Thursday, February 24, 2011

Pondering Effects of foursquare

Over the last year, I have been researching and contemplating usage of the location-based mobile application foursquare. A one-time avid user, my own usage has lessened significantly over the last few months. This is due to the loss of novelty for me, a lack of critical mass of my friends using it, almost non-existent financial incentives, and foursquare's interface limitations.

My interest has perked up recently, however, when I got my first real-world reward for using it (a free, yumlicious gelato from Toronto's Hotel Gelato). I believe in the potential of the location-based services are great and will continue to watch them.

So I was intrigued when I was recently contacted by a fellow PhD student, Leighton Evans, who is also studying location-based services.

Leighton describes his research:
I'm interested in the effects of using location-based services and mobile phones as navigational devices. Traditional maps imposed one kind of spatial and cognitive orientation with regards to physical space, my research asks questions of whether mobile devices are offering a new type of reasoning of this kind, and what the implications of any change might be for the future.
I was similarly drawn to foursquare as I believe it has the power (if yet, often unrealized) to help citizens define and annotate their space for themselves, so I find his work to augur at the profound changes that will results from location-based changes.

Leighton is looking for foursquare users to be interviewed via email. If you are interested in participating or want more information please contact him.

Here are his questions with my corresponding answers.

Question #1: How has using foursquare (or any other location based service) made you aware of, or more aware of, the places around you?

Answer #1: foursquare was the first location-based service I used or had experience with, so initially I found it very useful to discover new places around me particularly restaurants. foursquare's interface is not well suited to specific searches by type of place or even for nearby venues (seems to get proximity wrong a lot and miss tons of key places), so when I heard about the YellowPages app, I switched to that for finding businesses and associated contact info.

I was hoping that foursquare would provide richer understanding of places I am in. Other than finding a hidden washroom at a subway station I frequent, this generally has not happened. Most of the comments on place are quite superficial, well-known, or narcissistic.

Question #2. Do you feel that in using your location services through your mobile device, that device has in effect become a tool for navigating your way through the world? If so, would being denied that tool affect your ability or desire to explore new places?

Answer #2: I would like to say that LBS has significantly affected my wayfinding or relationship to place - and I think it has the potential to. Other than finding businesses in a geotargetted fashion, however, LBS has not done this. That said, when I was recently on a personal vacation to Chicago (see my blog post), I was impressed at how much the city was embracing foursquare and using it as a tourism tool. Due to the exorbitant roaming charges by my carrier, I wasn't able to make use of this. But I constantly felt that there was so much that my mobile could do to greatly enhance my visit there.

Question #3: Do you have any experiences of using the tips left by other users and them actively being involved in the choices you make, either visiting a place or checking-in to a place?

Answer #3: Yes, I tried a restaurant that I had not previously heard of based on seeing various check-ins for it on foursquare. Also, at a restaurant I have chosen a menu item based on a prior customer's tip. I really appreciate this feature but have found that as foursquare grows the amount of noise and the lack of ability to sift through this has made finding valuable info like this very difficult and not worth the effort as other sites do this better (e.g. OurFaves).

Question #4: Has using foursquare (and using GPS) changed the importance of your mobile device compared to other phones or PDAs you used in the past? Does the device feel more integral to your everyday life than previously?

Answer #4: Location based services have been a nice-to-have functionality of my mobile and I think will eventually become integral functionality for me. Currently, however, it has not provided completely new, crucial functionality for me. I can get the same functionality through other, often easier, means.

Question #5: How aware are you of your check-ins and activity on foursquare being a means of providing information and feedback to the application and software itself? Does any such awareness influence your usage and choices with the software?

Answer #5: I have ambivalent feelings towards user-generated services that make their money on the free labour of their users (I like how an author referred to this as "loser generated content"). But services such as foursquare and Facebook do provide the infrastructure that offer me significant value such that I don't mind this potential exploitation. Regarding privacy, I have no concerns about the application knowing my whereabouts - I am not overly concerned with privacy and generally don't check-in anywhere that I would not be willing for anyone in the entire world to know.

Question #6: Given that foursquare is a social application, and social networks involve a measure of impression management, are you someone that checks-in to places with an awareness of how that contributes to an image your online friends have of you or that you are trying to create?

Answer #6: I have been acutely aware of how foursquare helps project identity. I noticed that many people only check in at hip, high-status locations or their work. I have never seen a check-in with anyone I know at a big box store or fast-food chain. Because of this I found it fun to deliberately check into Burger King and Walmart, for example, to make a point. Everyone goes to these types of places but why the reluctance to check in there? This trendiness that foursquare seems to provoke appears superficial and contrived to me. I am guilty of this as well as I am definitely more apt to check into a place that I - and my friends - perceive as interesting or cool.

Question #7: How has using location services changed your perception of the world?

Answer #7: There were a couple moments when foursquare strongly affected my relationship to space and others in it. The first one was when Toronto had its worst earthquake in over a hundred years. It wasn't a big one, but it was an odd, bewildering experience. I turned on my mobile and noticed that others had been checking into the earthquake (the location was the entire city). I felt much more connected to my fellow city inhabitants somehow through that. I also watched virtually the locations and people of Toronto's G20 protests. Even though these were extensively covered by the media, using foursquare somehow made it feel more real and nearby opposed to TV that feels distant and foreign even when it is local coverage. In general, foursquare does allow one (i.e. me) to leave my imprint on a place that does connect one more tangibly to a place. This feeling is magnified when one gets a "mayor" title, which I admit at first was quite rewarding to get. I feel these feelings less so now that I've been using foursquare for almost a year, so perhaps novelty was a key factor in this.

Please share your feelings towards foursquare here.

No comments: