with place are constantly negotiated through physical and social interactions. Indeed, researchers (Brewer and Dourish, 2008; Frith, 2012) have suggested that social spaces are made ‘legible’ to others through everyday practice and action. Mobile social networks are another site where these relationships over space are being negotiated, not physically but socially. While they are limited in the population they reach (i.e., the network itself as opposed to those in the physical space), in some ways they offer more reach and authority in making territoriality legible than a single person could through everyday physical practice in a space. By making claims over a particular geographic area one does not have to actually exert control over others, but by socially demarcating one’s connection to a place, one ostensibly normalizes the activities, resources, etc., which represent the potentialities for power within that area.

The potential to exert power through mobile social networks is most likely tactical rather than strategic (de Certeau, 1984), whereby everyday people can assert their meanings and uses of the place through practice, that is, their actual movement through and activities within space.

Previous research has examined the ways people have used media like Wikipedia to engage social space in territoriality and actively defend it, for example, by ensuring they were the primary contributor to an entry and reverting edits that were deemed ‘unsatisfactory’ (Thom–Santelli, et al., 2009). Like Wikipedia editors, Foursquare users are reliant on the media to make territorial claims on space which they do not own. Unlike Wikipedia editors, however, Foursquare users may be making territorial claims to space which is actually owned by others. The legibility and contextuality of territoriality are especially important when trying to understand how territoriality is demonstrated and communicated through mobile social networks.

Therefore this study examines how users of a mobile social network communicate and understand territorial claims in public spaces.




This study focuses on Foursquare, a service that allows users to ‘check in’ to particular locations and broadcast that information to their social network. Foursquare was founded in 2008 and as of January 2013 had over 30 million users ( In addition to Foursquare’s social function of sharing check–ins, it also incentivizes check–ins with competitive gaming elements such as mayorships, badges, and points. Foursquare mayorships are awarded to users with the most days checked into a venue over the last 60 days. Badges are cumulative awards for accomplishing certain tasks on Foursquare (e.g., visiting 20 different pizza places). Users are rewarded points for checking in on Foursquare and compete with their network of friends on a scoreboard for most check–ins.

While mobile social networks like Foursquare facilitate communication and interaction among people who may be well known to one another, they also can facilitate communication among those are who may be unknown to one another. Indeed, Lindqvist, et al. (2011), Humphreys (2007) and others (Frith, 2012; Cramer, et al., 2011) found that mobile social networks were used both to coordinate among friends as well as to meet new people.

Schwartz (2013) found that Foursquare users competing for mayorships (i.e., the person who has checked into a location most frequently within the previous two months) can become like ‘familiar strangers’ to one another, where users become familiar with whom they are competing, but do not actively engage or interact with one another.

While familiar strangers are part of a parochial realm (Lofland, 1998), it is unclear how exactly mobile social network users come to think about and experience urban territories based on these potential mediated relations. More specifically in the case of Foursquare, it is unclear how the promotion of other users (e.g., Foursquare listing who has recently checked in to a location, who wrote a tip about the place, and who the current mayor is), the competitiveness of mayorships, and the ‘nearby check–ins’ influence one’s sense of commonality among others in a particular location. Therefore, this study aims to explore the following research questions:

  1. How does the use of Foursquare influence one’s sense of commonality amongst others in a particular location?
  2. How do the competitive features on Foursquare impact how users come to think about and experience urban areas when using this application?




Throughout the study we drew on a naturalistic, interpretive framework for data collection and analysis (Lofland, et al., 2006). This allows us to be able to make claims about the media practices surrounding Foursquare. Here we draw on Couldry’s (2012) definition of practice as “what people are doing in relation to media in the contexts in which they act” [3]. This focus on practice is particularly helpful for our study because we are interested in exploring both what people do on and with Foursquare, but also their assumptions, understandings, and behaviors surrounding the mobile social network in urban space more broadly.

Sampling and recruitment. For the purposes of our research questions, we decided to focus our sampling on active Foursquare users. We defined ‘active’ as those who were or are Foursquare Mayors, meaning that they had checked into a location more than anyone else in the past 60 days. While this was a relatively narrow way to operationalize active users, we were particularly interested in talking to people who were familiar with the competitive features on Foursquare. In some cases, mayorships were earned by checking in only twice to an unusual location, however, most often, mayorships were earned by actively (often daily) checking in to a location.

Our recruitment strategies also reflected our interest in active Foursquare users. Rather than recruiting based on geographic proximity to the authors, which is common in qualitative interview studies, we focused our recruitment efforts on communities or forums online and off where Foursquare users gathered to discuss the service. Recruitment messages were posted on an online discussion board, a site where the “Forums are designed for people to discuss Foursquare badges, how to get specific badges and anything else Foursquare related that people are interested” and invites people to join the discussion. We also recruited from the site, an unmoderated forum where Foursquare users post questions and help one another out with issues they are having. We also recruited users who hosted meetups for Foursquare by e–mailing individuals who reported organizing meetups through the site Thus our participants were not only active on Foursquare, but also actively discussing the service outside of Foursquare itself.

Data collection and analysis. We conducted 18 semi–structured in–depth interviews during the summer of 2012. Our participants included six women and 12 men, ranging in age from 20 to 60, with the average age around 30. Our sample was geographically diverse with participants across 10 different states in the U.S. and from cities of various size including New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Houston, and Atlanta (see Table 1 for participant details).


Table 1


The participants in this study ranged in mayorships from one to 89, with a mean of 24. The interviews lasted between 25 to 60 minutes and were conducted by either Skype or phone. We audio recorded and transcribed the interviews [4]. Participants are referred to by pseudonym throughout the paper.

The interview guide was divided roughly into six areas: general use, mayorships, badges, points, and the Foursquare community. General use included questions about when and where they check in, the risks and benefits of checking in, and their practices around monitoring or reading of others’ check–ins. Mayorship questions included perceived benefits, motivations for competition, previous mayorship experiences, and perceptions of other mayors. Badge questions included which badges they have/want, motivations for badge collection, and perceptions of significance of badges. Questions about the points on Foursquare were along the same lines as badges and mayorships: what do users think of the point system, how does it motivate them, what do points mean for them. Lastly, we asked participants about their views on the Foursquare community: is there one, what does it look like, how do they perceive other members, and what is the relationship between offline and online interactions.

We drew on the constant comparative method of data analysis (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). Therefore, we started analyzing the interview transcripts before we had finished our data collection to identify early themes in the data. Our general interview categories shaped our initial analysis where we looked for themes related to perceptions and practices around mayorships, badges, and points. We also looked for themes regarding how these practices shaped their perceptions of the cities around them.




Our two research questions explored how the use of Foursquare influenced a sense of commonality amongst users in a particular location and how the competitive features on Foursquare impacted how users come to think about and experience urban places.

Overall we found evidence that Foursquare use could contribute to the parochialization of the public realm by facilitating person–to–person and person–to–place connections. Lofland (1998) argues that even though the urban public realm is primarily made up of strangers that does not mean they do not interact. Indeed our study suggests that users on Foursquare can interact and can experience increased person–to–person connections with strangers using the mobile social network as well as person–to–place connections, which can both lead to the parochialization of the public realm.

Person–to–person parochialization — Browsing profiles, spotting users. A majority of participants reported looking at strangers’ profiles, mostly when they were made aware of other users around them. Some participants had seen a person check in at a location or had been alerted that they lost a mayorship to someone and wanted to find out more about them, and some did it out of sheer curiosity. Depending on their profile settings, users can potentially see a photo, user name, mayorships, badges obtained, city information, and check–in statistics. With this information, users also reported physically looking around them to spot these other users. 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.”

For many Foursquare users in our study, the network both provides users with more knowledge as well as a greater awareness of the users around them, specifically an idea of how many people are there, who has been there, and often strangers’ personal, biographical, and locational characteristics.

Lofland (1998) notes that we have historically thought of people in the public realm as only in categorical terms, that is, observable characteristics and traits like race, gender, age, and potentially social roles like bus driver or store clerk. However, Foursquare allowed participants to share information about themselves beyond just categorical characteristics. Usernames, mayorships, badges, and check–ins provide personal, biographical, and idiosyncratic information about a user. Thus when participants in our study read others’ profiles, it suggests these activities are more indicative of parochial relationships among relative strangers. The sharing and reading of Foursquare profiles suggests a transitory sociality or relatively brief social interaction among users which can contribute to the experience of a parochial realm. Reading others’ profiles and tips about a location moves beyond categorical knowledge of strangers, which characterize the public realm. Profile names and taste preferences can provide users with a more intimate sense of one another if only briefly.

Beyond reading profiles, some users suggested they would interact with others fleetingly through Foursquare itself. For example, Amy had not met other Foursquare users face–to–face, but occasionally would comment on tips they had left about various places she knew. “I have never ever actually met a stranger on Foursquare in person. It’s just mostly making comments or something like that.” Participants like Amy would occasionally interact with other Foursquare users through the network itself.

In addition to commenting on tips, some participants engaged more directly with other users on Foursquare. For example, Rich reported that he would occasionally follow and friend people on Foursquare whom he did not know off–line. Then if he saw them out he might say “hi”. Another participant reported recognizing other Foursquare users based on their mayorships and used that to start a conversation.

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)

Jocelyn reached out to those around her whom she recognized from the network to strike up a conversation. These interactions are characterized by their transitory sociality that typically did not progress much beyond the moment of face–to–face interaction.

In some instances, however, the participant’s interaction with the other Foursquare user did progress beyond that of just transitory sociality or even casual friendships. One participant reported meeting his girlfriend through Foursquare.

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)

Howard reported that their conversations at the gym started out very short, 30 or 40 seconds, but eventually got longer. They started hanging out together. They have been together now for over two years and he attributes their relationship to Foursquare. The way Howard first started using Foursquare, however, suggests an attempt to map his parochial relations with others in his neighborhood onto Foursquare, where cues such as seeing someone around the neighborhood leads to a sense of familiarity with them.

These examples of people interacting in various ways through and around Foursquare suggest its ability to facilitate parochialization. Foursquare interactions can encourage what Lofland (1998) describes as quasi–primary relationships, which are “relatively brief encounters (a few minutes to several hours) between strangers or between those who are categorically known to one another” [5]. Foursquare becomes the commonality or makes other users aware of commonalities, to deepen people’s relationship from public to parochial, and sometimes beyond that.

Mayorship battles, creating personas. Mayorship battles are a common form of social interaction on Foursquare among our participants, where people competed to check–in earlier in the day and more frequently at a particular location to maintain or earn the Foursquare title of mayor. When a user obtains a mayorship another user previously held, that user is notified by Foursquare of the development and encouraged to get it back. These battles often occurred among people who were already friends, but many participants also reported mayorship battles where they did not know the person against whom they were competing. Often users would seek out information about the person who had just ousted them.

For example, Joseph was a graduate student who lost his mayorship of a library to someone he felt was undeserving.

At the beginning of the summer, I was checking in and I got to be mayor. And then one day I got ousted by what appeared to be an undergraduate girl. Everything I could tell by this person’s profile, I can’t remember specifically, I think the name was like Emily G. or Emily T. It was just something perfectly, quintessentially undergrad girl, right? And she ousted me.

Similarly, Jocelyn described a summer long mayoral battle for a local snow cone stand.

Interviewer: Do you know who it was that you were battling against?

Jocelyn: No. I looked, tried to figure out who he was. [...] I even talked smack on Twitter to him.

Interviewer: Really?

Jocelyn: Yeah I really did. Just jokingly. I had to get him to acknowledge that we were in a war.

Jocelyn’s desire to confront her mayoral competitor was somewhat rare among our participants, but her attempt to figure out his identity was common. In addition to seeking out information, users reported strong emotions about these strangers, ranging from curiosity to annoyance to ambivalence. In many instances, the participants engaged in these battles mentioned investigating profiles, the creation of personas for their competitors, and occasionally attempts to see or meet these strangers.

These descriptions are consistent with what Lofland (1998) describes as intimate–secondary relationships, where longer lasting relationships can develop with strangers. Particularly given the time component of Foursquare mayorships (60 days) these extended connections are actually encouraged. The finding that the routines involved in Foursquare mayorship battles can lead to these kinds of parochial understandings is consistent with Lofland’s suggestion that people become familiar with one another because they share a similar routine where they occupy the same place at the same time. The difference in this instance is that Foursquare allows for these types of relationships to develop around public places, but the interactions are not predicated on temporal co–location.

Person–to–place parochialization- Mayorships as personal claims to space

Lofland (1998) explains that defending territory is one of the principles of stranger interaction, one which signals to others displeasure or hostility over spatial invasion. When someone threatens a Foursquare mayorship, one of the principles that prompts a defense of that territory is whether the competing mayor is perceived as having a legitimate claim on the place. John explains:

I was actually out of the country for a couple weeks. I came back and there was somebody that had become the mayor of my office location that I didn’t know and I knew for a fact that they’d never been in my office location. I figured they were checking in from downstairs or whatever ... just a bunch of random spots. So that’s the one — I got that one back with a vengeance.

Foursquare users like John would defend their mayorships, especially if the other user’s claim on the place seemed illegitimate. John’s point that the other user had only been “checking in from downstairs”, suggests that he did not perceive his competitor as legitimately earning the mayorship. Places that were highly contested Foursquare mayoral battlegrounds were often places where the others’ claim was seen as illegitimate.

For example, Debbie described a continual mayorship battle she had with someone else in her town. While most of her mayorship competitions were with friends or her husband, there was one person with whom she was battling over the mayorship of the town’s Christmas tree, among a couple of other locations. Although she admits she never met this person in public, she describes him as annoying and someone who “is a Johnny–come–lately.” “The only thing that comes to my mind is annoying, but I don’t know and I don’t tell him. He’s stolen a couple of other things too that I’ve, of course, gotten back in our town.” Debbie’s use of the word ‘stealing’ was a common way our participants described mayoral battles. The word stealing suggests three things. First, it speaks to the perceived legitimacy of someone’s claim to a particular place. If this was really a competition for mayorship, one might expect participants to use the terms win and lose more often, which only two of the 18 study participants used. Second, stealing suggests that mayorships are steal–able and worthy of theft. Mayoral claims can often represent a temporal and perhaps financial investment in a particular activity or place. The third point about stealing a mayorship is that it occurs within a mediated space. Stealing a mayorship does not suggest stealing one’s claim over a place, but instead suggests stealing a hierarchical position from which one can make a claim over a place.

Foursquare allows users to make virtual claims on physical spaces by checking in, and in the process facilitates the demarcation of home territories. A kind of territoriality is made visible through the Foursquare interface and the mapping of check–ins. Foursquare also notifies people and makes explicit when and where others are challenging territories, which can invoke territoriality and defense of these places as “home territories”.

Mayorships as a sense of belonging. In many parochial realms connections are forged with other people in that space (e.g., being recognized as a regular at neighborhood establishment). However, some places either have too high a turnover rate of customers or staff for those parochial connections to be possible. John explains that in a large city, mayorships allow you to be a “regular” even if you are not recognized by others around you as such:

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.

John’s remark suggests that Foursquare mayorships reinforced his sense of connecting to a place because they officially recognize and acknowledge the connection in ways that people do face–to–face. Off–line this kind of person–to–place acknowledgement can be seen, for example, in placing “the usual” order. The visibility of Foursquare’s validation of one’s connection to a place is an important element of territoriality because it both reveals the person–to–place connections to the broader community of users and it reinforces the connection for mayors themselves. Being “regulars” at the same place can lead to a sense of connectivity through the place itself. Becoming mayor can reinforce one’s ties to that place and to the other people who frequent that place.

A sense of ‘belonging’ to a place and in the community was seen across many participants, where people become mayors at public and semi–public places such as the local post office, libraries, banks, airports, and museums. In these instances, some participants reported using Foursquare and the mayorship system as a way of building parochial ties to the place and to demonstrate their connection to that place. While Augé (1995) has described some of these locations as non–places, people in our study actually felt great connection to “their” airport or bank or post office and being Foursquare mayor of it was meaningful to them. Whereas ‘non–places’ are spaces typically characterized as non–relational and devoid of historical identity, Foursquare becomes a means through which people can articulate identity claims on these kinds of spaces. Becoming mayor of these ‘non–places’ was actually important for some of our participants because they are spaces for transit with high turnover and as such seen as more challenging to become mayor of.



Discussion and conclusion

Based on in–depth interviews with active Foursquare users, we have explored the concepts and practices of parochialization and territorialization through a mobile social network. We argue that beyond facilitating familiar strangers as Schwartz (2013) had found, Foursquare can facilitate parochialization whereby the process of creating, sharing, and reading socio–locational information leads to a sense of familiarity and belonging to people and places within the larger urban environment.

