Checking In (or, Why I Like Foursquare)

Foursquare Badges
Foursquare Badges

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:

National Parks Passport
A page from my National Parks passport, the Foursquare of the 20th century.

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.

4 thoughts on “Checking In (or, Why I Like Foursquare)

  1. Shannon August 26, 2010 / 9:38 pm

    Does playing the REAL foursquare count here?

    I’m talking early 80s here….four squares drawn on the pavement, four players and a ball that gets bounced from square to square. The first person to miss a bounce, or double-bounces in a square, leaves the game. It continues til one person is left.


  2. Mom August 27, 2010 / 6:42 am

    @ Shannon — sounds like the Foursquare I remember!!! I won’t even consider the new version. Guess I’m “square”, huh !!!

  3. Eileen August 27, 2010 / 10:30 am

    I get the passport thing…have been obsessed with getting my real one filled to the point of needing extra pages…but not so hip on the virtual version. I’m totally my fathers daughter in this arena. But I’m glad to finally have at least a rudimentary understanding of what the hoopla is all about. Thanks for bringing some of us into the modern era sis – even if it is backwards and through a knot hole 🙂

  4. Common Loon August 29, 2010 / 11:39 am

    @ Shannon – the kids learned foursquare this summer and love it!

    Sarah, the “new” National Parks thing for kiddos is the Junior Ranger program. It’s not a passport, but you collect badges, and sometimes patches depending on how much work you put into it. Our oldest collected 7 this summer. It is addictive!!!! I can see Foursquare in his future. He’s already asking when he can get his iphone.

    (note: I’m on the computer b/c the current laundry load has 4 minutes left)

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