When FourSquare first came out, its social design supported a strange mix of invitation and competitive motivations. “Swing by and say hi!” said the standard message when you shared with Twitter or Facebook. At the same time, the service promoted competition for mayorships and badges for frequent checkins. Many people “checked in”, not because they wanted to meet up with their friends or show off their cool choice of hangout, but because they wanted to rack up points. Competitive and invitation dynamics were at odds, and in social practice, the competitive dynamic won. The competitive dynamic may be a factor that kept adoption narrow, within a small segment of mostly male, mostly young users.
In search of broader adoption and a revenue model, FourSquare, Facebook with mobile deals and location services have started to promote themselves to merchants as a tool for discounts and loyalty programs. This may be good for merchants and for consumers seeking bargains. It also seems to further reduce the social value of a checkin. I might be happy to get a shampoo coupon for checking into Walgreens, or a free latte after several Starbucks checkins, but do I want to tell my friends about it? No. Saving money is useful in tough economic times, but social fun it isn’t.
It is possible to design promotions that do take advantage of location-based social commerce? Sure – events and venues where you get discounts if you bring friends who check in, stores that give promotions for shoppers who refer each other. Yelp could do interesting things with it’s new checkin feature – restaurants could give promotions for groups and loyalty points for shoutouts – though it doesn’t look like they’re doing so yet. But if the general social dynamic for checkin is personal, it may become harder to overcome a barrier against sharing. Plus, there are gradations between events where people are enthusiastic about inviting each other (going to a music festival or first-run movie), services where people might be eager to tip others to something cool (which food cart is rolling through the neighborhood), and products where a social announcement may just feel like more unsolicited advertising (yes there are discounts at the Stanford Mall for holiday shopping. I vehemently do not want to hear about it from friends.)
Over time, I suspect that “location” won’t be an app anymore – it will be a feature embedded in different sorts applications that will provide different sorts of experiences. The Walgreens shampoo coupon checkin will be very different from the festival or restaurant promotion that gives you benefits for checking in with friends.