Yesterday, after about two months of using the mobile app Foursquare I became a Super Mayor. While this affords me a special badge, it does not entail any superpowers. I will use my meager powers I do have for good and discuss what I like about Foursquare (what I don't like will come next). While I can claim that my usage was driven by scientific curiosity for my research paper, I did find the application enjoyable and rewarding. The main benefits for me to using it are: novelty, communication, game, social connection, information seeking, and distraction.
Early on my usage was largely driven by novelty. I was curious to learn more about the application and eager to put it to use. It was a completely new experience to be able to demarcate and share my physical whereabouts virtually in real-time. Similarly, it was interesting to see at-a-glance via the application where friends were at a given moment.
So I played with the app by checking in all the time, including some pretty banal locations (buses, variety stores, fastfood). I checked out friends postings and their badges - until I started seeing patterns and their banal checkins.
I also enjoy announcing my physical location with commentary to friends on the application or occassionally to my Facebook network or on Twitter. It is fun to share with friends when one is at a cool new location or special event or has something new to say associated with a location. For example, I posted my checkin to 7-Eleven where I bought my daughter her first ever Slushie. Some friends chimed in that they share that appreciation for one of the rites of summer.
Foursquare is essentially structured as a game. Checkins earn points that allow one to "win" by amassing the highest weekly total (not that winning affords any special prizes or honours). Various types and numbers of checkins earn badges and mayorships that are prominently displayed on one's profiles. Even the tips on a location are framed as a goal that others should accomplish (ie. go there and do this). Foursquare allows people to collect such "to dos" and then mark them off. Most recent tips aren't written this way, however, and are more traditional mini-reviews (the ones that are coherent, that is).
These game elements might not be fully developed, but they do add a degree of fun and an urge to continuing using the app. Of these elements the badges are the best enticement. They are fun to collect and to share with one's friends (I set mine up to automatically stream into my Facebook feed). Some of the badges are comical (Crunked, Bender & School Night for frequent or late-night checkins) or bizarre (Photogenic for checking into locations with photo booths or "I'm on a Boat" for well, being on a boat m.f.).
The problem with the badges are that there aren't that many (particularly if you don't live in New York City that has a whole slew of local ones). So it is really easy within a few weeks to earn them all. A never-ending game only works when there is a continued object of play. There can't be too many badges or they become meaningless, but Foursquare better start creating at least one or two new ones every month to sustain interest in this integral element of their game.
Although, badges don't confer any rewards, mayorships are supposed to encourage vendors to reward their frequent, loyal customers although other than Starbucks this appears to have NEVER happened in Toronto. Still, I must admit to feeling competitive about earning a mayorship or two for locations. I guess it is official recognition that one is indeed a most frequent - and thus most expert - patron. I was delighted when I usurped someone to become the mayor of my faculty.
As I mentioned earlier, I enjoy seeing friends locations with thoughts. As I, like many others, can get overwhelmingly busy to lose track of one's friends. Foursquare prevents friends from getting lost in time and space.
But Foursquare also helps me connect with strangers.
After supporting Ashton Kutcher's Twitter quest, he came up on the app's friend finder, so I added him. He eats out a lot, and habitually posts his location, which all comes up on my homepage. I've joked to others that I know where Ashton is at any given moment, and when called on this I've been able to back it up. It feels weird, but it is connecting to have such information about someone who's location and life are so foreign to me (now if Lucy Lawless just did this).
But I only got this sense with people I added as a friend in the app. A turning point appears to be when the earthquake hit Ontario. Someone created Earthquake as a location and the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) as the location. It was fun to checkin (and earn a Super Swarm badge) to be part of a large number of people simultaneously saying, yeah I felt that too. Prior to this, all checkins that I noticed only relate to a permanent location and not to a event. Subsequently, I've noticed more events coming up as top checkin locales.
Although Foursquare offers the functionality to display other people recently checked into the same location as a user, it has rarely happened that anywhere I was had others checking in. The first time it did happen was at Canada Day. About 20 -30 people had gathered at marina to watch fireworks over the lake. When I checked in there, I saw about five other people had recently checked in. Seeing their names and profile pix made the crowd seem less anonymous and gave me a sense of shared connection.
I appreciate that Foursquare is tied to geography, so events can be so numerous and
ephemeral that they aren't ideal for the app. But ultimately it is meaningful to connect with others and an excited event often facilitates this better than concrete structures do.
On a few occasions, I wanted to find information about a specific location, like where a good place to eat is, any neighbourhood news, or anything cool to see in the area. Sometimes I'm looking with a specific goal in mind and other times I'm just curious to see what's there. The tips features of Foursquare has provided helpful information for this. It helped me find a good new restaurant that I'd never heard of or an emergency bathroom. So far the tips (when coherent) seem largely genuine, so I hop this continues.
During my regular transit commute or during the any number of forced waits and downtime of my day, I can really use a brief distraction. I don't always feel like grabbing my book, and it's nice to do something interactive. Foursquare is an ideal distraction - quick, interesting, communicative, and fun.
So I'm sure that even if my usage starts to decline, I'll still continue to check into Foursquare at least occassionally.