Friday, 16 April 2010

The Psychology of Foursquare


      Geo-location is quickly becoming the feature de jour for existing networks and startups. While lots of attention has been lavished upon existing networks adding locational features (i.e. Facebook, Twitter) and various location-centric networks (Gowalla, Rummble, Loopt, etc.), Foursquare seems to have taken the lionshare of public perception. For those that aren't familiar with the service yet, I'm not going to explain much about it here, however, various articles, the network itself and a good section of Mashable are more than willing to give you the basics.                                         

     Considering Foursquare within the normal geo-location trend, its clear to see that it occupies a space that uniquely reaches the consumer. While each network can move from its place on the incredibly good looking Venn Diagram by adding features or emphasizing different functionality, in general, Foursquare occupies a space that aims to connect users while entertaining. This game/network hybrid, means that clear psychological principles can be used to explain how Foursquare works, why its going to succeed and what we can expect from it in the future.

How Foursquare Works....
      At its heart, Foursquare is about facilitating users sharing their locations with their friends.Therefore, the value of the network comes from the amount of useful location information present for users. When we think about this as the network's main goal, it becomes clear how all the network's related features come together to encourage generative behaviour. Overall, 5 core Foursquare features exist outside of simply "checking in", these are: 
- Mayorships 
- Tips 
- Tagging 
- Badges 
- Venue Specials 


       Mayorships are probably Foursquare's most obvious feature and the factor that firmly places the network within the 'gaming' spectrum of geo-location. Through assigning a mayor to a venue due to frequent check-ins, Foursquare 'operantly conditions' (encourages the intended behavior with reinforcement) for frequent interest and activity. The fact that most venues currently offer no formal response for being the mayor is a common sense rebuttal to the effectiveness of mayorships. However, if we consider the larger gaming environment, there are external benefits encouraging mayorship. The process of becoming a venue's mayor requires a minimum amount of check-ins at its least and a rather competitive streak at its maximum, therefore, achieving a mayorship and protecting it becomes a cycle of effort justification, ownership and competition. Concepts such as endowment effect, show that when consumers perceive something to be 'theirs', they place a larger value on it.While some people may become mayors of a venue due to frequently visiting it regardless of Foursquare, once someone owns the title, there becomes the presence of atleast a little bit of loss aversion to relinquishing it, as an increased value has been endowed to the title. 


      More tangibly than mayorships, badges enhance the competitive token economy that encourages check-ins. Whereas mayorships enhance the venue's attractiveness, badges enhance the check-in itself's attractiveness. Through providing variety to the base network activity, the user experience is kept novel and users have something to consider when considering whether to continue on with the network experience. The fact that badges are displayed on a user's page means that they are internally non-competitive while being externally objects to compare against ones own. The badges can also confer different information about a user's behaviour to others. The 'Swarm' badge (given when checking in with 50 people or more) requires collaboration or a knowledge of popular events, something that speaks to the user's openness. Other badges, such as the 'Superstar' (checking in at 50 venues) are easier to achieve as the user progressively uses the network, but still signal to others that the user is varied in his locations & interests. These signals may not seem to be worth much, but as a user's involvement within the network increases, so does his emphasis on the value of what he signals others.


        Most tangibly, Venue Specials can help to reinforce the intangible benefits of mayorships and badges, by providing real perks to the token economy of checking in. Users who aren't fully engaged by competing for the mayorship of a venue on ownership alone can be swayed by deals such as: 20% of a meal for the mayor, free drinks for the mayor or 15% off purchase to those who check in. These real life incentives can help to condition checking in at non-promotional venues as well, as the behaviour becomes more routine. Within venue specials, those which offer a benefit to everyone who checks-in serve to encourage general behviour, while those that offer mayoral perks increase the value of owning a venue tangibly. Through both efforts, the value of interacting with the network increases, simultaneously increasing the value of intangible mayorship benefits or badges. 
      The cataloging of Venue specials within Foursquare allows the network to also provide value as a recommendation engine. As shown in the sweet sweet Venn Diagram above, Foursquare wouldn't traditionally play largely in the area of recommendations relative to services such as Qype radar or Rummble, but the ability to point out tangible deals close to the user, coupled with their Tagging & Tips functions, means that the capability to do such is there. Tips and Tagging deliver recommendation value to the user, while also encouraging contributors to display their knowledge of local venues. Where as the mayoral function encourages localized competition, tips & tagging encourage localized collaboration. These features may seem ancillary to the more emphasized features within the network, but they offer a valuable reinforcement factor for use through the provision of dynamic and localized information.

