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Foursquare – I Wish It Was Better For Me…

By - April 06, 2010

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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!


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24 thoughts on “Foursquare – I Wish It Was Better For Me…

  1. Josh says:

    Thanks John,

    I agree completely. The service isn’t bad, although I have my complaints with it from time to time. Had to write them an email today.

    But there just isn’t much that’s very social about the way it’s currently being used. I keep feeling like there’s something better around the corner, but haven’t checked in there yet.

    –Josh

  2. andy lark says:

    right on John… what I am amazed by is the number of new experiences both Gowalla and Foursquare have exposed me to. especially reconnecting with folks I haven’t see in awhile who happen to be in the same city.

  3. Mark says:

    Hey John, you’re not in the demo by age which is why you have the perspective to script this piece but you’re prolly in the demo from a psychological perspective. Your fascination and appreciation for the larger implications of geo-based metadata are evident in your post. So here are my thoughts on your post:

    1) all the check-in services have a long way to go in terms of features–social or otherwise, ux/ui and development path.

    2) there’s a bigger idea at work, including what happens when we go past preferences (liking/rating) to behavior. Carl Jung said you never need psychoanalysis, you simply need to die; Upon reflection of your life you would see it defined by deeds. Check-in and other actions are deeds.

    3) another big idea: all marketing is essentially local and in the past marketers couldn’t scale message. Now they can.

    So, whoever ends up with the space should report back

  4. Julia says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I love the service, but I also use Foursquare on a Blackberry, so seem to have some of the same issues… and also earned the “bender” badge at the grocery store, so know what you mean :)

    As you say, I definitely think they are on to something from a marketing perspective, so I am trying to keep my mayorship at the Starbucks by my work in case that earns me discounts or perks at some point soon. (which really could happen soon) I actually met Dennis Crowley yesterday at an event in Boston and I’m certain he is aware of all of this, pros, and issues, so I hope he has some good answers in a few months after they pass their millionth user mark.

    I downloaded another app, Loopt, today, which seems to have more suggestions and locations pre-loaded; not such a “user-added” feel. While it also doesn’t pinpoint the exact location, still, on BlackBerry, it seems that for the purpose of finding restaurants, stores, etc., it could be a better tool. You can scroll around the map of your general location to view what is in the area.

  5. Julia says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I love the service, but I also use Foursquare on a Blackberry, so seem to have some of the same issues… and also earned the “bender” badge at the grocery store, so know what you mean :)

    As you say, I definitely think they are on to something from a marketing perspective, so I am trying to keep my mayorship at the Starbucks by my work in case that earns me discounts or perks at some point soon. (which really could happen soon) I actually met Dennis Crowley yesterday at an event in Boston and I’m certain he is aware of all of this, pros, and issues, so I hope he has some good answers in a few months after they pass their millionth user mark.

    I downloaded another app, Loopt, today, which seems to have more suggestions and locations pre-loaded; not such a “user-added” feel. While it also doesn’t pinpoint the exact location, still, on BlackBerry, it seems that for the purpose of finding restaurants, stores, etc., it could be a better tool. You can scroll around the map of your general location to view what is in the area.

  6. Marcus says:

    You make a lot of good points, but I’m not sure you’ve got foursquare’s demo nailed here. I’m in my 20’s and signed up a few months ago as well. After pointing it to my Facebook account (with a modest 300-400 friends) and my Gmail account, I have 4 friends. One is over 60, and 2 are people I work with.

    The people I’m in contact with that do use the service are mostly over 30 early adopters – the sxsw interactive crowd.

    Would love to see some 3rd party stats on the demographic data – comScore shows a skew for 25-34 year olds, but 35-44 also over-indexes.

    Regardless of who is using it, I don’t get the value either. Checking in is not that fun (at least not on blackberry), I’ve never found someone through the app, and I’m a long ways away from redeeming my points for a free plane ticket.

