"Sorry, Ma, I meant to check in a while ago." After two weeks of travel for MediaPost shows, I realized I had not called my parents in a while, but Mom beat me to it with a morning call.
"You are 53 years old. You don't need to check-in with your MOTHER. I know you are busy."
"Really, just 52?"
"Let's move on, shall we?" There was enough subtext in her opening line to keep me guilt-ridden for the rest of the day. I didn't need to figure out if Mom was playing head games with me over my age, too. Of course, in an enmeshed Italian family you are never too old to be the child. Being busy is a lame excuse for neglecting family. And "checking in" is a poor substitute for the level of total involvement in all aspects of your existence a tightly knit Italian clan is supposed to exert. In five words, cleverly crafted, Mom gave me a kindly reprimand in a loving tone. There is a genius to this.
But it is the preciousness of personal relationships that also makes me reticent to engage in the "checking-in" behavior that local mobile models like Foursquare and now Facebook Places want me to adopt. I admit that likely I am behind the curve on this one, but I don't think I am alone. "Checking In" with a phone app is asking people to adopt a new behavior -- and to do so mainly for the benefit of a merchant, not for oneself. More to the point, it is asking us to transfer onto impersonal commercial entities what for many of us is a personal activity we share with people we know.
I understand that the check-ins encouraged by these apps are supposed to have social functions by tying you in with the people you know. But let's face it, the real business models here rely on conflating the personal social graph with commerce in ways that I think are new and alien to many of us. When I "check-in" in Foursquare, whose interests am I serving, and why exactly am I transferring to this cool little start-up the same sort of relationship I have with my mother and family? I don't think I am engaging in George Carlin-like semantics here. I really am not sure why I am "checking in," with whom and to what end.
I continue to be befuddled by the value of Foursquare for me. I fire it up and find it generally an empty experience unless I really decide to invest in it, invite friends in, check in regularly. Sorry, but I just don't see the upside here. In my Places section of Facebook, a small handful of my contacts regularly check in, and I occasionally look here out of idle curiosity. Now Facebook is trying to give me a reason for checking in by enticing my local merchants to offer deals. I understand that JC Penney and the Gap are launch partners in this, but my Places radius doesn't even embrace the mall with both stores two miles away. Another local retail app, ShopKick, tries to induce me to check in by accruing points, especially when I enter the nearby BestBuy. But I have had the app for months and been to Best Buy at least a dozen times and never once has it occurred to me to fire up the ShopKick app. I have, however, used the Best Buy app in-store many times. The brand linkage is clear, the payoff immediate in terms of information.
Facebook Places, Shopkick and Foursquare fail to grab me because none of them give me much I really need in these different locations, but all of them seem to ask me for an investment either of effort or personal information. On the other hand, the local app Yelp, in my experience, delivers loads of content without asking a thing of me. In my area, the relatively remote environs of northern Delaware, the directory of local establishments is filled with reviews from people who just like to share their opinion of a place. It is the 90/10 rule of user-generated content working brilliantly. A small percentage of people in a UGC system will provide most of the content, which is enjoyed by the rest of us. Who needs to check in with anyone or anything? This app has proven its value in our everyday lives countless times in helping us discover new restaurants. The crowd has been right every time. Meanwhile I keep loading Foursquare, Shopkick and Facebook Places waiting for the payoff.
Or maybe I am just being 52 and easily befuddled by models that make better sense to an earlier generation who just can't wait to "check in" with Starbucks. Or maybe I am 53. I have to check into that.