Why Foursquare Will Succeed....
      Now that we've looked at how Foursquare currently functions, its worth noting why principles that will help it succeed.On a general level, the biggest argument against geo-located networks is the reticence of users to share their locations. Sites like "Please Rob Me" make light of the mostly irrational fear that burglars and bandits will strike your home once they find out you're away online. Disregarding the idea that most seasoned criminals can safely assume that working individuals won't be home during working hours, some real privacy concerns are present.Stalkers and other nee'r do wells do exist on the internet, but common sense and privacy controls are usually effective measures against such. Foursquare's block of accessing the current user location data of non-friends means that selective network friending can preserve privacy pretty effectively. 
       Despite these privacy preventing measures, a user's current location seems to be one of the last common hold outs of online sharing. Its only when you consider the progression of online sharing, that it becomes clear how geo-location will be accepted. While Facebook allowed users to tell the world 'who they are' and Twitter allows users to tell the world 'what they're doing', Foursquare and others help to answer the next logical question, 'Where they're doing it'.

     I spoke to a post graduate business class last month on Social media usage and after discussing Twitter, covered the current geo-location trends. While only 1 person out of 39 had heard of and used Foursquare, the concept of geo-located data sharing was met with rather pronounced concerns and disdain. It was only after framing previous types of sharing to the class that many finally began to consider the concept. As I related to the students:
"If someone had told you in 2002 that you would upload holiday albums for other loose acquaintances or possible strangers to see, as well as allow them to upload and tag photos of you, some would balk rather loudly. If I had told you in 2005 you would be frequently posting small updates about relatively mundane aspects of your life, on a service for almost everyone to see, most would probably doubt it. Therefore, when I claim that in a few years most of you'll be sharing locations with your friends online, does it seem as far fetched as before?"
     This mental framing of what is acceptable and unacceptable to share online is highly subjective against what the general public is doing. As more people adopt geo-located services, through either Foursquare or during the roll out of such services on Facebook & Twitter, users will habituate and finally fully accept the concept.
       This roll-out of geo-located features by larger social networks exists as the largest risk to smaller contenders such as Foursquare. Facebook's 300 million users and Twitter's 105 million represent a possible geo-location adoption base that dwarfs Foursquare's 1 million users, creating the risk that the smaller contenders will be absorbed or forced out. When looking at the way Foursquare works though, its clear that some of its features are well positioned to help the network survive, and even prosper from, the entry of Facebook. Foursquare's integration with Twitter and Facebook mean that its token economy and reinforcing features can extend beyond the reach of the network, reaching a user base that has already become used to sharing locations, but haven't heard of Foursquare. While some Facebook users may approach Foursquare from more of a 'Facebook game' perspective than users who originally utilized the service to connect with friends, the success of other forms of Facebook entertainment bodes well for the network.

What can we expect in the future from Foursquare?....
          As we can see above, Foursquare's user experience and viability seem to predict a strong future for the network, but what can expect it to offer next? Looking at how the current Foursquare experience functions, atleast two logical areas for development exist: Expanding Venue Specials & External Platform Integration.

 Foursquare check-ins at specific Venues in Las Vegas were broadcasted onto a digital billboard...

            Foursquare's current venue specials are currently the tangible reinforcement for the overall site. As the network grows in prominence, we can only expect these to become more widespread and creative. Companies such as the FT, giving day passes to mayors of venues near business schools, have already shown creative ways to promote both Foursquare and their own product/content. In the future, this expanded benefit for checking in can develop further through access to exclusive content, publicity and brand interaction.

            Outside of the network, Foursquare's future lies in developing External Platform Integration. The roll-out of geo-located features on Facebook & Twitter are only the start of the myriad of options a user has when thinking about using geo-location. Foursquare's future lies in being able to syndicate network information to other platforms and recieve information in return. The use of Facebook's own network to promote content should only be the start of Foursquare's platform integration. Connecting usage to other geo-located networks such as Rummble or Gowalla means that the reinforcing economy of Foursquare can spread further, while also minimizing a user's barriers to check-in. Users can't be expected to check-in regularly on multiple clients and until one network comes out as the king of geo-location options, the future lies in creating an ease of use.