Most new apps, especially those that are hyped in the media or that scale quickly usually come with some kind of promise that’s intuitively apparent, even if it fails to truly deliver on that promise right away. The early adopters buy-in and stick around for a period of time awaiting for that promise to be fulfilled longer term. Some apps fulfill that promise, others don’t.
The first time I heard of Foursquare was in 2009 while my wife and I were on vacation in California. We were at dinner in San Francisco with friends, Ryan and Devon. Devon was telling a story about how she found someone “checking in” at a venue she wasn’t at, as if it was a horrid violation of some secret code of conduct. I didn’t understand the premise of “checking in” so asked for them to explain this new app to me. While at first I kind of rolled my eyes it wasn’t long after that I was addicted to Foursquare, attempting to catch up to other early adopters.
In those days, when Foursquare was the app du jour, I’d use it to compete with friends near and far for badges, flexing my digital muscles when I’d achieve the Far Far Away badge (a checkin to a venue north of Manhattan’s 59th street), or garnering more airport checkins than other globetrotting friends, interrupting a laugh with a friend over pints in order to check-in at the local pub to protect my hard-earned mayor status (intentionally opting, for optics, for pubs instead of clubs), or feeling like I discovered treasure when I gained access to a free appetizer and bragging about it to my wife. I loved Foursquare. It didn’t do anything for me – didn’t solve any problems, per se, but it was fun. The gamification, the perception it allowed me to create, and the promise it seemed to offer. Eventually Yelp enabled its users to check-in and soon after Facebook started allowing its billions of users to check-in. Many called both moves a theft as if Foursquare had a patent on check-ins, and as if some great sin was committed.
Now, in late 2014, Foursquare seems stuck. By all accounts it’s failed to cross the chasm into the mainstream. I find more of my mainstream friends and family (versus the insiders) checking in on Facebook and Yelp than I do on Foursquare, and even then the very idea of checking-in seems old, fatigued even.
Recently Foursquare bifurcated itself – releasing a new app called Swarm, purely for checkins, and stripping-down and boxing-in the original Foursquare app into a business discovery app. While that strategy has perplexed me and scores of others, launching (or splitting) apps with singular or narrow utilitarian value propositions is the trendy thing right now so who’s to really say Foursquare isn’t onto something here.
The reality for me is that until writing this post I haven’t opened the Foursquare app even once since installing Swarm back in the spring. Swarm is an app I use frequently, for the same narcissistic reasons as ever before. I’m not alone.
So what’s the problem here? Why does Foursquare seem like such a paradox? Why does it seem so stuck? Back in 2010 Robert Scoble said “Foursquare’s value is in two places… 1) serendipity around people, … 2) serendipity around place.” Is that still true today? In March of 2012 it seemed that Foursquare was at its inflection point, as told by TechCrunch anyway. Its now late 2014 and Foursquare seems like its just going in circles, struggling, and arguably flopping. For me though, Foursquare has never been a necessity. Part of the fun of going offline as a consumer is happenstance, serendipity, and true analog discovery. Shopping local businesses or dining out is not a new human activity and it seems like no matter how hard we try in this local and/or hyperlocal industry, digitally curated shopping and consumer recommendations based on a social graph or based on what some algorithm concludes about who I am is full of promise but today they constantly fail to deliver, and often because they’re based on a substantially incomplete dataset (for a host of reasons) and, I believe, because it’s unnatural. Yet at the same time the promise of such a powerful utility, nascent as it is, strikes me as an experience that should make sense. That’s what’s so frustrating here, is it not? It’s analogous to an infomercial pitching a clever kitchen tool. Intuitively you might say to yourself, “well now look at that, isn’t that great! How did I ever slice and dice tomatoes without that thing?” The reality, however, is much different. The product quickly wears off and sits in a drawer, for years, rarely considered. It’s a problem that doesn’t really exist. It’s a novelty. I believe that’s what it boils down to – Foursquare isn’t solving a real problem for me, it’s a novelty and I can definitely live without it. In fact I probably should. I don’t desire a homogenized, curated business discovery solution. My experiences are not enriched with Foursquare. I’d argue that they’re enriched without it.
Heading into my local neighborhood, where franchises, big corporate retailers, and small mom-and-pops co-exist is as much about taking in the sights and smells, bumping into friends, meeting new people, exchanging real currency, and trying new things and is about as authentic a local experience as it gets. Should I avoid the local indie bookstore because my Foursquare friends don’t suggest it? Should I not stop by the new crêperie because a very vocal minority panned it? Curating these experiences, or even prejudging them based on what a digital friend or algorithm says, just feels wrong. It takes the fun out of it, degrades the experience. The best stories we tell our friends and family are of the most authentic offline experiences in our lives – the bad choice we made when stopping to eat off the highway one night, or the fantastic discovery at the local hole-in-the-wall in our own neighborhoods.
Yelp does a better job informing me on where to go in a new city, and Yelp is my go-to app for such a use case even though I discount virtually all of the content of its reviews. If a restaurant has earned a 4 star rating from 65 out of 90 people, I’m on my way. Like on Amazon, if 400+ people give a gardening tool a 4+ star ratings, say no more, it’s going into my cart. But Amazon makes the mistake of now thinking I’m a gardener, because I forgot to check the “this is a gift” box during checkout. I digress.
Foursquare’s discovery solution is just not easy to use – it’s cumbersome and requires too much of an investment from me, and again, I don’t really have ‘the problem’ in the first place. In the time it takes me to open Foursquare, search for “whiskey” scroll past the Starbucks reviews that happen to include the word “bourbon,” alter the filters, expand my geography (against every fiber in my being), decrypt and tweak the “more options,” refine the categories to exclude coffee shops, I could be at the local pub enjoying my second scotch and meeting new people in the real world and embracing the wonders of living an analog life. And by the time Foursquare prompts me with a message on my iPhone display, I’ve already sat down and started sipping my coffee – it’s too late.
Again, I don’t really have “the problem” in the first place — I’m not even sure I understand or remember what the problem is anymore. And therein lies the crux of it: FourSquare’s solutions have bifurcated, its core value proposition is lost on me now, and I’m only more confused about what I’m supposed to do with this tomato dicer than ever before, and like the tomato dicer Foursquare been relegated to the drawer, FourSquare sits in on my iPhone collecting virtual dust.
I want to believe that there’s a place for the intelligent business discovery app that Foursquare is attempting to be, but I can’t help but think that ultimately these products are all solutions seeking problems. I just want Foursquare to do something already. I’ve invested five years into it now and I just want it to deliver on its promise — one of them anyway. Your move, Foursquare.