While we suggest that the act of checking in is a means of making claims to space visible to others, Frith (2012) suggests this act on Foursquare makes space legible to the user. Although the visibility and legibility are not necessarily mutually exclusive, they may suggest different implications of use. For us visibility is inexorably tied to territoriality and the exertion of power, whereas Frith (2012) suggests the legibility of space through Foursquare can lead to the exploration of space through a spatial search engine. Ultimately, we would argue that both the legibility and visibility of space through Foursquare constitute exertions of tactical power by people in everyday life (de Certeau, 1984). Future research should examine the strategic means through which those in power, e.g., Foursquare venues and Foursquare itself, exert power over the social construction of place through mobile social media.

This research contributes to a growing body of research which examines how urban interactions impact and are impacted by communication media (e.g., Foth, et al., 2011; Graham and Marvin, 1996; Hampton and Gupta, 2008; Hampton, et al. 2010a; Hampton, et al., 2010b; Humphreys, 2010; McCarthy, 2001; Sheller and Urry, 2003; Sutko and de Souza e Silva, 2011; Townsend, 2000). In particular, our findings complement research that suggests media in public do not socially isolate individuals in urban public spaces but can be a catalyst for interaction (Hampton and Gupta, 2008; Hampton, et al., 2010a).

It is important not to romanticize the interactions that are facilitated through these media. Lofland (1998) notes that the parochial realm does not always engender positive feelings or connections. We found that some participants in our study did not have overwhelmingly positive things to say about those with whom they had competed for Foursquare mayorships. In these cases the increased interactions among strangers led to a negative emotional response rather than positive.

This isn’t to say that all Foursquare interactions with strangers are negative, indeed we found substantial evidence for positive and neutral responses to other users. Just like various kinds of interactions are found in the off–line urban public realm, so too do we see a myriad of responses to strangers on and around Foursquare.

The legitimacy claims we found in the discussions of mayorships reflect larger questions about “cheating” practices on mobile social networks. Previous research suggests that cheating on Foursquare is common (Glas, 2011; Halegoua, et al., 2012) and problematic for the network (Glas, 2011; He, et al., 2011). Like Halegoua, et al. (2012), we did not take cheating at its face value, but tried to explore the underlying assumptions reflected in the language and perceptions of cheating.

In the case of our participants, the stronger the person–to–place connection of a mayorship, the less legitimate a stranger’s mayoral claim was perceived. The strength of the connection was influenced by the amount of time spent at a place (hours per day), the length of time at a place (months or years going to this place), and the degree of intimacy one felt to the place (one’s apartment building was more intimate than the hairdresser). Cheating practices among our participants are not necessarily morally evaluated, but reveal larger trends in territoriality, legitimacy, and parochialization.

While this study exclusively looked at how participants’ sense of place was influenced by their use of Foursquare, future research should explore how a business uses Foursquare to build connections to their customers. Additionally, this study focused on highly active users, some of whom suggested they are socially engaged in their communities outside of their Foursquare use. Therefore it would be important to see if the parochialization of the public realm occurs with less active users on Foursquare.

In conclusion, this study suggests that unlike those of early mobile social networks (Humphreys, 2010) Foursquare users may be more likely to be aware and interact with other users. These interactions vary in degree, valence, and intimacy, but can be broadly characterized as ‘transitory sociality’ (Lofland, 1998). Participants used the network to build and reinforce not just person–to–place connections but person–to–person connections as well. End of article


About the authors

Lee Humphreys is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at Cornell University.
E–mail: lmh13 [at] cornell [dot] edu

Tony Liao is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication at Cornell University.
E–mail: cl566 [at] cornell [dot] edu



1. Lofland, 1998, p. 10.

2. Sack, 1983, p. 56.

3. Couldry, 2012, p. 35.

4. Interviews were transcribed verbatim by Cornell University’s Survey Research Institute.

5. Lofland, 998, p. 55.



Marc Augé, 1995. Non–places: Introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity. London: Verso.

Mark Bilandzic, Marcus Foth, and Alexander De Luca, 2008. “CityFlocks: Designing social navigation for urban mobile information systems,” DIS ’08: Proceedings of the 7th ACM Conference on Designing Interactive Systems, pp. 174–183.
doi:, accessed 5 November 2013.

