In a world in which even our cellular companies now freely sell our realtime locations for profit and Facebook stalks selected users to see if they come near its facilities, it seems our physical location privacy is doomed to follow the rest of our privacy to the digital dustbin. The evolution of geotagging on Twitter, however, suggests users care much more about their locative privacy than thought.
One of the most interesting findings regarding the geography of Twitter is the way in which the willingness of Twitter’s hundreds of millions of users to broadcast their GPS-verified location alongside their missives has barely budged in almost seven years.
In fact, the overall percentage of tweets that include some form of geographic coordinate has plunged from over 3.5% in January 2012 to just 1.5% by the end of last year.
Even Twitter’s famously loquacious user community that has no problem sharing every thought that pops into their heads or photographing their every meal is reluctant to let the world know where they are when they post those missives.
In a world in which social platforms have replaced societal norms around privacy and sharing with a new fetishization of fame and oversharing, it is remarkable that there still appears to be one privacy boundary users are wary of stepping over.
Our unwillingness to share our physical location does not appear to be a technological limitation. After all, most Twitter users post from GPS-equipped smartphones and location data is becoming rarer even as smartphones proliferate to non-traditional geographies.
One intriguing statistic is the way in which geotagged tweets have remained stubbornly restricted to the same set of geographies in which they were prevalent seven years ago. Even as Facebook has expanded its reach deep into the rural countrysides of the world, geotagged Twitter has largely remained a fixture of the urban world in which was already popular in 2012.
Watching the movie above, which shows every geotagged tweet in Twitter’s 1% stream January 2012 to October 2018, it is not hard to notice that Twitter never really expands beyond where it began.
Compared with the surface of the earth humans reside in and care about, as captured in global online news coverage below, the Twitter animation above offers an exceptionally stark and barren view.
Why did geotagged tweets never really take off in the rest of the world?
Why is it that of Twitter’s hundreds of millions of users, just 1.5% percent today are willing to share their location when they tweet?
Why is it that of that tiny percent of Twitter users willing to share their location, 98.7% of those bounding box-tagged tweets are to cities, states and countries, rather than specific addresses?
The answer is that for some strange reason we still care about our offline privacy even as we are eager to eliminate our online privacy.
A spokesperson declined to comment on Twitter’s perspective on why its users have remained so steadfastly unwilling to share their locations on Twitter or what steps the company has been considering to increase location sharing.
Putting this all together, at the end of the day it seems that physical location remains one of the last bastions of privacy that social media users still care about. While the public has accepted the rapid erosion of almost every other form of privacy, it seems our physical location is still something that means enough to us to protect. Whether out of concern for our physical safety or an outdated view that our offline worlds are somehow separate from our digital lives, we still view location as sacrosanct. For its part Twitter has pushed to improve our location privacy by offering boundary-box geotagging through Twitter Places. If only the rest of the companies that track our location, from our cell companies to the other web behemoths, would honor our desire to maintain one last shred of anonymity.