Today I went to a local coffee shop to eat soup and read my 40+ pages of notes (so far) on what is supposed to be a 10 page chapter of my dissertation. I’m a frequent user of the iPhone app created by foursquare, location-based social software that lets you check in to venues (restaurants, bars, clubs) and broadcast your whereabouts to a network of friends.
Foursquare is not the only software out there that does this; similar applications include BrightKite, Google Latitude, Whrrl, and Loopt. What interests me about foursquare is that it’s a terrific example of prescriptive social software: applications that encourage particular social behaviors and provide very clear rewards for behaving in the “right” way.
Let’s start with foursquare. When I “checked in” at The Grind, here’s the feedback I got:
Foursquare gives you points depending on when, where, and with who you check in, and keeps a weekly leaderboard of high scorers in each city. In this instance, I get 5 points for checking in at a new venue (don’t ask where the 22 points comes from; I didn’t check in anywhere last night after midnight [Edit: apparently this is a bug that's since been fixed]), and I’m told that Jay A. is the Mayor of The Grind, which means he’s checked in there more times than anyone else in the last 60 days.
So I go check my place in the Leaderboard:
Social butterfly Charles G. has checked in 18 times since Sunday (it’s Wednesday), with a grand total of 114 points. Naomi M. has checked in more times (20) but gotten fewer points, so she trails Mr. Charles for second place. (Don’t give up, Naomi, you’ve still got four more days!)
After a month of using foursquare, I’ve found that it rewards the following:
- Going to new places : you get a 5 point bonus every time you check in somewhere new.
- Going to multiple places in one day/night: 3 point “travel bonus”
- Going out after staying home for a few days: “First night out in a while” bonus
- Going out many nights in a row
There are also badges, which reward particular things, such as checking in at 10, 25, and 50 new venues; checking in X number of days in a row (”Bender”); checking in at X number of venues in one night (”Crunked”); checking in at the same place three times in one week (”Local”); and checking in with multiple members of the opposite sex (”Playa Please,” which I got at the Austin airport). You get fewer points for checking in somewhere you go frequently.
Given that the application presumes moving one’s way up the leaderboard is a good thing, the model of social life valued/rewarded by foursquare involves going out a lot, in urban areas, to many different venues (bars/clubs/restaurants), many days of the week (”exploring” the city, presumably with a group of suitably soused friends). This is a very urban, American, and youthful model of socialization. If you’re the kind of person who likes to stay home and play board games with your two best friends, or go to the same bar every night, or if you live in the suburbs, or if you’re done with the phase of your life when bars and clubs seemed exciting, you’re not going to find foursquare very useful, and foursquare isn’t going to encourage your type of socializing. Foursquare values going out a lot; it doesn’t place value on catching up with your reading. But then again, if you don’t like to socialize or don’t like going to bars, clubs, and restaurants, foursquare wouldn’t have much utility for you, either.
[Edit: apparently you don't get points for checking in during the day on weekdays, which obviously, prioritizes socializing at night.]
So does this prescriptive social behavior actually change people’s social behavior? While I have zero empirical evidence to believe this is true, I have plenty of anecdotal evidence, like any good blogger. A quick search on Twitter for foursquare found the following in the first page of results:
@rogersmithhotel I’ll be there, going for the local badge on @foursquare by tomorrow. Oh, and I’m mayor too :D
GushueIS: Wow i just realized I.m 1 in sf on @foursquare now i feel all this pressure to go to new places!
creasian: HAHAH I’m the new Mayor of the San Jose International Airport on playfoursquare.com !!! Sweet! #foursquare
There’s something here worth examining. What assumptions about “good” and “bad” socializing are built into social media? Locative social media is especially interesting because it directly affects how people move through the city. It can be terrifically fun and useful for people who fit its prescribed social model. Here in San Francisco, where I’m doing ethnographic work on social media users, foursquare has positively affected my social life. For example, on Monday night, I went to dinner with a friend. After dinner, I saw that two of my closest friends were at a local bar. We met them there, and over the course of the next four hours, about 10 other people showed up, all of whom found us through foursquare. Whether or not it’s wise to have a party in a bar on Monday night is arguable, but it was really fun. Likewise, last night, on my way to meet my friends at Cafe Du Nord, I detoured through Dolores Park to say hi to two friends who’d checked in there. We watched the sunset together and I went on my way.
Foursquare also contributes to ambient awareness. Like Twitter, you feel part of a group of people, but whereas you can follow anyone on Twitter, foursquare restricts the displayed information to people in your city, and friendships are bidirectional – nobody can friend you if you don’t friend them. People tend to be fairly picky about their foursquare friends, precisely because of the type of specific locative information that it provides. This creates a social map of the city – my friend Jane is at work, John is at the park, Josh is climbing, Jen is having brunch – which can be comforting and helps to provide a sense of social context.
But it’s important to remember that the social models built into social software are not value-neutral. In the second part of this post, I will look at the types of social behavior that other locative media services prescribe.
Disclaimer: I’m friends with the guys behind foursquare.