I’ve been a big fan of Gowalla since January, when I signed up for the social geolocation service mostly out of curiosity. I also signed up for Foursquare around the same time, and while I used both for a while, I never really liked Foursquare and eventually stopped using it.
The biggest advantage Gowalla had over its check-in competitor was that it was actually fun. I loved getting new stamps and working toward new pins while collecting virtual items such as a longhorn or an espresso machine along the way. I posted a bunch of photos and enjoyed seeing where friends had been and what they had collected. I would go out of my way to go to new restaurants just to earn a new stamp or go back to a place because I knew they had a particular item I wanted. When I had a recent business trip to Cleveland, I purposefully chose to have a layover in Charlotte in part to earn a North Carolina pin and get closer to the “Frequent Flyer” and “Fly Like an Eagle” pins. With Gowalla, there was an incentive to discover new places, go where I’ve never been, and share my experiences in the process. Which was the core concept of the service; it was meant to be more of a digital passport and virtual scavenger hunt than a simple check-in service that catered to the bar crowd like Foursquare.
But that seems to have changed with Gowalla’s recent relaunch. They had already announced that the Items feature was going away, something I was disappointed about but not enough to make me quit using it. But they actually went much further, eliminating all the stamps and pins (except for the state pins), too. My 300+ stamps and 20+ pins collected from five different states? Vanished. My photos are still there, but there’s not an easy way to browse them. And there are several other features gone as well.
In their place, Gowalla now focuses on featured guides and stories rather than places and check-ins. Popular venues such as Cowboys Stadium or the Fort Worth Stockyards are highlighted while nearby spots are nearly impossible to find unless you go through the trouble of searching by name. Such guides are really cool, but what if I just want to check-in at the local burger joint down the street? I know that’s not the central purpose of the app, but it’s how I want to use it, and besides I used to have an incentive to do so (be it a stamp, pin, or item). Now? Not so much.
Gowalla’s also traded their Facebook-style friending model for the Twitter-like following model while loosening user privacy settings, something I’m not that comfortable with it considering by checking in or “creating stories” I’m telling people exactly where I am. For example, even if my account is marked private, a friend (Follower? Followee? It’s not exactly clear.) can tag me in one of their stories, and that tag will be publicly viewable to everyone whether I like it or not. If I don’t want them tagging me, I have to block them entirely. Also, if you have a public profile, your Bookmarks are now viewable to everyone as a public List, something that could be potentially embarrassing (although I’m not sure why anyone would have a public profile in the first place).
Worse yet, when I viewed my wife’s Passport profile online yesterday, her password was displayed in the URL instead of her username. I contacted Gowalla about it, and they said they’d never seen that before. Obviously that’s not a designed feature, but if something like that had happened with Facebook or Twitter, it would’ve resulted in a mass public outrage. For my wife, at least, it was the last straw, and she deleted her account immediately.
Privacy issues aside, the whole service just seems buggy, complicated, and just plain cumbersome. None of my friends’ activity shows up on the home page (which is labeled “Friends”, ironically), and just getting to their profiles requires me to first go to mine, then click on Following, and then find them there. Which doesn’t really do me any good since all their stuff is gone, too.
If I do want to check in somewhere, it’s a slow multi-step process. When you open the app, the first thing you see are nearby featured Guides. To find the place you want to check into, you have to tap on “Spots and Lists”, at which point you’ll see a filtered list of featured spots that may or may not be anywhere near you. You then have to search for the spot by typing in the name and hope you find what you’re looking for. In a test this morning, I wanted to check in at a Whataburger that I’ve checked into a few times before. After going through the trouble of searching, it didn’t find the location I was at. The first result was 12 km away. The second result was 11 km away. There was no listing for my location, even though I had checked into it before. No location, no check-in. A lot of people have raved over Gowalla’s new look, and in some cases it does look really cool. But it doesn’t matter how good it looks if it’s not usable.
In the process of returning to its original vision, Gowalla has not only created a difficult-to-use product with potentially serious privacy issues, they’ve largely removed any incentive to actually use it. Those stamps, pins, and items which seem so unimportant to them now were what made the social network fun to use, not only for the challenge of collecting them but because they became virtual souvenirs, reminders of both the mundane and exciting places where we’d been. Gowalla wants us instead to forget those things and create new stories. I’ll be happy to create new ones, of course, but unfortunately Gowalla may not be a part of them.
If you tap the icon in the lower left-hand corner of the iPhone or Android app, it brings up a list of stories (currently only showing your own). You can then tap the “New” icon in the upper right-corner to create a new one, which brings up an unfiltered list of nearby spots. This prevents having to type in the name to search. At the moment, I don’t know of a way to filter those by category or create a new spot. Presumably, that functionality will be added back at some point. While this method of “creating a story” is a little easier than what I described above, it’s still a whole lot slower and more complicated than checking in on Foursquare, which seems to be a major drawback. Gowalla has always been slower than Foursquare, but now there are more steps, too. And if I’m out somewhere, I just want to check in and go. Or in this case, create a story and then get back to actually living it.
As to whether I’ll continue using Gowalla or not, I don’t know at this point. I’m willing to give it a chance. But I probably won’t use it nearly as often as I used to.