    Get all my real life friends on board and give me a tangible reward and I’ll see some value. Until then it strikes me as a fleeting popularity contest.

    -Marcus

  7. David says:

    Isn’t this a business in search of a want?

  8. Radu says:

    Till now, Twitter is the tool that connected me most with other people. I managed to find interesting people sharing common interest and, of course, I attended events I found out about in the same place.
    I see Foursquare more of a service for teenagers that are willing to meet new cool guys in a place they like to hang out, or just get all those badges and brag about it. So far I don’t see any usefulness from using Foursquare. If my close friends (the real offline ones) start using it then it might get more interesting to see that someone I know and want to meet is somewhere close to me.

  9. Jeph Cinemas says:

    Foursquare is a service that has done many things right and I’m sure the growth of the company has alot to do with Fred Wilson being a part of the company.
    Loopt has a much more developed app for the iPhone but they sure have not had the buzz that foursquare has generated. Could it be because @dens the CEO is very social and embraces the users of his product? I don’t even know the name of Loopt’s creator.

    But I operate foursquare on my iPhone and I would say this is a very helpful app for me in a few ways

    1. Discover new places/Cheaper than zagat: I get reviews from genuine people I know or trust in follow that suggest key things to do.
    2. Connect with friends. Yes I know that’s what facebook, linkedin, Twitter and the dying myspace are for. But they all have found their niche and so will foursquare people who enjoy going out and living active lives will connect with this app.
    3. Badges!! How can we deny the human need to feel accomplished and be rewarded in anyway possible. I like being the mayor of the places I frequent. Or tweeting the new random badge I have gotten that others don’t have

    finally I want to say that maybe they could improve by creating a business marketing division. So many locations have started advertising deals such as free drinks for the mayor or check out this deal nearby. If foursquare can continue to get businesses to understand the value of a check and reward those who are fans of the program it can become a win for business, users and the foursquare team.

    Twitter.com/jephcinemas

  10. Joel says:

    Hi John,
    great article.

    I would argue that the demographic for Foursquare is ultimately a lot wider than young, hip media types – I’m a dad with kids and I think it’s for me (perhaps I’m misguided!).

    You make a great point re the need for friends. I, like you, am a bit more cautious of who I add as a friend – if they had the facility where I could message friends that might be a bit more useful to me.

    The killer aspect imho is where venues are stepping up to the mark and are using 4SQ as the platform for their rewards & incentive systems. We all typically visit the same places due to loyalty so why not be rewarded? I’m not too bothered about the 4SQ badges but they had to put something in the system before the venues caught up.

    Also, you don’t mention “specials” which should be of relevance to you.

    The upcoming 4SQ business analytics dashboard should help get more venues integrating with 4SQ – and, if they can create/award their own badges, that’s when it will really take off.

    Oh yeah, and I believe the BB app actually triangulates via GPS if it can and then degrades down to cell tower etc.

    @joel_hughes

  11. Perry says:

    John, I find it interesting you don’t bring up the media opportunity and/or the consumer pull potential for customer loyalty rewards inherent in 4sq and check-in in general.

    To me, it’s not a leap to see how 4sq and all check-in services can become a key way for a business to see the patterns hidden to them of frequent usage, and group activity in their store.

    Now, I’m bias towards the potential(given my newco), but I do feel that the demographic could really broaden when you connect the sport in these products with tangible savings and special treatment for patronage and loyalty.

    I do happen to think this will play out “one level up” from 4Sq; local businesses won’t want to do individual campaigns on multiple LBS/mobile services, but they will get with the program!

  12. Alan says:

    Have written on this and reached nearly identical conclusions.

    But one crucial factor you seem to have overlooked– and one that is the main thing preventing any of these services from reaching anything close to mainstream adoption– is the incredible hassle involved in actually checking in.

    As I noted “you need to pull out your phone, find and open the app, find the check-in tab, wait till the app loads the geolocator, find your location from a list of nearby locations, figure out if your current location is in there or if the geolocator has messed up (again!), select your location, decide whether to write something for twitter and hit enter.”

