Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

App of the week: Swarm by Foursquare

Screenshot of Foursquare's Swarm app on iOSA few weeks ago Foursquare announced that it was splitting into two separate but connected apps. The existing Foursquare app will now focus on recommendation and discovery of new places to go, and a new app called Swarm would focus on checking on, and socialising with friends.

Swarm was released on Thursday last week. Once installed, existing Foursquare users should find it relatively quick to get on board with – if you already have the Foursquare app installed and are signed in, then Swarm will pick this up and let you go straight in. You then just need to allow Swarm access to your location, allow it to send you push notifications, and follow a very quick tutorial.

Swarm is pretty much what Foursquare used to be back in the early days. There’s a big checkin button in the top-right, and the home screen shows you if there are any friends nearby. These are grouped by distance – within the immediate vicinity (180 yds, or 165 metres), within a mile, within five miles, within 20 miles, and then ‘far far away’. That’s more than 20 miles away, and not where the king and queen live in the Shrek films. For those within 20 miles, you’ll see the name of the venue if the person is checked in; otherwise, you’ll just see the town. This is a little buggy in version 1.0, with Swarm occasionally telling me friends that were far away were in my town.

Despite the big fat checkin button, you needn’t check in anyway with Swarm if you don’t want to. If you slide your avatar to the right, you can toggle whether you want to passively share your approximate location or not. This doesn’t say exactly where you are, but it’ll alert any nearby friends that you’re in the neighbourhood.

Tapping on a friend’s picture will give you some more details. This includes the venue name, any event that they’ve checked into, such as a film at a cinema, and any text they’ve included in the checkin. You can also easily call, text or Facebook message the person to arrange to meet up, which is a nice touch – WhatsApp support would also be nice if this is possible.

So that’s the home screen. There are three other screens in Swarm – your feed, plans, and notifications. The feed is basically a list of all of the checkins made by you and your friends in chronological order. In effect, this restores a feature removed from Foursquare some time ago, where the home screen only showed the most recent checkin. And notifications is just a list of notifications – people liking your checkins, friend requests, comments and so on.

‘Plans’ is new though. Here you can view any plans that your friends are making, and make your own. These can be simple things like ‘fancy a beer later?’ or ‘do you want to see Godzilla tonight?’. You can tag Foursquare friends in these plans if you want to get their attention. This is something that was quite hard to do in Foursquare before and is quite welcome.

Swarm also brings changes to the Checkin screen. First of all, Swarm will initially make an assumption about where you are and default to that – if it’s wrong, you’ll need to tap the ‘Change location’ button to get a list of venues. This button is rather small, although Swarm is quite forgiving about tapping the area around it. As before you can include text and photos, but also Emoji is supported at long last. The other change is the introduction of ‘stickers’ which show on your avatar and can be used to convey moods, or give a hint about what you’re doing. All users start off with a small set, but Foursquare says that more stickers can be unlocked later, a bit like how you earned badges before, and similar to items in Foursquare’s defunct rival Gowalla.

Oh yeah, badges, mayorships and points are gone, in their current form. There will be a new style of mayorships where you compete with just your friends and not every other Foursquare user. Surprisingly, this hasn’t as been as controversial as I expected it to be, and I personally think it’s a good idea.

Foursquare has just celebrated its fifth birthday and this is probably the biggest shake-up in history. I think the changes are good, and it means each app can focus on a separate part of the Foursquare experience. Fundamentally, Swarm makes Foursquare exciting again, and I look forward to formulating plans with nearby friends in future, especially when travelling to new places.

Swarm is free, and available for iPhone and Android devices.

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