Haven’t you heard? Check-in apps are sooo 2009. At least that seems to be the lesson learned first by Gowalla and now by Foursquare. You remember Gowalla, right? The Austin-based David to Foursquare’s Goliath never could catch up and decided in 2011 to ditch the whole concept of checking in altogether, redefining itself according to its original vision of being a sort of online travel scrapbook and guidebook of sorts. Believing their pins, stamps, and gamification elements to be passé, they also eliminated their users’ incentive to use the app. It went belly-up shortly thereafter, to be bought out by Facebook for some spare change and a couple of pokes.
And now Foursquare is following the same trajectory. Enter the Swarm.
Deciding that check-ins are out and badges are blasé, Foursquare is splitting itself in two. The Foursquare app that we’ve known and loved will instead be focused strictly on Yelp-like discovery and review functions. No checking in, no mayorships, no badges. For your check-ins, you’ll now be redirected to a separate app, Swarm. Which would be fine except Swarm is largely devoid of the traditional Foursquare gamifications as well. So you get all the hassle of checking in without any of the rewards. Fun, right?
But according to its creators, badges and mayorships aren’t the point of Swarm, just as they weren’t the original point of Foursquare. In the original version of Foursquare (named Dodgeball), it was meant as a way to let you know where your friends were and let them know where you were so everyone could meet up in real life. The target audience in this case were twentysomething singles hanging out at bars or concerts or whatever, and most of the early badges (Bender, Crunked, School Night, Player Please) reflected that. Swarm is meant to go reflect that original vision, but it actually goes further than that because it’s designed to run in the background, passively tracking your current location and passing that on to your friends without you having to manually check in. The use case scenario is as follows: You’re out wandering the streets of Manhattan alone on a Saturday night as you so often do and want to get together with friends. You could call them or text them, but instead you pull up Swarm to see where everybody is right now. You find out that three of your buddies are at a bar right around the corner at this very moment, celebrating their wanton youth without you, so you decide to drop in unannounced and join in their revelry. Hooray for Swarm!
In reality, though, it means letting other people know exactly where you are 24 hours a day. When you’re at home, when you’re not, and where home is. Where you work, where you shop, where you stop for gas. Before, you made a conscious choice where and when you checked in, choosing how much or how little information you wanted to share with others. But with Swarm, there are no choices. Your life is a complete open book. How is this not the least bit creepy?
Yes, you can turn off this feature and go back to manually checking in. But without the gamification elements, what’s the point? If I want to share a moment with my social media connections (a great restaurant or an interesting travel stop or whatever), I’m more likely to snap a picture and post it to Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. Checking in for its own sake, particularly when so few people will even see that, is largely a waste of time.
So I can’t help but to see the parallels between Gowalla and Foursquare here. Gowalla pushed check-ins to the side, believing that its users would embrace this rediscovered vision of the app. But as it turned out, people liked checking in and getting stuff in return. When those virtual carrots went away, so did the users. How many loyal Foursquare users who’ve proudly earned all their badges over the years (I myself have 49), will gladly toss all that away for another Yelp review app? I’m guessing not many.
Check-ins have been declared dead for years now, although Foursquare has remained popular as well as checking in through Facebook or other apps. While not everyone does it, it can be a fun extension of your social media experience. But there has to be a reason to do it. And that’s where I think the decision to drop the gamification stuff is a huge mistake. I can see users gladly moving to Swarm if the same rewards were there. Without the rewards, though, all you have is a creepy, Orwellian tracking system. And it’s hard to see that being very popular.