Why FourSquare drives me bananas – conflicting motivations in social design

FourSquare drives me nuts, because of the inherent conflict between the social and competitive aspects of the social design. A social tool for people who like to go out, FourSquare builds in social incentives – when you attend a venue, the system sends out a message asking your friends to “stop by and say hi,” bringing frends out from the woodwork to join you at a bar or event. At the same time, it has built-in competitive incentives – participants accrue “mayor” awards and various badges for visiting the same venue the most times, and for racking up various types of social activities.

You might think that the diversity of incentives is good, since different users have differing motivations. In the conversation about the use of leaderboards in social software, Kevin Marks referenced the classic paper by Richard Bartle- Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades – about the different personality types who participate in online games. Hearts are motivated by social connection. Diamonds are motivated by racking up points to “win” the game. Spades are motivated by information and exploration. And Clubs are motivated by motivated by causing trouble and pain for others.

So, if you appeal to more than one type of player, more the better, right? Problem is, there are conflicts between the different incentives. For “Hearts”, the incentive is social. Hearts are truly charmed by the idea that a application can draw your friends from nearby and increase serendipitous chances for meeting. For “Diamonds”, the incentive is competitive. Diamonds want to “win” the game by being the mayor of the most places, and racking up other types of points. In FourSquare, you see people competing to be the mayor of SafeWay – it’s not like anyone is actually seeking to meet up with a friend at the supermarket.

So, for a “Heart” – if someone checks into a nearby location on FourSquare – are they actually seeking to meet up with other friends nearby? Or are they a “Spade” seeking to rack up points, and would they be annoyed by someone stopping by, or even hailing to see if the the checkin calls for visiting? The conflict between the motivations makes my head hurt. I don’t check in very often on FourSquare, since the “points” and making public noise about going out to a lot of places about don’t do very much for me. I contribute to the social game, occasionally, but the ambiguity of it makes the game a lot less fun. I’d much rather send out a hail on Twitter – when I want to signal an open social meetup opportunity, I want to do so unambiguously – whether it’s little or big.

I have no idea how many other people feel caught in the middle of FourSquare’s conflicting social incentives. I just know that the combination is rather awkwardnessful for me. What do you think? Does FourSquare’s combination of motivates work nicely for you, or also drive you crazy?

And from the perspective of social design, appealing to more than one “type” may in theory increase the audience for a given tool/site/event. But care needs to be given that in appealing to one “type”, you are not discouraging other types at the same time.

2 thoughts on “Why FourSquare drives me bananas – conflicting motivations in social design”

  1. Hi Adina –

    I definitely understand where you’re coming from with this – which is why we built in a switch that allows users to choose whether they want to broadcast their checkin or not (“Tell my friends”)

    We’ve been thinking about whether we should have another switch – something that would allow you to decide whether to send out a “ping” (Dens @ Ace Bar) with each checkin.

    Seeing people check-in *everywhere* they go is one of those interesting yet unexpected uses of foursquare (checkins @ Target, Post Office, grocery story – really?) but it hints at towards how people want to use social + location services.

    I think with some clever UX we can probably solve the issues that are driving you bananas. 🙂

    Would love to hear your thoughts.

    – @dens
    co-founder, foursquare

  2. Dens, that will help with a related issue that bugs some of my friends more than me. There are others who are troubled by the perceived noise in the social stream, and would prefer not to see notifications. What bugs me is something different – it’s the mix between social and competitive motivations, such that people issue social invitations that may or may not be socially sincere. And then the burden is on the recipient to decipher whether it’s an invitation or merely a point-scoring tactic. I guess that turning off broadcast per checkin would help reduce the level of rudeness, so you don’t have to tell other people, when you are point-counting, that you are having fun and they are explicitly disinvited.

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