I admit I have had it in for the mobile "check-in" activity since I first heard of it. I am strident and probably a bit zealous on the matter. A couple of years ago I ranted about both the daftness and the offensiveness of building businesses on the expectation that consumers should be checking in WITH YOU! My puckish advice that these mobile apps should "check in their own damned selves" attracted a sizable AMEN chorus.
So it is with some smug pleasure I see the poster child of the check-in model, foursquare, tacitly admit in its new app version that the behavior should not be central to its business model. I have to admit that in its first iterations I barely understood the foursquare app. Perhaps it is a basic antisocial personality, or my total lack of team spirit, but I found the app useless and befuddling unless I was in the thick of a major urban area and was interested in what a sliver of a young hipper-than-thou demo was gushing about. The skew toward 20-something watering holes ("great sliders and Jello shots during 'pants-less Fridays' – YAY!!") seemed a tip off that this 50-something Dad was out of his depth here.
Released late last week, the new app puts greater emphasis on the exploration feature, reviews and a local index that is looking suspiciously like Yelp. To be sure, the hip skew is still here. This iPhone update leverages the existing social network to show what spots are trending with that slice of people who do check in, rate and opine. There are still check-in specials attached to local spots, which is as it should be. I am sticking with Yelp myself for these functions, if only because the reviews are deeper and cover a wider swath of things I like. But foursquare finally becomes a sensible alternative to me in its last few iterations.
With this update especially, the basic gestalt of the app shifts such that it feels more like the app is foremost serving me rather than waiting for me to feed its check-in habit.
Which is not to say that check-in behavior is always inappropriate and is only an activity reserved for the social butterfly. It is a behavior that allows people in many different contexts to share and broadcast their presence or taste. In apps like GetGlue, for instance, there is some temptation for this media maven to share that he is watching a given TV show or actively re-reading some heavy tome…for the fifth time. Because we all like to show off sometime. But I still find most of these apps as irritating and cloying as most of us found pep rallies and boosters in high school. There is an expectation of joining in that can be taken two ways: as engaging in healthy team spirit or slavish crowd psychology.
The fact that an app makes me rant this way is itself indicative of how mobile technologies are capable of accessing intimate aspects of user psychology. Although the rise of social networks after 2005 foreshadowed this new digital intimacy by reviving high school psychology in our everyday online lives, mobile technologies are less abstracted than the desktop from everyday living.
These devices are so tightly woven into every moment of the day that they access new moods, emotional moments, and perhaps our responses to apps and what they ask of us becomes that much more personal and emotional. Which is to say that any app that expects to earn wide usage will have to allow users of multiple personality types, in a range of moods and modes, to find comfortable access to its functionality or to have the app’s functions adapt to the user’s own sometimes idiosyncratic states of mind.
I think we are only scratching the surface of just how "personal" personal media is.