Foursquare: The Greatest Social Experiment of Our Time or a Stalker’s Dream Come True?

The most frequent questions I hear asked about foursquare are, “What’s the point?” and “Where’s the revenue?”  To find answers, probing investors and digital strategists must secure their helmets and…

The most frequent questions I hear asked about foursquare are, “What’s the point?” and “Where’s the revenue?”  To find answers, probing investors and digital strategists must secure their helmets and jump into the trenches of a recent battle.

2009 marked social media armageddon. The war was set to implode. Facebook loomed in the background like a mushroom cloud while MyspaceTumblr, and YouTube foot soldiers ran rampant in our digital lives. Twitter soon gained power through actual wars, WordPress entered the fray on the blogging platform side, and foursquare, then a little startup, took off its camouflage.

Social media platforms were already surrounding us, demanding our attention and choking off our free time. We sat helpless, staring at feeds, updating statuses, and tagging pictures. Just when we thought we would have to consolidate to one medium, the smoke lifted, sparking a rapid self-branding evolution - ultimately, digital users responded to the threat of single social media takeover by incorporating each of them differently.

Foursquare, a location-based app, was the trickiest to maneuver. It externalized the battlefield and tied identities to physical presence. Foursquare counts on users to "check-in" where ever they go. It knows their current locations and has an “explore” feature to influence their next moves. They can see where their friends are, where they have been, and even leave suggestions for them.  But unlike most social media, foursquare encourages real life interaction. In other words: it is either the greatest social experiment of our time or a stalker’s dream come true.

“I don't see foursquare as purely a game, but in many ways it's a hybrid between a game and a social utility. We're using it and generating it because it benefits users,” Max Sklar, Machine Learning Engine at foursquare, said. “Whenever you check-in, leave a tip, or make a list, you're adding to a giant location database that's going to help everybody, and it's also going to help you get a personalized experience. In some ways, I see it as a giant collaborative effort.”

But is there a concrete reason why users wish to collaborate? Is there an inherent need? Behavioral psychology has a few things to say about our motivations to add to the foursquare database. Foursquare brilliantly uses variable ratio reward systems. When you check-in, you might be awarded a witty multicolored badge, a mayorship, a discount, or even a chance to cut the line.  However, there is no pattern to receiving these rewards, keeping users on their toes. It's a similar feedback loop employed by casinos, only there is no threat of empty wallet syndrome, just happy neurotransmitters.

Secondly, foursquare uses the endowment effect. We protect what we have more than what we don't.  I may not start using foursquare to become mayor of  "home of the best vegan pumpkin pie ever," but now that it is part of my digital identity, I'm not so quick to let it go.

In this regard, Foursquare soothes our inner documentarians, leaving an immortalized visual feed of our past. It allows us accidental, on purpose run-ins ("Oh my god, I totally didn't know you go here!"). It lets us know when to hide under the table when we may have misinterpreted our location to a boss, frienemy, or boyfriend. Perhaps most important, it lets our friends know how wasted, awesome, and exciting we are - all without having to spell it out.

“We have a really active 'superuser' community,” said Christen Duong a foursquare project manager, “that is extremely passionate and gives us feedback all the time. We are also online everywhere and try to keep an ear to the ground. It's all about the users at the end of the day, so we always want to consider how they are finding our experience.”

So foursquare has proven its utility in our lives, but what about the big picture? Twitter loans data to hedge funds, Facebook lets advertisers knows users' interests. How does foursquare leverage information?

"We like to look at the weekly heartbeat of cities and venues," Sklar said. "There's also a daily heartbeat as well, but it often 'sounds' different on Saturday and Sunday.” Foursquare has a clear snapshot of what's happening, which could be analytic gold for consulting firms, PR agencies, and anyone who struggles to figure out how to evaluate their efforts, understand public opinion, articulate trends, and predict mass human behavior.

"We've got over a billion check-ins," Sklar said, "and there's also tips, shouts, pages, lists, and friend connections. This information can be used to give you personalized recommendations to both consumers and merchants. We're really just starting to scratch the surface of what's possible, but a lot of subsystems are in place that help us recognize particular concepts. For example, using just the data we have, we can predict: the most popular places of the moment; how expensive a place is; when it's most popular; how much people like it (reviews); how influential each user is. And those are just some of the more recent examples.”

Sklar added, “Another community generated phenomenon has been the ‘-pocalypse.’ The first was Snowpocalyse during last year's snowstorm in NYC, where an event that affected everyone in the city was put on foursquare and climbed to the top of the trending list. We've been looking at how these events start and become popular. During the earthquake in NYC, we literally had thousands of check-ins within minutes.”

The first thing "thousands of people" did after the ground shifted beneath them was alert foursquare. No words were needed. Living in the social media apocalypse, we have more control over our image than ever. Foursquare lets that image come to life. It is up to us to shape its power.

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