Foursquare – It’s Time To Stop Acting Like Dogs

Foursquare is not a pissing contest. It’s an ant farm. So stop acting like a dog.

A lifetime ago (like two months) I was on a mountain bike trail in Bend, OR riding with my friends @cassondra and @SEOeilish. When we got to the trailhead for Phil’s Trail, a well visited site for bike-minded Bendites, @cassondra checked in with Foursquare. She had been trailing @Audette for a while and knew she was close to overtaking him for the mayorship. A moment later, and it was done – Cass was the new mayor and Adam (Audette) had been ousted. We rode for a bit more, and that’s when it struck me – Foursquare isn’t a pissing contest, it’s an ant farm! (Note: at the time of publication @Audette has triumphantly retaken mayorship of the trailhead. What goes around comes around.) This made me think. About ants. I’ll explain why – I swear. But first I digress a bit…

There was a little spike in commentary several months ago comparing Foursquare to a virtual pissing contest in the sense that people were using it to be territorial, and to claim areas as their own. People were pointing out that Foursquare users acted like dogs that piss on trees and fire hydrants and legs and such in order to stack up points, mayorships and badges and compete for dominance. They were calling it narcissistic and creepy, and worse.

Here’s an example.
And another.
And another.
And yet another.
And some more.

This analogy never sat right with me, and I appreciated the more thoughtful explanations by people like @caseorganic and her cyborg-anthropological perspective in this post that equates geo-applications like Foursquare as potential solutions to spatial amnesia.

I still thought there was something further yet to be said, but I couldn’t quite get my head around it until that day when I hit the trails with Cassondra & Eilish, and it all came together.

I think that while it is possible to use Foursquare in an egoistic and self-serving dog pissing manner, the real value of the service lies in leveraging the data in a more communal fashion. However, the primitive game mechanics we can see in Foursquare right now don’t highlight this usage. The current game mechanics focus on the individualistic and competitive tendencies of users to promote its viral spread. I think that we will see the usage of Foursquare shift to more communal ant-like benefits quickly over the next year for several reasons. Here’s how I want to explain it:

1. The pissing dog analogy doesn’t scale (or “The Real Mayors Are Already Mayors”)
2. Why it’s like an ant colony
3. What’s 10% of useful?

1) The Pissing Dog Analogy Doesn’t Scale (or “The Real Mayors Are Already Mayors”)
Use of Foursquare as a territorial or marking tool is boring and stupid, and people who think of it that way are missing the point. Just like with any social platform – Facebook and Twitter included – the value you get out of the service is related to the effort you put in. With Twitter, if you put in the effort to collect followers who listen to you, and to curate a list of people to follow from whom you receive valuable information, then it’s a great tool. If you don’t put in that effort then you end up with a stream full of useless crap and wonder why anyone would ever waste their time with that tool. (See my previous article about why I hate explaining why people should use Twitter.)

New users who sign up for Foursquare and try to compete in terms of points are screwed. Early adopters like SocialJulio have been at it for a while and you’re not going to catch up. Badges are fun even if you’re not competing. It’s always nice to get a “Player Please” badge and a good laugh when checking in to a location with three members of the opposite sex, but catching up to early adopters just isn’t going to happen until they’ve jumped ship for something newer and cooler, leaving the late adopters in a MySpace-style abandoned wasteland of functional code and dysfunctional social media leprosy.

But the real gem is being the mayor of a venue, isn’t it. Oooh… the feeling when you oust someone else from being the mayor is just so delicious. The gears of social media turn, and maybe you even get a free latte or something for the effort. Yum. But being the mayor of a venue used to be simple. Months ago hardly anyone was on Foursquare, and all you had to do to become the mayor of a place was… well, go there.

Today more people are on Foursquare. Legitimate battles rage over locations like the Phil’s Trail trailhead with Cassondra and Adam Audette. But we’re still only part way to maturity, and what’s going to happen as more and more people begin to use Foursquare (or some other similar application that may oust it as the de facto geo-app) is that the mayors will become the mayors. To explain this, let’s think about what it means to be the mayor.

Let’s start with a hypothetical location… say, Uncle Paul’s Produce Market. Being the mayor means that this is your spot. You go there a lot. You can be found there a lot. In some cases maybe you get a discount. If we took Foursquare and its trappings out of the picture what would it take to get the nickname “mayor” at some location like Uncle Paul’s? It would take being there a lot – more than just about anyone else. You would either be an employee or a customer who stopped by all the time. Everyone would know your name. You might get some discounts because of your loyalty. You would be a V.I.P.

Right now the real “mayors” of locations are just starting to claim their Foursquare mayorships as they begin to login and check in as they go about their daily lives and spend time in the places where they have always spent time. But there are still plenty of places where you could show the employees a picture of the Foursquare Mayor for their bar or restaurant or whatever, and they would have no clue who it is. There are also the drive-by artists – my theory is that they’re mailmen and UPS delivery men who push through neighborhoods every day and just stack up mayorships of everywhere they pass. But they’re not the real mayors. They’re not the regulars. And as more and more of the people who are truly regulars of these locations begin to use geo-apps the real mayors will begin to displace the “mayors” who don’t really deserve it. Foursquare will start to mimic reality more and more in terms of mayorship attribution compared with a person’s actual social capital at a given location.

The current mode of usage of stacking up Mayorships and racing around checking-in to places just doesn’t scale as more and more people begin to adopt the service. You simply can’t beat the people who are actually in a place more than you, and early adopters who were taking advantage of a sparsely populated playing field are going to have to get used to it.

2. Why it’s like an ant colony
Pissing dogs don’t care what another dog thought about the tree it just pissed on. They might not even care that it’s a tree at all. All they care about is that some other dog pissed on this thing (whatever it is), so I’d better piss on it too. In fact, I’d better piss on it more, and most recently! Dogs are essentially trying to keep other dogs out, or say “Hey, you’re in my zone.” This may be a functional analogy for the primitive mode of using Foursquare, but it doesn’t capture the value of the information available through more nuanced usage of the service.

Ants, on the other hand, they really know how to piss on stuff. Actually, they have special organs dedicated to making all kinds of different chemical signals that they release, and other special organs (antennae, for example) specifically for smelling or tasting those trails. In the case of ants the pheromones serve as the basis for complex routing algorithms that help the ants individually determine where to go in a way that ends up routing the energy of the colony as a whole in a very efficient way. Essentially every ant leaves a naturally degrading pheromone trail as it walks. The more ants that walk down a certain path means a heavier pheromone trail, and therefore a stronger signal, and therefore it attracts more ants and further increases the traffic on that route. Imagine two ants – X and Y. Ant X finds a piece of food 1 foot from the colony. Ant Y finds a piece of food 2 feet from the colony. By the time Ant Y has gone the 2 feet to it’s food (creating one pheromone trail), Ant X has already made one complete circuit back to the colony (two pheromone trails). By the time Ant Y has made its first complete circuit back to the colony (4 feet total) and left 2 pheromone trails, Ant X will have left 4 pheromone trails. At this point if a third ant comes along and has to choose which trail to travel, the shorter one will look much more attractive because it has been travelled twice as much in the same amount of time, so the colony is efficiently selecting how to allocate its resources.

These algorithms are so efficient that researchers have poached them over and over again to create routing algorithms for use in IT infrastructure. For example, this one.

Dogs lack all of this complexity. The point is that we have the capacity to use the data in Foursquare and other geo-applications to derive value from the patterns of others even if we’re not “mayors.” If I check in to a location and see that my connections on Foursquare have left tips to go to a different place next door instead, then I can take advantage of that information. I’m not visiting this location to check-in and become the mayor. I’m just trying to get a good meal, or a cold beer, or good service on a car repair. This is where the value lies, and that is why it’s much more like ants than dogs.

3) What’s 10% of useful?
The problem is that the game mechanics are still immature. There are many pieces of data that aren’t easily accessible. I’d like to be able to check-in to a location and filter the tips for just those from my connections. I’d like to be able to check-in to a location and be notified that more of my friends have historically checked-in to another location nearby. I’d like to be able to sort tips by positive and negative, and I’d really like to be able to have threaded discussions or ping users who have left positive/negative tips for more information about what led to that decision. And Foursquare is definitely working towards this. Here’s an interview where one of the founders states that it’s only at about 10% of what it needs to be.

Crowley says, “The game mechanics are there to grab a user’s hand and bring them through the experience, but it is not the meat of the service. The meat of the service is the social utility that we are building. A lot of that going forward is taking the user’s history, like all of the check-in information we get from them, and then recycling that data by giving it back to them…”

I wholeheartedly agree, and I can’t wait for them to iterate towards more mature services and game mechanics. I look forward to the time when this data is more accessible, when mayors are mayors again, and when the narcissists stop getting in the way of the adoption of great and useful tools.

“It is not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is: what are we busy about?” –Henry David Thoreau

This post was written while listening to Mines by Menomena.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *