Thoughts on Foursquare

I have now been a Foursquare user for over a year, basically since they opened it up for international users earlier last year. Here are some quick thoughts on the service.

To the uninitiated, Foursquare is a location based service that allows you to “check-in” to a place, so your friends can know where you are. Every-time you check-in to a place, you are awarded points (if it is your first check-in, you’re +5, for example). If you meet certain check-in criteria, you may also get a badge (for example, if you check-in, shout a message like “happy halloween”, you get a new badge). It also allows you to inform your friends on Twitter and Facebook, though this option is turned off by default (it can get pretty noisy otherwise). It is ideally used through an app, and they have them for the iPhone, Android, BlackBerry and many more platforms. If you’re on a phone that lacks an app, never fear, as they have a mobile site available for checking in (but not earning mayorship — fake check-in’s exist, even though there’s generally nothing to be gained from it).

Its nice to become a mayor of a place. Its also rather nice to get a new badge. These things work really well for Foursquare. There’s an element of game mechanics throughout the application. For example, if you are at an event with over 50 people, you’ll get a swarm badge. Or if you are a coffee snob, there’s a badge for that too.

Some smarter establishments are giving the mayors of the location a special or a deal for loyalty. Some say if you check-in after five times, you get a free cup of coffee. Its all geolocation based, so if I check-in at a Muji, I might see a special nearby at a Topshop which may entice me to pay it a visit.

Naturally, this has led to spammers showing up. I’ve seen job adverts, private banking adverts and lots more, all of which, generally get annoying.

The game mechanics behind a check-in is such that you are given points for discovering a new venue, checking into a venue for the first time, and how many times you’ve checked in all day. The problem with giving points for creating a new venue (discovering it) is that you tend to get people creating duplicate venues all the time. To be fair, sometimes the database is down so people do end up having to create a new venue, but most of the time its done to game the system.

Why? There’s a leaderboard. It shows where you stand amongst your friends, and where you stand in your city of choice. It gets reset weekly. It seems nothing more than a temporary high, but the problem of dirty data is amazingly bad. I’ve seen dirty data in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Bangkok, Delhi, Ho Chi Minh City, Istanbul, Bangalore and more. There are “data cleansers”, also known as Super User Level 2’s. Level 1’s can propose merge requests. In KL, there’s a movement called #4sqKLCleanup just to curate the dirty user generated content.

After a year of checking-in, I’ve asked myself what exactly is it I still like about Foursquare that makes me check-in?

  1. I occasionally bump into people that I’d like to see if we happen to be at the same mall or location. This has happened twice in a period of twelve months.
  2. I like reading the tips and todo’s left by users, especially if they’re my friends (because I then put more trust in what they’re telling me). If people say things that are generally negative about a place, I’ll probably not visit it. Businesses beware.

The badges and the mayorships mean nothing to me. I think deals might make sense, but there are so few of these in Asia, its almost negligible to even mention. I have yet to cash in on a Foursquare multi-check-in deal.

Third-party tools are making Foursquare (and other location-based check-in services) more useful. For example, I’ve seen which gives you a text message whenever you check into a NYC restaurant that is at risk of being closed down for health code violations. I’d love to know if the place I’m about to eat at is at risk of giving me diarrhea. I wish this was available everywhere, but I presume there’s an open data issue here.

I enjoy using Topguest. I travel a bit, and when you check-in at one of their partner locations (be it hotels, airport lounges and so on) you’re given like 50 points for a check-in. While 50 points in my mileage accrual probably means nothing, I do know that after 20 check-in’s at the ICH Group, I get 1,000 points from Topguest, which has a dollar value of about USD$13.50 or so.

People need to find a reason to check-in, and I’ve got basically three – bumping into folk, reading tips, and using Topguest. Are there other uses for a location based service? My friend Bernard Leong started up Chalkboard which aims to answer this dilemma, in where they provide deals based on location. It’s currently very Singapore-centric, and it is getting more use in Malaysia. Chalkboard helps me save money, and who doesn’t want that? They are currently growing though — I believe they just passed their ten-millionth ad impression.

I once thought that Foursquare could replace loyalty cards. The service however is not reliable enough, and fake-check-in’s are not good business.

Where will Foursquare go? It has competition from Facebook Places (not rolled out everywhere yet). I’ve never used Gowalla. In Malaysia, we’re starting to see the coming of Wootfood, which is checking in food items as opposed to just a place (Malaysians love to eat — exploit a niche!). Yelp has basically decided to ignore this market (notice how I usually only care about the tips, from friends?). Google has Places, Latitude and Maps which I think could be useful if Google understood social a little better and tied it together.

I guess the most important thing about Foursquare is its data. Is it big after a year of being available outside of the US? Let’s just say that after two to three check-in’s, I’ve become mayors of places that are in locations that I do not live at! I sincerely hope the focus is more on creating useful tips (give points for that, allow people to vote), rather than just simply checking in or adding locations that already exist in the database.


  1. Andrew says:

    Foursquare's strong point to me has always been its tips database and not the gaming aspect. But as you've noticed it's starting to get polluted with spam and I don't see a way to get them cleaned up short of reporting it to foursquare support.

    Speaking of tips, am I the only one that makes a habit of only submitting positive tips? I've stopped submitting negative tips unless it's something systemically wrong with the establishment and not just a waiter or a cook having a bad day.

    Check-ins are a commodity and the future is in niche check-in apps like Wootfood. It's really polished for a version 1.0 app and a joy to use but I wish it had a more robust web front-end with search functionality and a social graph like Foodspotting. A Twitter-like stream of food photos from the people I follow would also be great (Foodspotting only has this feature on its website and not the app).

  2. jscully says:

    I'm from a small town and have been diligently adding venues, and checking in. There is minimal 4square activity in my area at the moment. 
    One day, I'm randomly ousted from a venue I added the day previous, that I had just become mayor of.  Perplexed, I looked at the person's profile and saw that they are a “power user”. 
    A few weeks go by, and then they add me. I'm one of their 3 friends, though they have 600 check ins in 45 days. 
    Then I get alerts of check ins at times I know the venue is closed (deli) and even during a snowstorm, at a ridiculously early hour, at a fairgrounds that is locked tight with padlocks and chains. 
    I look at her profile and see duplicate venues for her house, and multiple checkins and mayorships…for her house, house in a fake location and her mailbox. 
    I searched, and really, there's no reporting method. So, I posted a tip on her houses, about how i was going to fake checkin and become the mayor, and a tip asking what was going on at the closed venue during a storm. 
    She removed all her houses, kept the mailbox, then ENGAGED me with a tip. 
    So now, I've done my homework, I have a listing of her misuse, examples of her going against the TOS and am combatting her on any local venues I can prove wrong, hoping that someone who manages one of these venues can step in, and maybe Foursquare would catch on to that.
    Unfortunately, I'm alone in this fight for users to comply by FourSquare's TOS. 


    A few Venues with tips: