Foursquare for what?

Foursquare's home page
Foursquare's home page

I consider myself adventurous when it comes to new interactive services and usually always try out the next “new” thing if anything just to satisfy my curiosity. It is always an interesting journey to see what ideas take off and which ones flounder into obscurity.

My most recent experiment is the location-based social networking service Foursquare. While not bleeding-edge brand new (it launched sometime in Spring 2009) it has really gained some momentum lately and some friends of mine started using it so I figured what the hell and signed up to give it a spin.

An added bonus was when I discovered they had an Android app. As a recent convert to the world of Android this past May when I bought my HTC Droid Incredible I figured this would be a nice experiment to see how well they implemented this service on both web and handheld.

In a nutshell, Foursquare allows you to post, or “check-in” at a location to say you visited, see who else has visited, and who has visited that venue the most (the “mayor”) as well as leave tips or shouts about a venue, ie “Try the Triumph burger it is for the win!”

Visiting a location frequently or visiting a certain number of different venues unlocks profile badges. One badge for example is called Local and is awarded for checking into the same venue three times in one week.

Foursquare profile page
Foursquare profile page

These badges you earn are visible on your Foursquare profile as seen in my screenshot on the left so everyone can see where you have visited or what things you have done. In some cases they even have special badges for an event such as the World Cup or NBA Finals.
The idea is that you can add your friends and see where they are checking in and maybe meet up with them (go go stalker service? lol) or find new things to visit you might not have know about or thought of. In some cases you might get a badge for visiting a featured location like a specific restaurant or historical location.
That is basically what it is in it’s current incarnation. I can see a lot of potential revenue-generating angles for them to add to the service over time and with that huge batch of Series B capital they just closed on I am expecting/hoping to see some big enhancements and changes in the coming months.

Right now it is sink or swim for them. When they were little no one heard of them. Now that they are pushing 2 million users they are on the radar of all the big guys – Google, Facebook, Microsoft etc.

Now getting back to the basics of Foursquare – as it stands right now other than it being yet another social network to have to keep tabs on, I have not found a real benefit or value to using it at this time.

It is a simple question that I have not found an answer for yet – for what reason should I use Foursquare?

I have been browsing profiles on Foursquare to see who is doing what and I have come to the conclusion that many people fit into two camps. People like myself giving it a try out of curiosity and people who are egotistical nerd super-achievers who are mayors of like a dozen locations and have many hundreds of check-ins and badges.

Right now though it seems the balance of value is on Foursquare’s side. They get all this absolutely delicious location-specific data from their users that marketers would be delighted to buy access to. They have people willingly going to venues and saying I was here at this time.

I am not really into badge collecting. I am not one for wanting people to be right on my tracks so I don’t turn on stuff on my phone that lets most people know where I am at any given time. And I don’t see the point of checking in to places I visit right now.

None of this is to say the service is awful or bad or that it has no potential – quite the contrary. I think a location-based service such as Foursquare has huge potential but right now it seems they are missing the mark.

The bread & butter of their service will be the mobile apps. For the most part their web site is not even really needed other than as a desktop portal.

With that in mind let’s check out the Android app. (Note that they also make apps for iPhone, Blackberry and Palm as well.)

Foursquare's Android App - Friend Screen

When you launch the app, the first screen you get shown is the “friend screen” – I understand why they did this but as you can see in my screenshot this screen is nearly useless. Out of the few friends I have added, only Jeff has his app/phone set to show his current location.

I would have either made the screen more user-specific – ie you see only recent friend check-ins nearby or even better (at least in my opinion) I would have made the default screen a “places near my location” type of deal. As they add more features to the service they could even make the main entry view more of a portal such as showing a restaurant near you that is having a special a special on wings for every run the Yankees score tonight or the museum nearby is offering half-off today. Or even the local library promoting a reading event.

Foursquare's Android App - Places Screen

There is a lot of room to enhance the places view as well.

For example, in this screenshot from my phone on the left imagine how much more useful it would be if it had star ratings right on this screen. Not just one either – like one from users, maybe one from Zagats, AAA or some other relevant service.

So a scenario would be I am in city visiting for work or whatever, I’d pull out my phone, fire up the app, give the GPS a moment to lock in my location and pull on the list and say “oh look a 5-star burger joint is only 100 meters up the road.” Or say I am out at 3 am with some friends and I want to find a place that is actually open, give me a preference to filter places to show places to eat that are within 1000 meters and open at this very moment.
Hell they could even cross-market or partner with someone like Urbanspoon or Yelp to get some venue-specific data if needed.

Foursquare's Android App - Venue Screen

The venue screen to the left is a prime example of an under-utilized screen. Not only could they have the ratings I mentioned earlier there, they could/should feature relevant data such as phone number, hours, etc. There is another tab called Tips that has user-submitted blurbs but most venues have very few if any.

One of the downsides to allowing people to add venues is that there is a lot of shady data. One pizza place near me exists in the database three times – because three people added it with differently spelled names.

Superusers (the most active users) can supposedly edit the venues now but as I am not a superuser I am unable to see how this works or if I can merge multiple listings into one.

Another issue is people adding their own house. In the suburbs it is not as bad but in a city like NYC with some tall vertical residences you end up with stacks of peoples’ homes mixed in with the legit listings. I don’t know Omar or David nor do I care to know they live at XYZ and I doubt I will be checking in there.

I understand why they allowed people to add venues, but it seems to me they lost some of their control in doing so.

Foursquare's Android App - Venue Map Screen
I found the maps for venues to not always be accurate either which I am guessing has a lot to do with random users adding said venues. If you go to add a venue and your GPS is off by a 50 meters or so the map rendering itself won’t be correct.

Fortunately most venues I have checked into are in their proper place, but I have found a few that are not and as far as I can see there is no way through the app to report a venue as being inappropriate, closed, or erroneous in some way.

Even a simple button to click and report it so that they could at least follow up somehow or just remove a venue if it turns out it does not belong and help them maintain better data integrity. Nothing can be more terrible for a service like this than invalid or irrelevant data. People are impatient and if they encounter it often enough they might say hell with it and not use Foursquare.

Foursquare's Android App - Venue Check-In Screen

This final screenshot here shows the actual venue check-in screen.

This is where you see how they tie in with other social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter.

Some folks may choose to broadcast this info out to their accounts and friends. Others won’t. All comes down to one’s own personal privacy preferences.

Location-aware services are still in their infancy and we are rapidly learning about how they can open up a whole other can of worms for privacy and safety.

For example, earlier this year a site named Please Rob Me threw together a page to show when people were not at home based on their updates to Foursquare and other social networking services.

Anytime you share info about yourself or friends on the web you are compromising your privacy some. It is up to each and every one of us where we the line is for too much sharing.

A service such as Foursquare is not exactly without privacy issues itself either.

So what’s the verdict? It is a decent concept and implementation but it is rough around the edges.

For me it is that the service does not offer me enough of a benefit to use it at this time. As the disclaimer goes though, your mileage may vary and judging by some of the profiles I have seen there are no doubt some very active, content users.

I think we will see a lot coming out of the Foursquare folks in the coming months. Their service shows a lot of promise. For now I am keeping my account on there but probably won’t be actively checking in to anything.

Hopefully they will give me something cool to write about in the near future.