Joanna Brewer and Paul Dourish, 2008. “Storied spaces: Cultural accounts of mobility, technology, and environmental knowing,” International Journal of Human–Computer Studies, volume 66, number 12, 963–976.
doi:, accessed 5 November 2013.

Stephen Carr, Mark Francis, Leanne G. Rivlin, and Andrew M. Stone, 1992. Public space. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sherri Cavan, 1963. “Interactions in home territories,” Berkeley Journal of Sociology, volume 8, pp. 17–32.

Nicholas Couldry, 2012. Media, society, world: Social media and digital media practice. London: Polity.

Henriette Cramer, Mattias Rost, and Lars Erik Holmquist, 2011. “Performing a check–in: Emerging practices, norms and ‘conflicts’ in location–sharing using Foursquare,” MobileHCI ’11: Proceedings of the 13th International Conference on Human Computer Interaction with Mobile Devices and Services, pp. 57–66.
doi:, accessed 5 November 2013.

Michel de Certeau, 1984. The practice of everyday life. Translated by Steven Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Adriana de Souza e Silva, 2006. “From cyber to hybrid: Mobile technologies as interfaces of hybrid spaces,” Space and Culture, volume 9, number 3, pp. 261–278.
doi:, accessed 5 November 2013.

Adriana de Souza e Silva and Jordan Frith, 2012. Mobile interfaces in public spaces: Locational privacy, control, and urban sociability. New York: Routledge.

Adriana de Souza e Silva and Jordan Frith, 2010. “Locative mobile social networks: Mapping communication and location in urban spaces,” Mobilities, volume 5, number 4, pp. 485–505.
doi:, accessed 5 November 2013.

Jonathan Donner and Shikoh Gitau, 2009. “New paths: Exploring mobile–centric Internet use in South Africa,” paper presented at the ‘Mobile 2.0: Beyond Voice?’ Pre–conference workshop of the International Communication Association, at, accessed 5 November 2013.

Rada Dyson–Hudson and Eric Alden Smith, 1978. “Human territoriality: An ecological reassessment,” American Anthropologist, volume 80, number 1, pp. 21–41.
doi:, accessed 5 November 2013.

Jason Farman, 2012. Mobile interface theory: Embodied space and locative media. New York: Routledge.

Marcus Foth, Laura Forlano, Christine Satchell, and Martin Gibbs (editors), 2011. From social butterfly to engaged citizen: Urban informatics, social media, ubiquitous computing, and mobile technology to support citizen engagement. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Jordan Frith, 2012. “Location–based social networks and mobility patterns: An empirical examination of how Foursquare use affects where people go,” paper presented at the Pan American Mobilities Network (Raleigh, N.C.).

René Glas, 2011. “Breaking reality: Exploring pervasive cheating in Foursquare,” paper presented at the Think Design Play: The Fifth International Conference of the Digital Research Association (DIGRA), at, accessed 5 November 2013.

Barney G. Glaser and Anselm L. Strauss, 1967. The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Chicago: Aldine.

Gerard Goggin, 2011. Global mobile media. London: Routledge.

Gerard Goggin and Larissa Hjorth (editors), 2009. Mobile technologies: From telecommunications to media. London: Routledge.

Eric Gordon and Adriana de Souza e Silva, 2011. Net locality: Why location matters in a networked world. Malden, Mass.: Wiley–Blackwell.

Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin, 1996. Telecommunications and the city: Electronic spaces, urban places. London: Routledge.

Germaine Halegoua, Alex Leavitt, and Mary Gray. 2012. “Jumping for fun? Negotiating mobility and the geopolitics of Foursquare,” paper presented at the Mobilities Conference: Local & Mobile (Raleigh, N.C.).

Keith N. Hampton and Neeti Gupta, 2008. “Community and social interaction in the wireless city: Wi–fi use in public and semi–public spaces,” New Media & Society, volume 10, number 6 (December), pp. 831–850.
doi:, accessed 5 November 2013.

Keith N. Hampton, Oren Livio, and Lauren Sessions Goulet, 2010a. “The social life of wireless urban spaces: Internet use, social networks, and the public realm,” Journal of Communication, volume 60, number 4, pp. 701–722.
doi:, accessed 5 November 2013.

