Is location social anymore?

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.

4 thoughts on “Is location social anymore?”

  1. what a superb description of the culture clash that often happens and often subverts communities that have social visions. Digg is maybe another great example of how competitive dynamics became at odds with social practice. I wrote recently about the how businesses should try to understand the emerging culture when working with social networks.

    In many ways it is the algorithms of these sites that drive competitive activity by creating feedback loops that drive explicit or tacit competition. This is a double edge sword, competition drives many positive social behaviors that make these networks so useful, but it also comes into conflict with the social aims of the community. I guess the solution is better level design 🙂

  2. I would attribute the gender and age slant of FourSquare’s popularity to the gendered issue of stalking rather than to the competitive mayor or badge features. I think female users might enjoy becoming mayor or racking up badges, but might worry more about letting just anyone know where they are.

  3. The update of Gowalla’s location services tries to improve the social connection, and compensate for its market share weakness, by enabling cross-service checkins. But as Marshall Kirpatrick observes, it doesn’t have good place annotation. So a checkin is just the record of a moment, and not a way to connect comments about a place. For some, the social experience is about meeting in the moment – for others, it’s also about experiences across time.

  4. Essentially, this is restating that a feature (printing, tagging, location) never has value or meaning as such; they are always context-dependent.

    The point on competition chimes nicely with Jesse Schell’s recent comment at Gamasutra (

    “Interviewer: And people didn’t think that much further beyond that. This (achievements at Xbox Live, SD) is a new thing and it works amazingly well, and…

    JS: Right. They didn’t think through the psychology of why they work, right? I mean, people who do Xbox Live are obviously competitive people, and where are they when they’re on Xbox Live?

    They’re in a pool of all the other people who are into Xbox games. And so you have a situation where status, a social standing among competitive males in this pool, is going to matter a hell of a lot, and so suddenly that number becomes very meaningful. Does that mean it’s going to work everywhere and for everything? No. No, it really doesn’t.

    Particularly, these guys are going in with an “I’m here to compete,” and here’s a competition thing. That doesn’t mean it’s going to work everywhere, but there are certainly some contexts where that kind of thing works.”

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