Who likes being mayor? On the narrow appeal of FourSquare

Who gets a thrill from the being mayor of their local coffee shop? According to a recent Forrester study the users of location-based services (such as FourSquare, Gowalla, and, Brightkite) are 80% male and 70% are aged 19-35. Usage is concentrated among a relatively small number of very heavy users: “only 1% of those that use them do so more than once per week” – but this tiny minority has accounted for over 100 million checkins to FourSquare, the current leader in the space.

Does this narrow appeal mean that location-based services are a fad? In a quote in the Read Write Web article linked above, FourSquare founder Dennis Crowley makes the case that tech-savvy young men are early adopters and leading indicators for a broader market. This often true, but leaves out another potentially important distinction. The addictive feature of FourSquare for those who love it is the competitive game dynamics – the ability to be annointed mayor of the local bar or coffee shop. Based on the numbers, this win/lose competition is addictively appealing to a small number of mostly young men, leaving many others cold. Of course, people are all individuals, gender trends don’t determine individual preferences; there are women who love FourSquare competition, and men who don’t see the appeal – the point is that the numbers show that the FourSquare dynamic has a narrow appeal.

FourSquare has recently been adding a greater diversity of badges, for events like the World Cup and ComicCon, brands including Louis Vuitton and Intel, travel-related services like Zagat’s and San Francisco BART. But the core dynamic is still competitive, and that is limiting it’s appeal. Last fall, I wrote about how FourSquare’s conflicting social incentives – to meet up with friends and to defeat them – leave me cold. It seems like there are more people who aren’t yet attracted by the desire to be the Mayor of Potrero Safeway (no offense, tweet or comment if you know who you are).

When adding game dynamics to software, it’s important to consider the varying motivations of potential users. I expect that over time, location-based services will be developed with affordances for a wider variety of motivations – social connections, group affiliations, geographical exploration, product promotions, loyalty programs and more. The different affordances will help location-based services appeal to people who have motivations other than competition, and to demographics broader than FourSquare’s core participant base of young men.

So, does the current narrow appeal mean that marketers should forego FourSquare and the location-based trend? Probably not, but they should be sensitive to the design of their program, the social motivations the program cultivates, and the relation between those motivations and their intended customer base.

The real life social network – questions about boundaries

There is no such thing as “friends”. That’s the most powerful conclusion in an excellent presentation about in-depth research by Paul Adams, UX researcher at Google. Most people tend to have 4-6 groups of friends, each of which has 2-10 people, and there is typically very little overlap between them. These friends represent different life stages and interests. A person’s large “friend list” on a service such as Facebook or Twitter actually consists of a handful of close friends and family members, in different groupings, plus a much larger number of casual friends and acquaintances.
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As Mary Walker observed on Twitter, “Each person=many roles (family friends career hobbies) but social networks suck @ helping ppl manage this.” Mary was summarizing this post by Deanne Leblanc. The mismatch between the affordances of social tools and the shape of our social lives has been observed by many – and Adams’ research quantifies that mismatch.

In software design, the common usage patterns need to be very strongly supported – and in Facebook it’s definitely not. Paul Adams reaches powerful conclusions that would result in social software designs very different from Facebook, which has very poor control over what to share with whom, and poor control over how to present oneself within different social contexts.

Follow up questions: social boundaries

The presentation is excellent, and the research looks well-done – and I also have some follow-up questions about the results. The presentation concludes that there is very little overlap between groups of friends. But, I wonder about that overlap. What is the role of the people who span groups, co-workers who share an interest in a sport, fellow parents who are involved in local politics? From the perspective of the spread of information, culture, action, do boundary-spanners have extra influence?

Also, the presentation observes that people’s friends change as their lifestage and interests change – but the presentation focuses on the static picture at any point, rather than the changes. How do these changes happen? How often do social connections play a role in the changes? Focusing on the changes and transitions, rather than on the patterns of stasis, might yield interesting insights on secondary patterns to support.

The example in presentation, about sharing that unintentionally crosses boundaries, is about a young woman who comments on photos of her friends in a gay bar; these risque photos are exposed to 10-year-old kids she teaches. In Twitter, Paul acknowledges that the friends being gay isn’t the problem, sharing pictures of adult sexuality with kids is the problem – and editing the presentation to make that distinction clear would be good to do.

