32: Checking in on Foursquare

This coming Saturday is April 16th — Foursquare Day! — got any big plans? If your answer is a resounding "no", don't worry, you're not alone.

Foursquare is one of the companies that came out of the golden age of SXSW, debuting at the 2009 festival, two years after Twitter was the darling of Austin. I waited eagerly for them to expand beyond the Bay Area and New York City and I finally(!) logged my first checkin in January 2010. It was the kind of magic that was only possible thanks to the iPhone. The app quickly earned a spot in my iPhone's dock, I used it so regularly.

The serendipitous joy of the checkin.

The serendipitous joy of the checkin.


I'd say that today I'm Foursquare's last big fan, but technically that's not true. In 2014, Foursquare made the puzzling decision of offloading the paradigm that it invented, the checkin, into a separate app called Swarm. Foursquare was betting that it's core business was its ability to give great recommendations. (In truth, I'd say it's the accuracy of their place database, but not the "soft" data that recommendations are formed on). And Foursquare recommendations used to be excellent; the only time I ever visited Austin, in 2012, I swore by Foursquare and saw and ate some amazing things.

Unfortunately, today Foursquare can't recommend their way out of a paper bag. They're liable to tell you to go Subway when you ask for the best food in a town you've never been to before. They also sucked the fun out of checkins. At the time of the great Swarm schism, they killed the concept of becoming "mayor" of a venue by checking in the most times — one of the most original, endearing, and addicting conceits of Foursquare. Mayorships returned, but it's obvious that Swarm is not swarming, as I become mayor of anywhere I check into twice. It makes sense in hindsight: who can get a respectable percentage of their users to install a brand new app and carry on as if nothing happened? Even Facebook had similar struggles when they spun off Messenger into a separate icon on millions of Springboards across the world.

Yet I do check in, daily, but not because I feel like I'm participating in a social network, and certainly not to win a gamified competition. I do it because it's a way to track interesting data about where I've been (sure, call it "lifelogging" if you want). It's fun to be out to dinner and have the person across the table wonder "Hmm, when were we last at this restaurant?" and answer "Three months ago" without missing a beat. But it's not the kind of thing you can build even a fake national holiday around. In 2013, the city I lived in made an official proclamation of Foursquare day. In 2016, I'll celebrate by checking in at the gym and keeping my fingers crossed that Foursquare keeps its head above water for another year.