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Foursquare, I Can't Quit You

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Here's today's column, originally published in MediaPost's Social Media Insider

Hey, Foursquare, a social network with about 250 times as many users as yours just incorporated your core functionality and even co-opted the term "check-in" that you've been trying to trademark. Is it time to move on?

Not so fast. Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley tweeted a few days ago, "Call from my 86 yr old grandma: 'Hello. I want to know if this Face-Book is like yours. It sounds like Four-Squared, but without the fun.'" Grandma Crowley, apocryphal as she may be, speaks the truth. Foursquare is still more fun, and probably always will be compared to Facebook Places. That means a lot, for now.

When Facebook Places launched, I first checked in at my agency 360i's office and then tried it from a number of other locations in subsequent days. Most of the time, I also used a number of other location-based apps such as Foursquare, Whrrl, Gowalla, Yelp, SCVNGR, and FoodSpotting. Even if I tire of some apps over time, I'm not giving up any solely because Facebook Places is here. Here are five reasons why:

1) It's not easy to tell on Facebook Places who's near you. Foursquare now includes maps to plot your friends' whereabouts, and in general it's better at detecting who's really nearby. Facebook's algorithm currently places too much emphasis on how closely connected it thinks your friends are to you, but if a close friend I've known for half my life checks into somewhere in Iowa, that won't matter to me when I'm in New York.

2) Foursquare's tips are pretty useful. Yes, there's a lot of blather, but when I checked in at the White Plains, N.Y. train station on Friday and saw all the tips urging people to avoid the men's room, I don't care if I have the Seinfeldian syndrome known as uromysitisis -- I'm finding a different place to go. Whrrl is even more focused on recommendations, and FoodSpotting has directed me to some delectable dishes. Facebook will need great content.

3) I don't always want to widely broadcast my location. Foursquare reported that 20% of its check-ins are shared on Facebook, which is significant, but I'd take a hard look at the other 80%. For example, one day I was browsing Atlantic City's outlet stores and earned Foursquare's Overshare badge for checking in at least 10 times within 12 hours. That's okay on Foursquare, because my friends there either do the same or don't mind others' check-in binges. If I posted all of those to Facebook, my friends would hide my updates so fast that I'd have to start poking myself. To Facebook's credit, there are various privacy options built into Places, but I don't want to take the time to figure out who cares about my daily whereabouts and who doesn't. With the other location-based services, it's easy -- any friend there is one that cares enough to connect with me in that kind of environment.

4) A lot of people really don't want to share their location. On Friday, I checked into my parents' apartment in White Plains since the building already appeared in Facebook's listings. My parents were especially baffled when I tried tagging them. My mom said, "You just tell everybody everything you do and every step you take and everywhere you are?" My dad responded, "Yeah, whatever." As I noted at the time (on Facebook, of course), not all 500 million Facebook users will use Places. It's not just about my parents either; there's a massive swath of digitally savvy people who do not want to regularly broadcast where they are. For some, it's not just about the broadcasting or being tagged -- it's the whole idea of it. People do become more open over time, but there are real limits when it comes to location.

5) There is something fun about the other services. I know I'm a little too into this stuff, but I like being a duke or king on yelp. I've earned 35 badges on Foursquare and will keep earning more. I like the points I rack up on Whrrl for sharing recommendations. SCVNGR's entirely focused on gaming and offers fun ways to interact with locations. Facebook probably won't get much more fun on its own, and we'll see how much better it gets as apps start to incorporate Places.  

Facebook can get around many of these hurdles. In time, you can expect it to have among the most precise locations, and I wouldn't be surprised if by the end of the year I have 10 times as many friends using Places as I do all the other apps combined. For sheer utility alone, Facebook Places should wind up being the best way to meet friends and contacts in the real world. When that happens, it will become more serendipitous, and even meaningful. Facebook is in the best position by far to make those moments happen most often. I wouldn't trade moments like those for a thousand badges.

 

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