As Google Wave dies, here’s what Foursquare does NOT understand about social media

Google officially axed the underutilised (and overhyped) Google Wave project last week (read Fast Company’s obituary here). I have a fear that my favourite geo-tagging program, Foursquare, will go the same way.

Foursquare allows you to use your mobile phone’s GPS capability to “check in” at various venues (read an intro slideshow here if you need to know more). But they are missing a few tricks by not understanding some basics of what makes social networks work, and also by misunderstanding some basic human psychology. I hope they sort this out soon, because I’d love to see geotagging really take off.

Here is my list of reasons why Foursquare is unlikely to grow further, and will ultimately die:

  • They have failed completely to discuss and engage with users on the issue of security. I personally don’t have a problem checking in and letting my friends know where I am, but many people do fear the openness of letting others know their physical movements. Foursquare needs to actively engage in debate and social values shaping conversations.
  • Their iPhone app provides no information from Foursquare. On a few occasions, Foursquare has shut down in order to do upgrades. But all that happens on their App and website is that nothing works. No messages, no interactions, no connection…
  • When you move from one city to another, you start all over again. It treats each city entirely independently. For what reason?
  • It provides no connections with my friends. Why is there no “friends nearby” feature? And why are there no features to challenge friends, connect with friends, chat to friends? This surely is the key to social media success: that you create connections between people, and enable them to connect with each other. Foursquare doesn’t do this.
  • It does not provide “near things”. The only “near here” type functions are paid for adverts called “specials nearby”. But what about “places your friends frequent” or “places your friends have written tips about” or “most visited place near here”?
  • It doesn’t do competition well. I have an ongoing battle with “Kay A.” for the mayorship of Raynes Park train station. But, there is very little way for me to interact with Kay. More importantly, neither of us know where we are in the competition stakes. The system doesn’t let me know how many check ins I need in order to become mayor, or how close other people are behind me in the race. Each venue needs a “leader board” type function to raise the stakes of competition. Otherwise, it loses its lustre very quickly.
  • What’s the point? Badges are too hard to earn. I can leave tips at venues, but there is no incentive to do so. Companies are given no incentive to interact with regular attenders. And so on… Incentives are required.
  • Finally, providing feedback to the system (especially, for example, indicating duplicate venues) is a really long and complicated procedure (and is not a feature of the iPhone app – why not?). This functionality also needs to be delegated down to “editors” in local areas (think of how Wikipedia manages content).

If you’re a Foursquare user, what do you think? Have I missed anything?

In summary, then, Foursquare has the potential to be brilliant. But only if it learns the lessons of other social media success stories. Connect us, and enable us to connect! Speak to us, and enable us to speak to you. Enable us to contribute to the development of the system.

Foursquare, I hope you’re listening, because I don’t want you to go the way of Google Wave. But if even the mighty Google can get it so wrong, then no-one is safe.

14 thoughts on “As Google Wave dies, here’s what Foursquare does NOT understand about social media”

  1. Holli B says:

    Since I am using Foursquare more now, I found this post very interesting. I’m still not completely versed in how it all works, so you pointed out some things that I didn’t know. Also, you pointed out things that are missing that would be interesting. For me, the badges mean nothing at all. I just found a page that gives information on the various pages and what they mean, but given some of the other issues (as well as the nebulous procedure to become mayor), I just feel like I’ll be checking-in and not doing much other than interrupting my friends’ Twitter stream.

  2. Ari Herzog says:

    I used to check-in to places on Foursquare nonstop. I earned badges, connected to friends in my vicinity. But I’ve used it less and less in recent weeks and don’t care for it anymore. There’s no point. And the security is big.

  3. Philip John says:

    The stats are pretty useless – they don’t seem to actually match up to the other stats, such as those on your main profile.

    Logging in with Facebook is available, but not Twitter.

    Each app (web, iPhone, Android etc) provides varying functionality. They all need to provide the same functionality otherwise using a different app is a whole different experience for the same service. More continuity please!

    Overall I mostly agree with you but with the caveat that Foursquare is a young service. I don’t necessarily agree about the privacy aspect but do think they should be using something like Get Satisfaction or User Voice to aid in product direction.

  4. Caitlin says:

    There are actually a few points about this post that aren’t true, and I’d like to address them one at a time, as a frequent Foursquare user and pretty die-hard devotee.

    –They have failed completely to discuss and engage with users on the issue of security. (This is absolutely true, I have no argument with you here.)
    –Their iPhone app provides no information from Foursquare. (They could do better with this, but if you’re using Twitterific and Twitter is down, what error messaging do you get? Not that the site is down, but usually you just stall or get the “API is busy, please try again later” message. Foursquare isn’t the only culprit here.)
    –When you move from one city to another, you start all over again. (This hasn’t been true for well over eight months. All check-ins and badges are universal now, with the exception of stuff that’s location based.)
    –It provides no connections with my friends. (I’m not sure what Foursquare you’re using at this point…it doesn’t message me specifically that my friends are nearby, but I can find that information really easily, and it does tell me if my friends are at the same location, or where I’m headed next. Maybe your friends group on 4SQ hasn’t reached critical mass yet?)
    –It does not provide “near things”. The only “near here” type functions are paid for adverts called “specials nearby”. But what about “places your friends frequent” or “places your friends have written tips about” or “most visited place near here”? (Also not true. If I check in at the Trek Store on Michigan, I get messaging that my friend Beth says to try the eggs at Yolk next door. I’m still not sure what 4SQ you’re using, because it doesn’t seem to be the same as mine.)
    –It doesn’t do competition well. I have an ongoing battle with “Kay A.” for the mayorship of Raynes Park train station. (You’ve got a point here. I’ve been doing much the same at several locations, and I would appreciate a venue leaderboard…but by the same token, I really like the surprise of realizing that I’ve re-earned or earned for the first time a mayorship I’ve been vying for.)
    –What’s the point? Badges are too hard to earn. I can leave tips at venues, but there is no incentive to do so. Companies are given no incentive to interact with regular attenders. And so on… Incentives are required. (This is an issue with what incentivises *you*, not an issue with the system. I’ll admit that when I first joined in April 2009 I barely used it because Chicago had no venues, there was no reason to add venues, etc. But as more of my friends joined and my city was better mapped, I had, and continue to have, a lot of fun with it. Badges aren’t that hard to earn, and they’re making new ones every day. Besides, you left out the points system, and mayorships, which are both incentive enough for a lot of folks.)
    –Finally, providing feedback to the system (especially, for example, indicating duplicate venues) is a really long and complicated procedure (and is not a feature of the iPhone app – why not?). This functionality also needs to be delegated down to “editors” in local areas (think of how Wikipedia manages content). (You can now edit venues in the iPhone app, but I agree with you that there’s a major signal to noise issue and they could use some moderators, which is the purpose of the “super users”. Disclosure, I am a super user and I don’t think we’re doing our jobs very well.)

    I’m not trying to sound rude here, but please allow me to be blunt. It sounds like you had nothing but neutral if not negative expectations for Foursquare, and you found precisely what you were looking for, including overlooking solutions that the team has released in order to address some of your core complaints. For lots of us, Foursquare is still a fun and vibrant way to track our own travel and habits, as well as meet up with friends. As with any social tool, the results are from how you use it, not just what it can offer you.

    Thanks for the post, definitely got me thinking about all the reasons I like the thing, and I love hearing all the reasons that people don’t agree with me. 😉

    Caitlin

  5. To respond to your criticisms:

    – why do they need to discuss and engage with users on the issue of security? Everyone knows if you want to keep something private, simply don’t tell anyone. Every time you check in, Foursquare lets you choose whether or not your friends will see, it will go to your linked Twitter and/or Facebook accounts. If you don’t want anyone at all to know your whereabouts, don’t check in! “…many people do fear the openness of letting others know their physical movements”, sure, and so they simply don’t have to use it when they don’t want let others know.
    – regarding the platform status info, I imagine that, like Twitter or any other service, they can’t rely unexpected problems to you because they’re unexpected. If everything stops working, I don’t understand how you know that they’re doing an upgrade and it’s not something unplanned?
    – I agree about the cities problem – there’s no real relevance as to which city you’re in, and I’ve no idea what happens when you don’t live near a city. Initially you could only use Foursquare if you lived in one of the available cities, but now it works everywhere, so much like Facebook virtually abolishing communal networks, they should take out the cities aspect ASAP.
    – ‘why is there no ‘friends nearby’ feature?’ Well, it does show you the recent check-ins of your friends, but yes, not in relation to where you are. This would be useful, especially on a map like Google Latitude.
    – challenge friends – well actually, there’s the weekly leaderboard between you and all your friends, though there are no prizes for this and it just gets reset every Sunday night.
    – connect with friends – not sure what you mean? Go to the Foursquare site and it will happily look through your Facebook and Twitter accounts to see if any of your friends are on Foursquare but not connected to you on it yet.
    – chat to friends – through a mobile app? Isn’t that what IM services and SMS are for?
    – “It does not provide ‘near things'” – er, of course it does. When you first open the app (on Android at least), there is the Places tab which shows you nearby places/things. If you are near a place where your friend has left a tip, the mobile app will tell you (I’ve had some friends show me when they’ve seen tips of mine, though very few of them leave tips themselves so I’ve not seen any of theirs being flashed up myself). I guess Foursquare want to keep check-in quanties and stats to themselves, but yes, listing nearby places by most visited recently would be nice.
    – “It doesn’t do competition well. I have an ongoing battle with ‘Kay A.’ for the mayorship of Raynes Park train station. But, there is very little way for me to interact with Kay.” – I had the same experience recently over on the Isle of Dogs where I live, and actually Foursquare allowed us to see each other’s Facebook and Twitter profiles, and thus communicate, and now we’re real life friends 🙂
    – “The system doesn’t let me know how many check ins I need in order to become mayor, or how close other people are behind me in the race.” – that’s most likely deliberate. If you knew, it would make you more likely to try to cheat the system (if you knew you needed just 3 more check-ins, you’d be more likely to make them falsely.
    – “What’s the point? Badges are too hard to earn.” – you sound you like you don’t have many! I’ve discovered quite a few random ones just through doing normal things with Foursquare. For instance I got one for being a good friend because I’d included the word ‘birthday’ in 5 of my shout-outs (the message you can post when you check-in somewhere) – implying that I make an effort to attend my friends birthday celebrations
    – “I can leave tips at venues, but there is no incentive to do so.” – er, you get 5 points! That’s a good enough one for me!
    – “Companies are given no incentive to interact with regular attenders.” – er, yes they are, they get to find out who they are and can give them special offers to keep them coming back, as they already do (Dominos for instance, or Hummus Bros in Central London) – http://www.marketingmagazine.co.uk/News/MostEmailed/982670/Foursquare-seals-first-national-brand-tie-ups/
    – “Finally, providing feedback to the system (especially, for example, indicating duplicate venues)” – early users of the service, including myself, were allowed to become ‘level 1 super users’. This means we have the ability to edit venue information, ‘close’ venues (so that nobody else can check into them going forward), and also merge venues together when they are duplicates (we enter the details and then a higher level super user confirms it later). I have no idea if super user status is still being given out to users, or if there’s a way to get a higher level , so yes, this could be managed better, but I imagine they simply don’t have the staff to start sorting this out right now.

    P.S. Google haven’t axed Wave, they’re just not going to develop it any further. It’s a great product that was based on an open standard protocol that I’m sure will be continued to be used and improved further in the future. Google have just decided to focus on other projects instead.

  6. Thanks for the responses – sorry I have been slow to reply (I am actually trying to be on holiday :-).

    Let me add a bit of information that might be helpful to those who are ready this:

    * The information from Foursquare to users about their systems: I had in mind a week or so ago when Foursquare was “down” for “routine maintenance”. That’s scheduled stuff, and they could send a message in advance and/or have a status message page on their app. It’s not a big deal, but it creates a link to the “guys behind the scenes”. I think Facebook does this best – they learnt from Apple and Virgin that having a face for the machine is a good thing.

    * The cities issue is an issue. It’s not about badges – it’s about points. But it’s not about the points actually (I mean, really, I am nearly 40 years old – do I really care about Foursquare points? It’s the concept). If I start my day in London, I earn some points for checking in at the station, the airport, etc. Then I fly to Vienna, and I land and check in at the airport, and inexplicably I am back to zero points. And I get to see the leaderboard for Vienna only, and can no longer see the London leaderboard. Why? Do the Foursquare team never leave one city? What’s the logic behind being cities focused? Social media has taught us that we are global citizens, has it not?

    * The “friends nearby” thing was not well explained in my original post – so I accept the critcism :-). What I meant was that there is no ALERT. I am thinking of something like the “specials nearby” feature. OK, so maybe I’m lazy, but then Twitter and Facebook feed my laziness by telling me everything I need to know about my friends, and alerting me to their birthdays, comments, etc. It’s just a preference. But, again, my point was that there is a style of use that is beginning to characterize social media, and if they mighty Google ignored it and failed, then maybe others should take note.

    * In terms of the comments related to venue information, tips, etc – OK, you all have some good points. Some of what I expressed was personal preference (but do good social media systems not allow for customisation?), and some of it will grow and become more usable as more users enter the system. I still think that incentives need to be built in to make 4SQ a more content rich environment. So, maybe points for most TIPS added (I didn’t know you did get points for that – so apologies there – but how about a leaderboard?), or badges for the same? Again, social media becomes more powerful when it (1) gets more users, (2) connects them more effectively, and (3) becomes more content rich. 4SQ could do more to incentivise these aspects.

    * The comments about communication are important. I need to see 4SQ as integrating with other social media options for comms. Again, maybe 4SQ could make my life a little easier with slightly less keystrokes to make that happen, or even bringing Facebook or another IM option into the interface itself? (OK, maybe I am just lazy :-).

    Thanks for all your feedback. I’ve certainly learnt a few things about Foursquare which will help me use it better. And I also realise that a touch of patience is required. I hope this interaction has been picked up by 4SQ developers, and can be used productively to make FourSquare even better. I think it has huge potential!

  7. Geoff says:

    thanks for clarifying your statements.

    *As for your second item about the cities issue, here’s the reason it resets when you change cities: The Leaderboard. Let’s say you live in a dense city, like New York. On vacation, you fly to a small town in, say, North Carolina, where there aren’t nearly as many foursquare users. While in NC, you rack up tons of points because no one else uses foursquare and you get bonus points for adding new venues (+5 for adding a new one), plus you get +5 points since you’ve never been to any of those places. Then, you fly back to NY and you’re number 3 on the Leaderboard, even though you haven’t visited one place in NY in over a week. Since it’s the NY Leaderboard and not the whatever city in NC leaderboard, your score would be false.

    I look at it as levels, like in a video game. NY is a high level in the foursquare game because there are far more users, and so mayorships and adding new venues are difficult to accomplish. New Orleans (where I live) is a middle of the game level since we have lots of users but not as many as NY. A small Bible belt town might be an early level of the game.

    I was in Austin in July and got TONS of points since, being on vacation, I hit up nothing but places I had never been and checked-in to way more places than at home. When we drove back to NOLA, my points reset. I didn’t know this (they could clarify it, I agree), but it wasn’t a big deal, especially since the points are for bragging rights only anyway.

    *As for friends nearby: Still don’t see your issue. view the friends map to see who’s nearby. And Android, iPhone, and webOS apps all have pop-up notifications of when your friends check-in somewhere. There’s also a list in ALL of the mobile apps of the last checkins of all your friends (up to 100 friends). Is it that hard to look at the list and know your city and know where these places are? And, assuming you have an iPhone or a webOS phone, you have a visual map of where your friends are. I don’t know what could be more obvious.

    *I think rewarding people for tips would just introduce a flood of bogus tips as people would create jibberish tips just to earn points or badges. Now, maybe earning points or badges for having large numbers of people add your tip to their To Do list might be something as having people do that means that they aren’t vouching for the validity of your tip. There’s definitely opportunity here. However, the foursquare team is in the middle of revamping their points system, so who knows what will be part of it.

    *I don’t mean it harshly, but yeah, maybe you are lazy. I’m lazy as hell, but when I see a pop-up notification that a friend checked-in and it’s a place I want to go to to meet up with them, I tap their name, tap “Send SMS” and text them. Honestly, if Foursquare had built in chat, how many less taps or clicks would their be? Zero. You’d still have to tap “Send Message” or something. Granted, you iPhoners might not have the ease of task switching that webOS and Android users have, but it’s doable.

  8. Thanks, Geoff,

    There is obviously some functionality around friends that I am missing on my iPhone app. I will check it out. Maybe I’m lazy, maybe I’m dumb, maybe I just didn’t read the “how to” guide enough, or maybe it needs to be more intuitive. Whatever – I’ll check it out. Thanks. OR, and, oh dear, what a thought – maybe I need more friends 🙂

    In terms of points, I still think they could do some thinking about global travellers who are regularly in different cities. Otherwise, just saying that the “points don’t matter” negates a big part of the attraction to 4SQ. So, maybe some room for improvement here.

    Thanks again for contributing.

  9. Here’s a practical and important article on how businesses should embrace geo-tagging: http://thebrandbuilder.wordpress.com/2010/05/27/do-you-know-who-the-mayor-of-your-business-is/

  10. Esteban says:

    I kinda disagree, because I live in Manhattan, and (at the risk of sounding douchebaggy) have a lot of friends, and we are all obsessed with it. Even though we are the early adopters that got it before SXSW and have been using it for almost a year. We use it more every day.

    In New York at least, after seeing that all of the hot chicks that go to the hottest clubs like the Oak Room on Saturday and the Standard Hotel or Le Bain are checking in on foursquare, I’m completely sure that foursquare is not going anywhere. Most of my guy friends have MBA’s and work as bankers, and we all use it non-stop. I was having brunch last Saturday with friends and I got a new badge, which I haven’t gotten in about a month because I have a lot already. When I told my friends, two girls screamed and rushed to get in to get the Zagat foodie badge from that restaurant.

    I guess my point is that foursquare has something about it that you can’t really analyse; think of the way studios do their market research and come up with crap like all the vampire movies that came after Twilight just because “vampires are cool right now.” Sometimes a song is a hit and you don’t know why. This is a perfect example of the same thing. Foursquare is just a cool standalone experience, let me repeat, at least in Manhattan. Why do you need to bucket this into “social media?” There is no reason something has to be categorized in the same bucket as Facebook, only to conclude that, since it’s not the same as Facebook, it’s going to fail. Google wave failed because it never got critical mass, not because it sucked. Same with Betamax. Foursquare has achieved network externalities in New York and LA, and I think that if you live in those two cities sooner or later you’ll show it to many more people in other cities.

  11. Esteban,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. My original article is now outdated by at least two Foursquare updates, and many of the issues I initially raised have been well covered now.

    However, to your point about Google Wave and why it died. You say it was because it didn’t get critical mass. Why didn’t it? I’d argue it’s because it did not connect with user expectations (another way of saying that was crap).

    Foursquare needs to listen. It seems to do that quite well, by the way. The one thing I’d add to my list above now is that they need more super users to manage the database. But otherwise, I’m pretty happy with Foursquare at the moment.

    And I agree with you that it’s here to stay.

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