WORLD VIEW: Where should Foursquare check-in next?

WORLD VIEW: Where should Foursquare check-in next?
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I’m the mayor of 14 places in Amsterdam.

Not long ago that might have sounded pretty sweet to you. It likely doesn’t anymore. Me either.

I love Foursquare, but more for what they’ve done than what they’re doing. The game is running a bit stale several years in, and co-founder Dennis Crowley has not been shy in saying “Foursquare is about personalised search, not gamification”. But gamification got us here. That’s the reason I’m on and love Foursquare. Is personalised search enough to keep it going?

Foursquare was never going to be the biggest thing out there, but its genius is undeniable. When it launched in March 2009, it was into a world where humans were not compelled in the least to share their location. Even my ‘early adopter’ compadres couldn’t understand why they would share their location with the internet. It wasn’t that it was private. Nobody needed to know.

And that’s why Foursquare succeeded where others failed. It didn’t just ask us for our location. It needed our location for the novel and somewhat compelling game to be played. Every single check-in was a play in the game. There was no way to forward your position without sharing. And suddenly, a significant amount of people didn’t have a problem sharing. Foursquare felt like a good deal, and the act of pressing that button to check-in, almost like the handshake. Honest and straightforward. It worked.

But only for so long. They never released the new game features, goals or upgrades which would keep the game engaging, leaving it somewhat stale, and interesting only to the new users. But this wasn’t laziness or the collapse of their idea. Quite the contrary. As it turns out, this was their plan.

The founders of Foursquare felt early on that check-ins would be an amazing recommendation engine – if you had enough of them. So that’s where the game comes in. And as soon as the game put enough data in their hands to begin making reasonable assumptions (March 2011) they released Explore. To date, they have upwards of 30 million users responsible for some 4 billion data points.

Foursquare seems to believe they don’t need to evolve the game because there is a steady stream of new users to their platform for whom the game is still fresh. If they can sustain user growth, they can keep getting check-ins.

But that seems like a dangerous theory to me. It’s been proven that the game works. Will recommendations and Explore be compelling enough to keep veterans of the platform checking in? 

The first problem with recommendations is accuracy. It’s a complicated endeavour to try and suggest things to humans. The first Foursquare mashup I ever saw set out to show you the ‘hottest’ places to go in NYC at any given time. It was an early form of using the check-in as a recommendation engine. In the space of a week Explore informed me that the ‘hottest’ place in NYC was the Port Authority Bus Terminal, which is about as close to hell as I’ve ever been. Visited a lot? Sure. Would I describe it to my friends as a ‘hot’ place to go? Not unless you hate yourself and are looking for more hate.

The technology has progressed since then, but it is still difficult to overcome these reasonable inaccuracies. For me, most of the places I check in to are places I would love never to return to. The obligations of life put me there.

So how do they combat that? Some smart tech (to be sure) and some additional effort from you. Check-ins alone are not enough to generate amazing recommendation results. Explore compounds the amount of effort required from users inside the platform. If it’s to work properly, you need to go beyond the check-in. Comments, likes, tips, likes on tips, saving to a list, etc. All of these are necessary. In a world where location tracking is becoming ever more passive (there are plenty of apps and devices that monitor this) it seems counter-intuitive to focus on getting more from your users.

There are other things that keep Explore from being really compelling to me. You’ll hear it framed in the context of being ‘local’ a lot. And though it is local, it’s actually most helpful when you aren’t a ‘local’. The Explore feature surfaces its utility largely when you’re away from home.

I’m fine with the fact that the game only existed to get my data. It was a fair trade. But I came to Foursquare because of a compelling offer, and if they need my check-in, it will take one to keep me. Explore isn’t it for me. So what are some of the options?

Evolve the game. It was great fun in the beginning and we know it works. Develop some additional features or rules that deepen it. If you need me to like and comment to make the recommendations better, put some game mechanics around those features. If it’s compelling enough, I’m happy to help.

Do more with my data. They have billions of points of data, some 1600 points from me alone. I’d love to see them keep innovating with this data. The new Time Machine feature is a tiny step toward that.

Give me contextual map directions. They know the places I know. Use that data to make map directions more efficient. The first 5 to 15 steps are almost always steps you know by heart: how to get out of your apartment, around the corner and into that subway. When I’m looking to get somewhere, I want the simplest, most direct directions, so that I can memorise them and not have to take screenshots or make notes. Foursquare could help.

Contextual weather would work as well. The abstraction of temperatures hasn’t ever sat well in my brain. Foursquare knows where I was yesterday, and at what time, so let’s use that to eliminate the abstraction in temperature reporting. Telling me it’s 23 outside still doesn’t do much for me (and not only because I’m a child of Fahrenheit). Tell me it’s a tiny bit cooler and cloudier than yesterday. I immediately understand what that means. That’s value.

There are a myriad of options, but it seems that Foursquare is focused on Explore for now and is putting the burden of continuing innovation with your location in the hands of the some 40,000 or so developers utilising their API.

It’s a risky move, but I hope it pays off. I love what Foursquare has done for location and for pushing things forward, and I would love nothing more than to feel compelled to keep using it.

Andrew Allen is director of interactive production at Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam.

This World View piece first appeared in the September issue of B&T magazine. 

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