In that case, partitioning is the right thing to do. But there are many other examples of sharing where the problem isn’t sharing stuff that is inappropriate for a social context, but where it’s uninteresting to some . Is it possible to design a system that makes it easier to improve the signal to noise ratio without hiding information that doesn’t need to be hidden.

The presentation talks about the new social web architectural pattern where one takes ones friends with them across the web – for example, on cnn.com, you see the stories your friends liked and commented on if you are logged into Facebook. But how should this pattern work, given that “friends” are not a single group. For a person long past highschool, is seeing the opinions about a high school acquaintance on a news story a benefit or a drawback? (This example is theoretical, apologies to any HS friends who may be reading this!)

One common theme among this set of questions is about the boundaries between strong and weak ties – how can software do a better job of supporting strong ties, while enabling a semi-permeable membrane for people to people and communication to cross those boundaries. Of course (and the presentation does a good job of reminding) is that the relationships are amongst people, not tools. Boundaries are shaped and reshaped by people in our interactions; tools can help or hinder but they don’t create or destroy.

A different social network

Recently there’s have been rumors that Google is going to come up with a new social network that is a Facebook clone. I really hope that Google doesn’t simply clone Facebook, and instead that they use the insights in Paul Adams’ research to make social network tools that are different from Facebook, and better suited to how people’s social networks function.

Book reviews in the age of the internet

A book review in the age of the internet is very different from its pre-net predecessors, though it may look superficially the same. A conversation with science blogger Bora Zivkovic, as he wrestled with deciding about books to review, prompted me to write these thoughts down.

Back in the day, before it was easy to trivially easy to search for reviews, a reader depended on their local paper or favorite magazine. So each each newspaper or magazine would cover the same books and movies. Each review would summarize the book for the reader. Readers relied on their reviewer, and the reviewer in turn strove to be an authoritative voice and “tastemaker”, helping readers choose and shaping the criteria for choice.

The old constraints that shaped the genre are gone. In the age of the internet, it is trivially easy to search for reviews. So there is less need for an basic summary of popular books – the reader can find it on Amazon. When a reader can find multiple reviews from multiple perspectives with an easy search, the old authoritative tone of voice sounds pretentious.

So, to review books in the age of the internet you need to consider: what in particular do you have to add to the reviews the reader can already find. Why do you think the work is good, based on your own expertise or perspective, what did you learn from it, why do you think your readers might or might not like it, based on your knowledge and assumptions of your audience.

Now, a book review that includes too much of the perspective of the reviewer can turn into a personal essay that takes a book as its starting point, or a meditation on the subject that says more about the book the reviewer would prefer to be written than the book that she read. These essays may be worth writing, but an essay that tells the reader more about the reviewer than the book is not a book review. The challenge is to include enough of one’s own perspective to make the review interesting and distinctive, while keeping it mostly about the book.

Another difference is timeliness – reviews on the internet don’t need to be about new things. Before good search engines, reviewers focused on things that were new, and there’s still value in timely discussion of current topics. The internet makes it easy to find discussion of books that aren’t new, and so rewards writing about them also. A review of an older book can add context since the book was written, and reevaluate what it sounds like now than earlier. Summary and recommendations are more important for older books than newer books, since the information is harder to find, and a reader needs reasons other than currency to read the book.

BoraZ, in fact, uses these principles in a review of Bonobo Handshake, a book by Vanessa Woods, about the differences between bonobos and chimpanzees, the two closest primate cousins to humans. The summary neatly analyzes the multi-threaded structure of the book, links to related sources on competition and cooperation, and puts the genetic kinship of humans, chimps, and bonobos in the context of an argument against genetic determinism. The review also touches on the reviewer’s friendship with the writer, and personal background to describe the joy of reading books that teach you about the world and get you engaged in subjects you didn’t know before. The review tells the reader about the book, what’s good about it, why they might like it, from the professional and personal point of view of the writer. It’s a strong example of a good book review in the age of the internet.