Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

The De-gamification of Foursquare

Barbakan, an Eastern European restaurant, on Foursquare

This blog post was written prior to yesterday’s announcement that Foursquare would be splitting into two apps, creating a new app called Swarm. I’ll be writing more about Swarm when I’ve had a chance to try it.

It’s been quite a long time since I wrote regularly about Foursquare. I used to write weekly ‘Foursquare Thursday’ posts up until the beginning of 2012; the rest of that year had just a couple of other posts and I didn’t write about it at all in 2013, or so far this year until now.

Which is perhaps odd as I still use Foursquare every day, checking in just about everywhere I go. And I’m still a reasonably active Superuser. But whilst I’m still active on Foursquare, I haven’t felt the need to write about much recently.

Radio silence

Nor have others. The unofficial blog About Foursquare has gone dark and its domain name no longer resolves. Its Twitter account occasionally tweets things but it’s clear that the blog is gone. This is probably because there isn’t much to talk about these days – for example, go back a couple of years and there would be almost weekly announcements of new badges. And I think this is because of a change in what Foursquare’s primary role is.

One of my last Foursquare posts was in June 2012, when I wrote about the seven different things that Foursquare can do. And those seven things all still apply today, but the focus has shifted. It’s less of a game, and more of a recommendations engine.

The location-based game

In the early days, Foursquare’s initial expansion was fuelled by ‘gamification’ – using game-like tasks and rewards to encourage positive user behaviour. You could compete with other users to be the one person who checked in most regularly at a venue, and become its ‘mayor’. Checking in would earn you points, pushing you up a leaderboard against your friends. And some checkins would award ‘badges’, showing that you’re a regular visitor to coffee shops, pizza places, Italian restaurants etc., and users would compete to get the most badges.

Nowadays that’s not the main focus of the app. Foursquare is less about where you are, or where you have been – now it’s about where you should go next. So it shows you where your friends are; either so that you can go to them or contact them to arrange to meet somewhere. But it will also use its vast venue database, and its knowledge of where you have been and what you like, to suggest places to go. So if you go to cocktail bars regularly, it may suggest one that you’ve not been to before. If you often go to a chain such as Wetherspoons or Pizza Express (two brands that have claimed their venue listings), then when you’re in a new town Foursquare may suggest them to you. And it will prioritise those places that are popular with other users.

Search is also a big part of modern-day Foursquare. Not only will it search the names of venues, but their menus, if available, and users’ tips. A search for ‘steak’ should, therefore, show restaurants that have steak on their menus, and where users have recommended it in their tips.

De-emphasised, but not gone forever

So whilst it’s clear that Foursquare has ‘pivoted’, and focussed more on recommendations, this has not been at the expense of its game-like qualities. The gamification aspects have been de-emphasised from its apps, so the leaderboard is somewhat hidden away, for example, and there’s less focus on mayorships. But they’re still there, and I think that’s a good thing. Last week I wrote about the changes to Flickr’s new apps, which saw some well-established features being removed – to me, that’s not a good way to treat your long-time users who used those aspects of the service. Whilst Foursquare isn’t doing any more work on the gamified parts of the service, it hasn’t got rid of them, thus keeping the ‘old school’ users on side, and making the service less intimidating for new users at the same time.

I mentioned Flickr, but another example is GetGlue, now known as TVTag. GetGlue, as it was, let you ‘check in’ to TV shows, films, music artists or just general interests – a bit like Foursquare but for entertainment rather than places. As with Foursquare, you got ‘stickers’ for checking in to some shows, and once you had enough you could actually get real stickers sent to you in the post. Mine never arrived though. Once checked in, you could also join a message board about that show, and chat with other viewers.

But some time ago it too ‘pivoted’ and moved to just being about TV shows, with the chat feature being made the prominent feature. And this annoyed a lot of people who found it was less useful than before – indeed, it was at this point that I stopped using it. Foursquare have, so far, avoided this pitfall by keeping their gamified features in the product.

Foursquare’s venue database is its biggest asset

One other thing that keeps Foursquare relevant is its venue database, i.e. the list of all of the places that you can check in. Initially populated by its early adopters, it’s now kept in check by an increasingly large pool of volunteer superusers. When I became a superuser in 2011, I think there were only a few hundred of us, but now there are tens of thousands across the world. And some of them work hard – there are several in the UK who make thousands of edits every week, for no reward other than gratification.

Consequently the quality of Foursquare’s database is very high. I would say it’s not far off Google’s database, which powers its Maps and Google+ Local products and is arguably the gold standard. It’s certainly better than Yelp’s database, which is used by Apple Maps – I gather Yelp is good in its home market in the USA but here in Britain it’s full of outdated and missing information. And Facebook’s database is pretty terrible; recently some users of Instagram have been given the Facebook Places database rather than Foursquare’s own, and the comments haven’t been exactly positive. It’s full of duplicates, spelling mistakes, and places that have closed down but haven’t been removed. It’s little wonder that Microsoft pays for access to Foursquare’s venue database, despite being a Facebook shareholder.

Leading by example

Foursquare’s pivot from a game to a recommendations service shows that you can change the primary function of a service without alienating those that have used it since the start. Other companies would do well to learn from this – those users who have been with you since the start may be some of your biggest cheerleaders, and it’s best to keep them on side. Otherwise, you run the risk of them becoming your biggest critics too.

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