Check Out: How to Get Value out of Foursquare (Instead of Interruptions)

Yesterday afternoon, I published the following message to Twitter while sitting in the waiting area at a car wash where I was getting our van swabbed up:

I was just about to check in from a car wash on foursquare when I realized how unbelievably banal and stupid it would be to do so.

That got me thinking about all of the location-based networks that have become popular, like Foursquare and Gowalla and others. If you’re unfamiliar with how these work, the basic idea is that you can, using your GPS-equipped smart phone, “check in” from the various places you visit like restaurants, bars, retail stores, etc. The ostensible benefit being that when you check in someplace, it alerts your “friends” (that is, people whom you have given approval to be notified when you check in and from what location) and that, if it’s feasible and they’re close to where you are, they could meet you or otherwise coordinate with you to meet since they now know that you’re close by. It’s a nice idea, but there are a few simple truths about these systems that I think we should all get comfortable with:

  1. Most people don’t care, even if they’re being updated when you check in. I follow a small handful of what I call “physical friends”, or people that I actually spend time with in person and who live near where I live. My iPhone will alert me if any of these people check in anywhere using Foursquare, but I’ll let you in on a little secret - I’ve never, ever altered my schedule or turned my car around as a result of getting one of these updates. The only time I’ve ever done anything in reaction to receiving a check in notification is when my brother had checked in at a restaurant and I sent him a text message encouraging him to try a particular dish that I liked when I ate there. That’s it. When somebody who lives in a different state asks to be my “friend” on Foursquare, I almost invariable decline the invitation because I know that making this dude’s phone vibrate next time I visit the local pub is just about as big a waste of time and attention as I can imagine.
  2. People on other networks (like Twitter and Facebook) almost certainly don’t care. Though I do use Foursquare, I don’t automatically have my check in messages syndicated to other social networks where I participate. Know why? Because the people who follow me on Twitter could not, in all likelihood, give less of a crap that I’m visiting a shoe store or that I just became the mayor of the dry cleaners near my house. The folks I follow on Twitter are spread all over the world and, while many of them are people that I legitimately know and like, the fact that I get to try to ignore their Foursquare check-ins while reading Twitter is a touch annoying.
  3. You probably don’t want random Internet people showing up at your table at the cafe. As with any popular social network, the ultimate goal (whether people will admit it or not) is to garner as large a following as possible1. So, once you’ve amassed, say, 100 “friends” on Foursquare, every update you issue on that service becomes an implicit invitation for people to join you. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure how I’d feel if some sweaty neck-beard strolled up to my table at the bar and plopped himself down next to me. Probably, I’d be a little put off by it, but it’s not like I have room to complain since he asked for permission to be told when I checked in and I gave it, voluntarily. So, now I get to have a beer with awkward Internet guy because I decided that I was totally fine with oodles of people having what amounts to a tracking beacon on me.

So, to return to my Twitter update about the car wash, what stopped me from checking in there (and, subsequently, from almost everywhere) was when I asked myself the following questions that popped into my head right as I was opening (which is a great web app, no matter what I say):

  1. Is checking in from this place going to offer anybody any benefit of any kind at all?
  2. If not, what am I accomplishing by checking in here?

The first answer, obviously, is “almost certainly not”. The only value I can see being delivered by my checking in there would have been a tacit endorsement for that particular car wash. So, in theory, the next time a local friend was heading out to get his sled polished up, he’d remember that I had used a specific car wash to the exclusion of others and would give it a try based on my “recommendation.” Other than that, I can’t honestly see how my checking in from the car wash could have been anything other than a boring interruption from a narcissist.

Assuming for the moment that my friends aren’t recording my check in messages for later use when trying to choose a car wash, grocery store or haircut place, I believe there is one decent reason for checking in while running boring errands or grabbing a sandwich - for your own memory. Let me explain.

When I visit Mountain View, California every so often for my job, I check-in almost everywhere I go, restaurants and bars in particular. I do this not because I think that my brother down in Orange County is going to be interested, but so when I get home from my trip, I can show my wife a tidy little list of all of the places I ate and (with the help of Evernote), pictures of all of the weird food my coworkers ate while we were there and the only slightly less boring thing they convinced me wouldn’t taste exactly like the underside of a barge. It’s a memory thing, you see. It’s also pretty nice when I go back to a place where I’ve already been in the past and I can look at any notes I may have left for myself, like “the fish tastes like somebody killed it by force-feeding it garlic and some type of kelp” or what have you.

My overall point here is that, by and large, I see location-based social networks as being much more valuable as way of recording a personal history of places one’s been than as yet another way to spew the minutiae of one’s life onto their “friends”2 smart phones and web browsers.

One more thing - I’m not saying that the social elements of these services is completely useless. If you’re the kind of person who uses Foursquare or Gowalla to find out where his/her friends are on a Saturday night, then good on ya. I’m only positing that this is not a common use case, that’s all.

What say you?

Photo by jshyun

  1. Large following = credibility = authority = chicks, or ad impressions or whatever your poison happens to be.
  2. I don’t keep quoting this word in this context because I’m somehow down on the idea of having actual friends that you only know online (I have several, in fact). I merely want to accurately describe what I believe to be a gross misuse of the word. If somebody follows me on Twitter, I’m then added to their Friends list, even if I’ve never met them.
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  1. Agree, who cares where folks are at every hour of the day! Plus not to mention just let folks know your not at home to invite crime!



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