Over the past few weeks, I’ve had friends post on Twitter and Facebook questions/comments wondering what, exactly, the point of Foursquare is.* It’s a fair question, and one I’ve grappled with before about other social media channels, but a harder one to answer. Facebook, after all, was easy to understand once I joined: it’s for sharing photos, news, and other info with friends (and grade-school acquaintances) near and far. Easy. Twitter was harder to grasp. I wanted it to be like Facebook, but the amount of information – and total strangers – was staggering. I finally realized that the way to make it useful for me was as a conduit of information on a discrete number of topics. I now have a near-constant stream of information on hockey, social media, and local DC stuff – from food truck locations to the mayoral race – and I love it like a kid loves Christmas.
Foursquare, though, is another matter. Location-sharing social media applications aren’t directly about communication; in fact, most of the real sharing is handled by connecting it to existing Facebook and Twitter accounts. But because Foursquare (and its same-same, but different competitor, Gowalla) are location-based applications, and I work for an organization that is all about places, I needed to understand it. The basic premise is that a user “checks in” at places, accumulating points and badges in Foursquare and passport stamps and virtual tchotchkes in Gowalla. A few places, such as Starbucks, offer a discount to the “mayor” of their locations (mayor being Foursquare-speak for the person with the most check-ins), but for the most part, there’s no real-world benefit to checking in.
So why do people do it? Hell, not just any people… Why did I get hooked on it so damned fast? The answer finally dawned on me a few weeks ago when I remembered this:
Yes, back in 1997, when the folks who invented Foursquare & Gowalla were probably still in middle school, I was engaged in a non-virtual version of today’s hot online app, collecting stamps in my National Park Service passport. I loved getting the stamps, even though they were – just like the mayorships and badges – entirely without value.
I realize this proves nothing so much as the fact that I was something of a geek long before technology made it (slightly) cool. But you knew that already.
* Note: I started writing this post before Facebook Places launched, which as of now, I’m finding pointless. Saying “I’m here!” on Facebook is as easily managed in a status update, as far as I am concerned. No meaningless badges = no interest from me.