    That’s a whole lot of steps and why I find most people tend to check in from places where they find themselves standing in line and waiting (lots of check ins at CVS, Starbucks, train stations, airports, etc.) – checking in helps kill time.

    As for the demo, it would seem to be more useful to single 20somethings who are constantly out and about, but like Marcus, I’m finding that the “mayors” of places I’m checking into are all mostly in the older demo (or at least their profile pictures would indicate as much.)

    Finally, in terms of unwanted friend requests – most of the services let you invite your entire Twitter/Facebook friend list, which many do without thinking it through. Most everyone I have spoken to only accepts requests from people they know pretty well.

  13. Peter says:

    Agree on all points. I’ve largely stopped using foursquare because it doesn’t give me back anything. I generally would find that the person sitting next to me was at the same location which I already knew. I didn’t find special offers or suggestions that made my experience better. Finally, not being a regular bar-hopper foursquare largely reinforced the fact that I’m no longer 24…

  14. Chris Bracco says:

    Finally, somebody with something bad to say about Foursquare!

    Hehe, not to knock the service, I think it’s cool, but I’m glad that you unearthed some of these pitfalls. Everything has its ups and downs, and this is the first negative feedback I’ve seen about Foursquare so far. Thanks for enlightening me!

  15. Bridget Williams says:

    Ditto ditto. I remember when I first started using Twitter (2006 yo)and though it was confusing, it was fun immediately. I liked the small group feel and found value, even though there were so few. (in some ways it was way more fun then btw; I am much more careful about my tweets these days). But Foursquare for me now, is, as you stated, about potential. I get no value from it. I keep forcing myself to do it, waiting for something to kick in.

  16. Michael says:

    I’m an active 4SQ user (late 30s, early adopter). Here’s what I want: custom profiles. I’m the Mayor of my local coffee shop. I want that to mean something. When other 4SQ users check in there, and see I’m the mayor, I want them to have access to more than just my name and my face. Let me give them a URL to click on! Let me write a bio! Something…

  17. Craig says:

    Thought-provoking post, John. The WHERE app guys have a different angle on the check-in phenomenon: To them, the next valuable phase of location-aware search helps you find things near you without your having to type anything into a search box. You add important places in your life to a service they call PLACEBOOK which lives in the cloud and delivers useful names, phone numbers, addresses to any device anywhere on the network. Interesting post about them @TheNextWeb http://bit.ly/9m5BHe

    And let me add the usual disclaimer about me being a director at WHERE right here.

    Best to you and yours…

  18. Michael says:

    That was unecessariy long-winded John. I’m just going to reply to the two biggest issues:

    1) If you’re “friending” people who aren’t your friends, of course an social service isn’t going to work for you. Sometimes being a functional human being means “being a dick.” Learn to tell strangers “no.”

    2) That said, Foursquare is testing a “celebrity mode” that separates connections into “friends” (who see all your check-ins) and “followers” (who only see ones you make extra-visible). Maybe you should contact somebody at Foursquare and ask if you can help test it?

  19. Otto says:

    I love foursquare, but then I am in the demographic. Urban, single, go out a lot. Okay, not in my 20’s, but hell, 30 is the new 20.

    Your basic problem is that you don’t have a use case. Think about it: Why would you want to tell people where you are? What circumstance can you imagine where that would be something you would want to do?

    The only real answer is because you want people to know where you are and to come and join you. There’s really no other legitimate use case. If your daily life consists of seeing your family and possible coworkers, then you don’t really have a “social” network to begin with. Foursquare and other location services build on top of a *real-world* social network, not on top of your internet “friends”.

    So if you’re not the type of person to frequently run into other people and go out and do things, then no, you’re not in the demographic, and no, there’s no reason for you to ever use a location-check-in service.

    Regarding friending, I have a simple policy:
    – I will friend you on Facebook if I’ve ever known you for an extended period of time (say, a month or more).
    – I will friend you on Foursquare if I’ve ever knowingly drank a beer in front of you, made a disparaging remark in front of you, or cursed in front of you. Otherwise, forget it, you don’t need to know where I am.

    I’ve never understood why people will “friend” people online when they are not actually friends in real life. It makes zero sense. If somebody is wanting to follow your online talking, then that is a one-way interaction. Friends are a two-way interaction. Wholly different dynamic. This isn’t being a dick, this is defining the right kind of relationship between you and other people

  20. Nick says:

    I agree with Michael and Otto. It seems a bit stupid to be “friends” with someone you don’t really know, and then being worried about there being a socially awkward moment if you actually meet them.

    The social side is one side of this, but the marketing opportunity “checking in as a search” stuff is the other side. Plenty of potential there.

  21. Mike Kowieski says:

    John-

    Some interesting thoughts here – and your last two sentences demonstrate the true potential of Foursquare, because they touch on the competitive nature and sense of pride in accomplishments that Foursquare confers on its users.

    Foursquare is a zero-cost way to turn your life into a video game, in a sense. Have you ever followed the leaderboard of your city? Have you ever had a debate with your friends as to whether or not you should be allowed to check-in to a subway stop? The competitive nature of some of my friends really comes out in this game.

    The competitive aspect of winning and then defending the mayorship of a venue is interesting. Foursquare’s true potential, long-term, lies in its ability to alter the real-life habits of its heavy users. Case in point: I’ll probably eat at the Subway near my office once or twice more than normal this week, so I can win the mayorship.

    A savy business with a small marketing budget would be wise to confer a HEAVY prize to its mayor. Say, if you’re a restaurant, let the mayor eat free once every week or give them some input into the next menu decisions. Free publicity guaranteed in your local newspapers, plus you stand to win a good deal of incremental business if you can create a fight for the mayorship.

  22. Shehab says:

    having managed to convince a few of my b-school pals in ny to join foursquare, the service has become increasingly fun and useful in unpredictably changing the course of a night out usually for the better (being surprised by friends who were in the area showing up, impromptu get-togethers at shows / bars etc).

    i like the idea of two types of connections on foursquare- one for bona fide irw friends who get alerted when you check in and another more like the follow mode of twitter which allows you to receive neighborhood tips of people with opinions you trust / value.

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  24. Lorin says:

    This is the most talked-about service I never wanted to use! At the recent Digital Hollywood: Media Summit in NYC, I’d swear that 30% of the independent panelists in every session mentioned FourSquare in one capacity or another- it was eerie– almost as if they’d been paid to “use the word ‘FourSquare’ in a sentence. Yet by the second day when an uninitiated attendee asked a panelist to explain what it was, the response from the crowd was audibly negative– I think for the same reasons I feel:

    1) I believe most adult people who are married or in a relationship, who are employed, or simply have something going on in their lives, don’t see the use for a service that involves them “checking in” to places of commerce they visit. It’s a little too Big Brother. Besides, what’s the payoff? (Yes, I’d rather just have an app that gave me geo-located coupons, discounts, or other offerings).

    2) I certainly don’t wish to be an uncompensated brand ambassador in that I would ostensibly be volunteering to be part of the marketing force for businesses that I already pay to consume their product.

    3) The concept may hold more of a gender-specific fascination. Females are traditionally far less interested than males in keeping score, racking up points, and collecting gold stars to be “mayor” of some place for the sole privilege of attaining an arbitrary (and worthless) title.

    4) As a female the LAST thing I want is for people who are “following” me as “friends” or “fans” to know my location (much less, where I shop, what I eat, how I spend my weekends…). That “awkward” moment you describe is, in my world, a potentially dangerous stalking incident. No thank you.

    These are just my arguments on the general concept. The technology shortcomings are another post entirely.