Keith N. Hampton, Oren Livio, Craig Trachtenberg, and Rhonda McEwen, 2010b. “The social life of wireless urban spaces,” Contexts, volume 9, number 4, pp. 52–57, at, accessed 5 November 2013.

Wenbo He, Xue Liu, and Mai Ren, 2011. “Location cheating: A security challenge to location–based social network services,” Proceedings of the 31st International Conference on Distributed Computing Systems (ICDCS), pp. 740–749.
doi:, accessed 5 November 2013.

Lee Humphreys, 2010. “Mobile social networks and urban public space,” New Media & Society, volume 12, number 5, pp. 763–778.
doi:, accessed 5 November 2013.

Lee Humphreys, 2007. “Mobile social networks and social practice: A case study of Dodgeball,” Journal of Computer–Mediated Communication, volume 13, number 1, pp. 341–360.
doi:, accessed 5 November 2013.

Janne Lindqvist, Justin Cranshaw, Jason Wiese, Jason Hong, and John Zimmerman, 2011. “I’m the mayor of my house: Examining why people use Foursquare — a social–driven location sharing application,” CHI ’11: Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, pp. 2,409–2,418.
doi:, accessed 5 November 2013.

John Lofland, David A. Snow, Leon Anderson, and Lyn H. Lofland, 2006. Analyzing social settings: A guide to qualitative observation and analysis. Fourth edition. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Lyn H. Lofland, 1998. The public realm: Exploring the city’s quintessential social territory. Hawthorne, N.Y.: Aldine de Gruyter.

Anna McCarthy, 2001. Ambient television: Visual culture and public space. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Robert D. Sack, 1983. “Human territoriality: A theory,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, volume 73, number 1, pp. 55–74.
doi:, accessed 5 November 2013.

Christine Satchell, 2009. “From social butterfly to urban citizen: The evolution of mobile phone practice,” In: Marcus Foth (editor). Handbook of research on urban informatics: The practice and promise of the real–time city. Hershey, Pa.: Information Science Reference, pp. 353–365.
doi:, accessed 5 November 2013.

R. Schwartz, 2013. “The networked familiar stranger: An aspect of virtual and local urban anonymity,” In: Kathleen M. Cumiskey and Larissa Hjorth (editors). Mobile media practices, presence and politics: The challenge of being seamlessly mobile. London: Routledge, pp. 135–149.

Mimi Sheller, 2013. “Mobile mediality: Location, dislocation, augmentation,” In: Susanne Witzgall, Gerlinde Vogl, and Sven Kesselring (editors). New mobilities regimes in art and social sciences. Aldershot: Ashgate, pp. 309–326.

Mimi Sheller and John Urry (editors), 2006. Mobile technologies of the city. London: Routledge.

Mimi Sheller and John Urry, 2003. “Mobile transformations of ‘public’ and ‘private’ life,” Theory, Culture & Society, volume 20, number 3, pp. 107–125.
doi:, accessed 5 November 2013.

Daniel M. Sutko and Adriana de Souza e Silva, 2011. “Location–aware mobile media and urban sociability,” New Media & Society, volume 13, number 5, pp. 807–823.
doi:, accessed 5 November 2013.

Jennifer Thom–Santelli, Dan R. Cosley, and Geri Gay, 2009. “What’s mine is mine: Territoriality in collaborative authoring,” CHI ’09: Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, pp. 1,481–1,484.
doi:, accessed 5 November 2013.

Anthony M. Townsend, 2000. “Life in the real–time city: Mobile telephones and urban metabolism,” Journal of Urban Technology, volume 7, number 2, pp. 85–104.
doi:, accessed 5 November 2013.

Rowan Wilken, 2008. “Mobilizing place: Mobile media, peripatetics, and the renegotiation of urban places,” Journal of Urban Technology, volume 15, number 3, pp. 39–55.
doi:, accessed 5 November 2013.

Rowan Wilken and Gerard Goggin (editors), 2012. Mobile technology and place. London: Routledge.


Editorial history

Received 20 October 2013; accepted 27 October 2013.

Copyright © 2013, First Monday.
Copyright © 2013, Lee Humphreys and Tony Liao.

Foursquare and the parochialization of public space
by Lee Humphreys and Tony Liao.
First Monday, Volume 18, Number 11 - 4 November 2013
doi: 10.5210/fm.v18i11.4966.