I’ve been using Foursquare for a few months now, and I’m impressed with the service on many levels. But I have to be frank – the most impressive thing about it – at least in this test group of one – is what it *could* be, not what it is.
First, the caveats. I use Foursquare, for the most part, on a Blackberry, which means the app is limited by RIM’s hardware and software. This means – as just one example – that when I’m checking in, the process is often fraught with poorly triangulated data (the Blackberry app uses cel towers, not GPS, to determine where you are). In plain English, that means that the app sometimes thinks I’m in Marin when I’m in San Francisco, Mill Valley when I’m in Ross, or fails to properly figure out where I am at all. Not good for a location-based service.
This also means that I want to rely on the web-based service as a backstop for much of my interaction, and, well, the web-based version of the service ain’t very good. It’s clearly not built to help folks like me, and, perhaps for the majority of folks, that’s just fine. But for me, not so much.
Another caveat is that I’m pretty much “not in the demo” – at least as I understand it. I’m not in my early 20s, and I don’t go out a lot in search of connection (despite the “Bender” badge I earned for having breakfast with my kids. Enough said there). So I get almost no value from the “Tips” that are offered on any given venue I check into – mainly because I’m not looking for tips (if there are even any to find). I check into places I know pretty well already, and if I do go somewhere I’ve not been before, I find the app does a pretty poor job of surfacing tips, or any other value above the ambient satisfaction of just declaring “I am here.” Again, that’s not a good thing. I expect more from Foursquare than just the momentary fun of checking in. To me, checking in is a search (see here for more on checking in as the newest field in the Database of Intentions), and so far, the “search engine results” are pretty thin.
Not “being in the demo” also means I’m not looking to hook up – either with a roving band of urban nomad pals, or … well, anyone else, for that matter. For me, the biggest “hook up” that’s happened due to Foursquare so far is when my industry pal Josh Felser introduced me to a fellow who had just captured what had once been my mayorship of the Bay Club Marin. It was fun to meet the guy, and yes, Byron C., I’m coming for you…but honestly, after three months, I expected a bit more…human contact. Compared to three months of using Facebook or Twitter, Foursquare just ain’t doing it in the “connect me to other interesting humans” category.
Before you dismiss my thoughts as the rantings of an old man irrelevant to the Next Big Thing, recall that I’m very, very enthusiastic about this space in general. And, to my mind, if Foursquare can’t make itself Deeply Useful to a guy like me, well, the chances it’ll scale past the level of Mildly Interesting To A Few Million Hipsters is pretty low.
Now, let’s get past the caveats. I’ve got a number of things I wish the service would do, but doesn’t (or if it does, I’m not aware of it, and that’s an issue as well). Also, I’ve got a number of gripes, perhaps, again, that might be resolved by my own education, but my thesis is if a web service isn’t either initially self explanatory (IE, Amazon), or confusing but fascinating (Twitter) it’s not worth spending time on.
So far, Foursquare has not unfolded in any particularly interesting way beyond checking in. That, to me, is both a problem and an opportunity. Now that I’m in the habit of telling my “friends” where I am – what else? To me, that’s a critical problem with the service, one worthy of digging into.
It strikes me that businesses may have an answer to this question, but not at scale – yet. For example, if every X times I checked into the Bay Club, the club itself gave me some value – a discount at the pro shop, or my name in lights behind the counter (well, maybe not that, but you get the picture) – well, now that would be adding a lot of value. But getting hundreds of thousands of venues to figure out how to add value to Foursquare is a tall order, and so far, the examples of small businesses doing so are few and far between.
So what might Foursquare do, beyond just letting me compete with scores of others for the “mayorship” of the Bay Club? I’m not sure, but solving that problem should be at the top of the company’s list of To Dos….right behind ….figuring out what, exactly, a “friend” on Foursquare really is.
So on to that. Now I understand I’m not a normal use case, but I currently have hundreds of pending “friend requests” on Foursquare. Most of these requests are from people I don’t know. Given that I have 5000 friends and nearly 1000 pending requests on Facebook – where my policy has been “don’t be a d*ck” and just say yes – it’s not surprising that folks who I don’t know have reached out to connect on Foursquare. (Do they do that with you as well, I wonder?)
But here’s what I don’t understand about the service: What’s the value of a friend on Foursquare? On Twitter, I understand “followers” – they are folks who chose to read what you create. It’s sort of like a more personal and connected version of this site’s RSS feed. And I understand the same kind of connection on Facebook or Linked In – these are business, personal, and even “possible” friends – folks who I may one day meet and who may become colleagues or friends.
But on Facebook, I can keep folks in that third category at a distance – there’s no chance that, by declaring something on Facebook, folks might walk up to my table at Picco and create a socially awkward moment (well, at least there’s no chance since I made sure my Foursquare checkins don’t broadcast to Facebook status updates!).
With Foursquare, however… not so much. So I’ve tried to manage my Foursquare friends by the simple maxim that, at any given moment, should we find ourselves checking in to the same location, I’d have a decent chance of remembering who that person was.
This means I’ve got a lot of pending requests on Foursquare that I’d have easily approved on Facebook (and of course on Twitter, all of this is moot. Anyone can follow you). So sorry folks waiting for a reply from me – either I’m not sure how or why I might know you, or I’ve not been able to figure out the Blackberry app and approve you in the first place. Either way…not a good thing.
This is a long way of saying that the service is, to my mind, poorly instrumented from the point of view of social relationships.
Lastly, for now anyway, the service is deeply lame in terms of search. Everything is instrumented toward location, so you can’t search for stuff that isn’t near where you happen to be. When I wanted to find the location “Federated Media” just now, so I could link to it, the service found nothing. Why? Because I was “near Fairfax, CA”, and Federated is in SF. That’s just a terrible user experience – one I could write an entire post about, but I won’t (continue to) bore you.
And when you do find a place or a person, their checkin and other Foursquare history is not there, or it’s impossible to find. Also….not good.
I could go on, but I think given it’s late and your patience may be wearing thin, I’ll stop here and ask you all to help me out. What do you think of Foursquare? What am I missing? Is it living up to your expectations?
The service is enjoying an early Twitter like hype, and I certainly like both its founders and its backers. Dennis Crowley will be speaking at the CM Summit in June (that is, if he’s not too peeved at me for my Thinking Out Loud here), and I am, as anyone who reads this site knows, a huge fan of Fred Wilson, a Foursquare investor.
But because I see the huge potential lurking behind Foursquare, I can’t help but be honest. I’m close to losing interest in the service, despite my raging optimism about the space it represents.
Well, with one caveat. I’ll fight to the death to retain my nominal mayorship of FM’s San Francisco headquarters, of course. Keep trying, Jonas!