So I like the idea of my location-based service buddies being people I do, indeed, knowâ€"or at least people whose identities are clear. But Foursquare makes it maddeningly difficult to accomplish that. I spend much of my Foursquare time trying to figure out who people are, and I fail more often than I succeed.The error here is the assumption (which many similar rants share) that Foursquare's core purpose is connecting you with friends nearby. The reality is: it isn't.
I know this because I've spent a lot of time analyzing the way the Foursquare interface works in writing this book, for which I interviewed both co-founders, Dennis Crowley and Naveen Selvadurai. One of the challenges they've had is the tremendous variance between the way that users actually use the service. As with Facebook in its incipience, no one entirely knows what Foursquare is best for.
Some users are clearly in it to see what everyone else is up to. But there are entire swaths of people for whom the "game" elements (badges, points and mayorships) are self-motivational. Whether it's checking in at the gym or visiting a favorite bar, there are plenty of people aren't so concerned with what their Foursquare friends are up to; they merely want the satisfaction of the check-in.
But a whole other sub-culture is also evolving, and it's around data-driven users. Foursquare lets you aggregate your check-in data on its website, showing where you've been over the last few months of activity. Crowley and Selvadurai have hypothesized that many of the most useful applications of Foursquare lie in slicing and dicing its data "firehose" -- that is, the raw stream of data that shows where users are going and when. They've made this data available to a few select developers, and might make it available for all developers at some point in the future. (They currently have an open platform with a documented API, or programming interface.)
Why do users want to see their own Foursquare data? Who knows; why do people track workouts with iPhone apps like RunKeeper? Why do others publish their credit card feed with Swipely and Blippy? Why do others still track their personal spending on Mint.com (INTU)? As I argued yesterday in a post about Chase's new granular banking tools, consumers are beginning to embrace data-driven tools en masse. (If Chase isn't proof that a service has hit the mainstream, then what is?)
Foursquare is also a vital part of Facebook Places' success. Because Facebook is so big, its advantage isn't going to be agility -- the Facebook Graph programming interface, which makes Places available to developers, is dreadfully basic to start. Late to the game as it is, Facebook has clearly seen an opportunity to act as a common nexus for Foursquare checkins as well as those from competing services like Gowalla. In keeping with its "platform" identity, Facebook has chosen not to play in the location space, but to provide the playing field for more aggressive application developers.
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