Commentary

Foursquare, I Can't Quit You

Hey, Foursquare, a social network with about 250 times as many users as yours just incorporated your core functionality and even co-opted the term "check-in" that you've been trying to trademark. Is it time to move on?

Not so fast. Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley tweeted a few days ago, "Call from my 86 yr old grandma: 'Hello. I want to know if this Face-Book is like yours. It sounds like Four-Squared, but without the fun.'" Grandma Crowley, apocryphal as she may be, speaks the truth. Foursquare is still more fun, and probably always will be compared to Facebook Places. That means a lot, for now.

When Facebook Places launched, I first checked in at my agency 360i's office and then tried it from a number of other locations in subsequent days. Most of the time, I also used a number of other location-based apps such as Foursquare, Whrrl, Gowalla, Yelp, SCVNGR, and FoodSpotting. Even if I tire of some apps over time, I'm not giving up any solely because Facebook Places is here. Here are five reasons why:

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1) It's not easy to tell on Facebook Places who's near you. Foursquare now includes maps to plot your friends' whereabouts, and in general it's better at detecting who's really nearby. Facebook's algorithm currently places too much emphasis on how closely connected it thinks your friends are to you, but if a close friend I've known for half my life checks into somewhere in Iowa, that won't matter to me when I'm in New York.

2) Foursquare's tips are pretty useful. Yes, there's a lot of blather, but when I checked in at the White Plains, N.Y. train station on Friday and saw all the tips urging people to avoid the men's room, I don't care if I have the Seinfeldian syndrome known as uromysitisis -- I'm finding a different place to go. Whrrl is even more focused on recommendations, and FoodSpotting has directed me to some delectable dishes. Facebook will need great content.

3) I don't always want to widely broadcast my location. Foursquare reported that 20% of its check-ins are shared on Facebook, which is significant, but I'd take a hard look at the other 80%. For example, one day I was browsing Atlantic City's outlet stores and earned Foursquare's Overshare badge for checking in at least 10 times within 12 hours. That's okay on Foursquare, because my friends there either do the same or don't mind others' check-in binges. If I posted all of those to Facebook, my friends would hide my updates so fast that I'd have to start poking myself. To Facebook's credit, there are various privacy options built into Places, but I don't want to take the time to figure out who cares about my daily whereabouts and who doesn't. With the other location-based services, it's easy -- any friend there is one that cares enough to connect with me in that kind of environment.

4) A lot of people really don't want to share their location. On Friday, I checked into my parents' apartment in White Plains since the building already appeared in Facebook's listings. My parents were especially baffled when I tried tagging them. My mom said, "You just tell everybody everything you do and every step you take and everywhere you are?" My dad responded, "Yeah, whatever." As I noted at the time (on Facebook, of course), not all 500 million Facebook users will use Places. It's not just about my parents either; there's a massive swath of digitally savvy people who do not want to regularly broadcast where they are. For some, it's not just about the broadcasting or being tagged -- it's the whole idea of it. People do become more open over time, but there are real limits when it comes to location.

5) There is something fun about the other services. I know I'm a little too into this stuff, but I like being a duke or king on yelp. I've earned 35 badges on Foursquare and will keep earning more. I like the points I rack up on Whrrl for sharing recommendations. SCVNGR's entirely focused on gaming and offers fun ways to interact with locations. Facebook probably won't get much more fun on its own, and we'll see how much better it gets as apps start to incorporate Places.  

Facebook can get around many of these hurdles. In time, you can expect it to have among the most precise locations, and I wouldn't be surprised if by the end of the year I have 10 times as many friends using Places as I do all the other apps combined. For sheer utility alone, Facebook Places should wind up being the best way to meet friends and contacts in the real world. When that happens, it will become more serendipitous, and even meaningful. Facebook is in the best position by far to make those moments happen most often. I wouldn't trade moments like those for a thousand badges.

6 comments about "Foursquare, I Can't Quit You".
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  1. Lisa Foote from MixMobi, August 24, 2010 at 2:44 p.m.

    David - Solid column as usual. Personally, I don't think Facebook Places as a Foursquare Killer as I think of it enabling of an unlimited number of Foursquare competitors.

    Fearless prediction: Facebook Places won't kill Foursquare. But 10,000 Facebook-based Foursquare competitors may make Foursquare look like a latter-day Groupons: just one among many platforms doing essentially the same thing.

  2. Jamie Tedford from Brand Networks Inc., August 24, 2010 at 3:03 p.m.

    Thanks for this perspective David. Very insightful as always. I think your comment in section 5) cuts right to the chase: "Facebook probably won't get much more fun on its own, and we'll see how much better it gets as apps start to incorporate Places."

    Facebook has always been, and continues to deliver a "social utility." All these other web services like 4Sq and SCVNGR are now playing on the platform like every other application and game. Yes, they can add a gaming level, a review engine, badges on top of this Places utility, and so can the rest of developer community- without the need for a stand alone mobile app. Indeed the fun is being added as we speak, by thousands of developers around the globe who recognize the ubiquitous Facebook mobile app will be the undisputed check-in winner. With that as a premise, many companies like mine are focused on how brands are going to add a layer fun, engagement and local commerce on top of the Places utility. The creative juices are flowing and IMHO we're about to witness a whole new breed of high utility/high engagement applications hit the Facebook Platform leveraging location based check-ins at the core.

  3. Scott Waxenberg from TBG Digital, August 24, 2010 at 3:31 p.m.

    Interesting article, David. No doubt Places will shine an even brighter light on location based services but I think your 4th point is very telling. If "a lot of people really don't want to share their location" do companies like 4Square have a real future or is this whole check-in thing the hot trend today and will be gone in a year from now when the next new thing comes around.
    Also...what is your take on the Places logo? Looks like the number "4" inside of a "square"...coincidence?

  4. Tom Goosmann from True North Inc., August 24, 2010 at 8:09 p.m.

    Not one word on what you get in return, on Foursquare, FB Places, et al. The satisfaction of 35 badges? My 9-year-old's Whyville clams seem more relevant. The free latte to one out of hundreds of loyal customers?

    I've been "checking in" patiently, divulging my whereabouts, tastes and recommendations freely with businesses as the benefactors. My patience is wearing thin. Let me know when I can throw away my loyalty card, and get the value-added benefit of my loyalty just by walking in the front door.

    Recognize me for a change. I'm the guy with the wallet.

  5. David Woodrow from Skyword Inc., August 24, 2010 at 10:23 p.m.

    Hey David! Enjoyed the article as always. I've enjoyed Foursquare for the last few months (although I don't have nearly as many badges) and have been testing out Facebook's new Places app. It's been interesting to watch the new behaviors of my Foursquare friends. Some are using both and others have migrated completely to Facebook. I've been getting lots of comments on my Facebook checkins which has helped me engage with old friends. That's a feature sorely missing from Foursquare. But I agree with you, I don't know how well accepted several checkins per day will go over in my friend's Facebook feeds. It's going to be great to see how this all plays out and what additional features get added to Places over time.

  6. Joan Voight from Business media, August 26, 2010 at 12:21 p.m.

    great line Tim: Recognize me for a change. I'm the guy with the wallet.

    Add: I'm the gal with the job and I'm in a hurry.

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