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Mobile social networks like FourSquare are different

May 18, 2010

In presentations, I define social networks as tools that allow communities to engage. My general argument is that we stopped saying .com at the end of many of these tools, and began thinking of them as platforms.

The value in a platform like Facebook comes mostly from the community.

Take Facebook: there’s a shared experience on Facebook that comes from content being uploaded. It might be that picture of your friend’s child, or a link, or a comment. Facebook is as valuable as the people one follows. The same applies to Twitter — the value in Twitter is not in the posts (although one can gleam the value from searches), but in the specific posts of the people one follows.

Social networks like Digg work the same way: people submit stories, images, articles and such to Digg, and other people comment. Without the participation of those content creators, the network would be boring.

In the very extreme sits Wikipedia. Wikipedia’s 15 million articles are updated by less than 1% of the people who read the articles. As a social network, it offers the greatest output from the least amount of content creators.


Which brings me to FourSquare. I once explained FourSquare to someone who’d never heard of it like this:

• 20 years ago, if you got into a bar and wanted to know if your friend was there, you’d look around.

• 10 years ago, you’d phone your friend.

• Today, you’d check in.

I can see the value in that. I can also see the value for brands, where FourSquare has the potential to be true digital loyalty program, whereby the 10th check in gets someone something for free.

But then I can see the danger. On a recent trip, I tried checking in at the Charlotte Airport. The actual airport check in was concealed by a long list of gates. I could check into Gate 8, Gate 3, Gate 10, etc. I understand they are working on the list of places, so that could be fixed. But that’s only one part of it.

None of that seemed relevant to me. But that’s not the real point. From my office, I can check into a whole pile of places, without actually going to them.

Anyone can. Also, I’m the mayor of my office, which seems like information that is irrelevant to many people in my community (which is not many — FourSquare hasn’t really ‘worked’ for me in a meaningful way).

I really don’t see the value in projecting my whereabouts to a community. Again, I can see the value for brands, but I’m not really sure why people will play along. Yes, Starbucks offers $1 off a coffee for the Mayors. But is that it? Are we all looking at and thinking that’s the goal of FourSquare?

FourSquare does position itself as part game, part social network, and I’ll admit that when I unlock a badge, the gamer in me is a little proud. But I’m not sure that the social networker in me cares where my friends are.

What do you think? Do you check in on FourSquare? Are you the mayor of your office? Have you obtained valuable information from your community?

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