Foursquare Logo

Your Move, Foursquare

Foursquare LogoMost 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.

CitySquares: Looking for Partners!

There’s been so much excitement at CitySquares for the past few months, and the dust is finally starting to settle. Well, that’s true for me only. Now that Bob has chosen to go the Drupal route, and has hired our new engineer Justin Leider, we’re on our way towards building and launching the new and improved Citysquares.com, and the CitySquares Platform. We’re looking for an early autumn launch of the new Citysquares.com and perhaps a couple months later we’re looking at being able to start testing some CitySquares Platform opportunities. Let me break it down a little bit for ya though…

One of the biggest challenges of this hyperlocal thing is scaling it out. How do you do that? How do you bring a hyperlocal user experience to the public at large? How do you bring the benefits of a hyperlocal solution to small businesses in those communities? One could certainly envision going about it the way we are right now, with a direct model, which includes a local sales force, local marketing, local relationships, and the cash for all those things. I’ve always aid that Citysquares is about analog relationships and digital delivery. But as nice as that sounds, it might not be the most effective and efficient way to do it on a grand scale (e.g., NYC, Chicago, San Francisco). Today we’re working on getting that recipe right, here in Boston, before looking at additional markets.

Another concept is to find partners in those new markets. Let’s call them Community Partners. Some examples of Community Partners might be local municipalities (e.g., City of Springfield) or even local Chambers of Commerce (e.g., Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce), or even media partners like local newspapers or TV stations (e.g., WCVB, Springfield Gazette). There might even be local community organizations who have a specific and socially responsible message (e.g, Springfield Local Business Alliance). The CitySquares platform could be licensed by those partners and ultimately tailored to suit their needs. Perhaps one partner wants news content, or classifieds, but another doesn’t. Well, OK! Those are effectively going to be modules that can be applied to the platform. The core application is what we’re building right now.

So anyway, we’re looking for those kinds of partners. Are you one of those partners? Are you willing to pilot this in your community? If you are any of the following, and looking to bring your real-world community online, and looking to bring your online community to the people, please contact me (bsaren AT Citysquares.com).

  • Local government or municipality.
  • A local newspaper, radio or TV station.
  • Community organization; non profits? socially responsible?
  • A local community champion – are you that connector in your community?

We’d also love to hear from you if you are a potential…

  • Content partner
  • Media Partner
  • Sales partner

I’d be happy to tell you much more about our plans for Citysquares.com and for the (currently named) CitySquares Platform. There is some very cool stuff on the way – stuff you’ve never seen before. Please contact me for more info! (bsaren AT Citysquares.com)

Hyperlocal: More Than News

Back in December I posted a piece up here about what hyper-local is (hyperlocal, hyper-local?). I just reread it and I giggled a couple times, because my perspective on hyperlocal has evolved greatly.

With the recent news about Backfence shutting down, there’s been an awful lot of chatter in the blogosphere about this “hyperlocal” space. The single least common denominator I’m seeing among these many blogs is the characterization of hyperlocal as being about news, with perhaps the exception of Peter Krasilovsky’s recent post.

It seems that while Backfence was the poster child for “hyperlocal” they were perhaps to hyperlocal what O’Douls is to beer. By that what I mean is, hyperlocal is not just about news, or “citizen journalism” – its so much more than that! My pal Mike Orren, at Pegasus News, refuses to be called hyperlocal, instead opting for his own term “pan local” because it’s a hybrid of hyperlocal and regional. I dig that, and I get it. I think Mike is smart enough to know that building a business around truly neighborhood-centric (and therefore hyperlocal) news is essentially what Backfence was, and as many people would seem to agree (based on the recent blog posts I’ve read) it’s also inherently flawed.

In my opinion, hyperlocal news (be it in the form of citizen journalism or some taking on a more editorial and/or traditional-journalism-like form) is only one of the many faces of hyperlocal…

Hyperlocal news:

  1. It can take on the form of citizen journalism, where individuals within that hyper-locality (i.e., Harvard Square vs. Cambridge) are contributing news. Citizen journalism is, in my opinion, oftentimes what people mean when they refer to hyperlocal. Citizen journalism can be virtually anybody and everybody in that hyper-locality contributing content, which is a dangerous thing. This type of “news” is generally not news, but instead it’s rumor reporting. There is no fact-checking, and if there is it’s very biased, and there is no real credibility or legitimacy to what’s being reported. It’s scary stuff. The phrase Citizen journalism itself is, to me anyway, an oxymoron. It’s something that we, at Citysquares, have been adamant about staying away from.
  2. Hyperlocal news can also take on a different form though, one that leads to much more legitimacy and credibility for its readers. This is the real journalistic form, if you will. This is hyperlocal news that is being reported by, well, reporters of a sort. They report the news in fact form, and they check their facts before reporting it to you, typically from a variety of sources. This true, and understated, form of journalism is inherently trustworthy and something you can depend on. It’s not rumor reporting, it’s not opinions. While a hyperlocal news site can certainly have opinion columns and editorials, it’s more than that – it’s good news relevant to your hyper-locality.There are probably hybrid forms of the above two, too.

Hyperlocal Search:

That’s what we do at Citysquares.com. We’re certainly not the biggest and best at it (yet) but that’s our thing. Hyperlocal search is, at it’s core, about finding local businesses. It’s not about doing a search online for “bars in central square ma” and ending up receiving ads or results for, a bar in downtown Boston, or Harvard Square. Ok maybe not the best example. It’s not about doing an online search for “north end barber” and seeing ads or results for SuperCuts in Everett, which is, unfortunately, the way local search typically works. If you do those searches, by clicking the links, you’ll see that there are high ranking results that link to Citysquares.com. And the results on Citysquares.com are pretty darn relevant to, if not exactly, what you’re looking for. Nobody has ever been able to do this, at the neighborhood level, well, at all. Hyperlocal search is exciting, and it’s also more than just business listings, although that’s where the money is and that’s the core of our business model. But hyperlocal search is also about other aspects of one’s hyper-locality. For example, my neighborhood of Davis Square is where I live and mostly play. But I work in the South End. My needs in both communities are different, and so is my role. I’m not necessarily looking for the same things in the South End as I’m looking for in Davis Square – my needs are very different. In fact, I might be more inclined to participate in more community events and activities in Davis Square; much more inclined than in the South End. I might be much more inclined to care about the hyperlocal news of Davis Square, than in the South End. But my life still bleeds into the South End, so I still have needs there. Ultimately, hyperlocal search can mean much more than commerce and consumerism. It can be about the library and its hours and librarians, and the church or synagogue or mosque and its community, the public school and its teachers and students, the local little league team and its players and coaches, the artists of the community, etc. There’s much more to hyperlocal search than commerce and news. That’s where we’d like to come in. That’s what we’re carefully working on as we start to build the new site and platform. Most of this stuff is additive to the business-and-consumer-centric hyperlocal search stuff, which, again, is our core focus.

There is now even geographic social networks. I just read about TOWNKINGS today. This is yet another social network focused around another niche, and it happens to be geography. Citysquares would like to incorporate some social-networking-like elements into our new site. We don’t plan on being a social networking platform but there will most definitely be social elements – there has to be.

So, I’m not sure if I’ve missed other forms of hyperlocal, and if I have I hope you’ll enlighten me! I’m intentionally staying away from craigslist here, because I don’t believe it’s hyperlocal. Craigslist is local, if not regional, but it’s certainly not hyperlocal.

I’m hoping that we can eventually, perhaps today, stop confusing hyperlocal with what Backfence was doing. I hope we can start to use the word hyperlocal (let’s even pretend it’s a real word) as if it encompasses other things. The very nature of the word itself, hyper and local, should imply so much more than …. news?

Let’s agree that hyperlocal is this: all things pertaining your geographic community (i.e., your neighborhood, or as in other parts of the country, your county, but still, your hyper locality), be it news, be it classifieds, be it search, be it social networking. Hyper-local is all things pertaining your hyper-locality.

Backfence, No More. And?

Anyone who’s been watching the “hyper-local” space (more than just hyper-local journalism) has been keenly aware of Backfence. They were probably the first Internet company to raise a significant amount of money and then try and build a business around hyper-local journalism. Many thought it would work, many thought it wouldn’t. The first time I heard of Backfence was in the fall of 2005 from a passerby at a networking event who spoke about it very fondly. He was from the DC area and thought that Citysquares should emulate what they were doing, otherwise he thought we ought to watch out! Well, here we are nearly 2 years later and Backfence has announced they are closing shop.

Despite a recent history of management problems it seems to me that their demise was really just the result of a lack of execution, or of executing on the wrong plan. I have an inside source at Backfence, and he spoke frankly with me about the lack of open-mindedness at Backfence, a total stubbornness. Quite frankly, I’m relieved that Backfence is out of the way because if their present model did work, I think we’d all have to stop and take a very long and hard at the local advertising marketplace. Now, we just got more validation that the local advertising marketplace is not so naive, something I believe strongly in.

Peter Krasilovsky states,

“Ultimately, Backfence’s real legacy may be that it was a laboratory that helped pave the way for newspapers to seriously pursue hyper-local solutions that, notably, are not centered around local news (which it turns out, is not always very compelling). In the past several months, a number of useful, imaginative and fun newspaper hyperlocal sites have sprung up. Check out what The Washington Post is doing.”

I totally agree. They cleared a path through some very thick brush, and at the end of the path was a cliff. A trailblazer they were not.

Pete Cashmore at Mashable says that Backfence’s failure makes citizen journalism a failure. Well that’s an awfully bold headline! He says,

“The hyped “citizen journalism” trend isn’t panning out too well: Backfence, a network of 13 local sites where users could post their news items, classifieds and photos, is shutting down.”

And goes on to say,

“[Backfence and sites like it] were too ambitious, and focused too heavily on “journalism” instead of tech. Notice how the most successful “user generated writing” sites are really just about getting your users to write and rank material that turns up in search engines: success story Topix is all about good SEO, not some Utopian vision of users becoming journalists.”

I partly agree with this. Pete is right about one thing, for sure – “users” and “journalism” don’t go well together. I couldn’t agree with that more. That notion, in and of itself, is flawed. It’s almost an oxymoron – “citizen journalism.” I think that term clearly demonstrates how respect for real journalism is at an all-time low – it’s gotta be. That’s sad to me.

But in my not-so-humble opinion, Backfence’s demise has about as much to do with “tech” as it does with Britney Spears shaving her head. The reality, the apparent reality anyway, is that the execution was done poorly. It’s debatable whether or not “citizen journalism” at a hyper-local level could ever work. My instincts tell me that it can, if it’s done right. It seems to me that the problems were really that management got tangled up in itself, and according to my source, it refused to consider other methods of scaling. Hyper-local journalism can definitely work, but not in the way Backfence was going about it. It’s an exciting opportunity. Rob Curley (the poster boy for hyper-local news) is not just an anomaly, Rob Curley is a success story. And the Washington Post (now Rob’s employer) as Peter K. points out, is really onto some exciting stuff.

Hyper-local journalism can work.

I’m interested in how this affects Mike Orren, my friend at Pegasus News. Mike’s company seems to have a different approach to hyper-local news, one that makes better sense in many ways. Mike?

Amended 2007-07-16: See this article for Potts’ explanations.

Doing this “Local” Thing

Ali made a delicious dinner the other night; lobster ravioli with her own sherry sauce. It was absolutely delicious. I guessed that she handmade the raviolis all by herself, kidding of course (right?). She bought them at Dave’s Fresh Pasta, down the street. At Dave’s you’ll find homemade and handmade pastas – very high quality, gourmet style pastas, sauces, and a lot more. It’s a real gem in the Davis Square neighborhood. Anyway, Ali mentioned how nice the person was, who waited on her. She asked for a loaf of bread, but they were out. He then told her that next time she can call ahead and tell them what she wanted, and they’d have it all ready for her. Well… now…. that, folks, that is good service. And that, you only get from your local merchant.

The kind of service you get at Dave’s Fresh Pasta, the kind of care and treatment you get at Massage Therapy Works, at State Street Barbers, at Porter Square Books, is only the kind of service you find where the ownership is local. You just don’t get that anywhere else.

When I see reviews on Citysquares.com from members of the community, of local businesses,and when I hear stories like Ali’s, or from anyone, I can’t help but feel a strong sense of pride and honor. I’m really quite proud to be doing what we’re doing, for the community, for local commerce, from the members of the community across all areas. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else and feeling so good about it.

I’ve learned so much from Citysquares already. No matter where my career takes me in the short term or long term, I will always make sure that I’m involved in a socially responsible business.