Is Foursquare blurring the line between digital and real life?

Geocaching to Geotagging

Following the removal of selective availability from consumer GPS devices in May 2000, a strange new permutation of letterboxing began to develop. This ‘game’ involved placing ‘caches’ in various places and distributing the GPS coordinates via listing sites for other people to find. At these caches would be a log book and perhaps a trinket or ‘treasure’ which the finder was welcome to remove and replace with something of equal worth. Geocaching was born. In a way this was the first type of significant interaction between the internet and the real world, and a whole community of geocachers was born – much like the social networking sites of today. This grown-up treasure hunt was inevitably going to be redefined in the wake of new technology and new media influence. Enter Foursquare.

Foursquare is a social media hub, where people can post status updates much the same as Twitter and Facebook. Foursquare, however, is specialised in that it focuses on geotagging – using GPS and cell networks to triangulate your position, allowing you to ‘check in’ at various places and venues throughout your day (or night). Foursquare also adds achievements into the mix, where by after meeting certain requirements you earn badges which are appended to your profile.

Foursquare in numbers

Foursquare is certainly growing fast; they have increased their user base from around 275,000 users in January 2010 to nearing 2,000,000 as of Jun 29 2010. Not only that, but estimates suggest they are significantly outpacing rival geotagging site, Gowalla, who have around 400,000 users, and are growing their user base 10x slower than Foursquare. The staff numbers at Foursquare have also grown. From the two founders, Dennis Crowley and Naveen Selvadurai a year ago they are now 27-strong, and have recently secured $20M in venture capitol to expand the business.

However, it is the break down of the user statistics of Twitter and Foursquare which are so interesting; while Twitter has 50x as many users as foursquare, only 20% of those users have tweeted more than 10 times, and 41% of those users have never tweeted at all. Foursquare, in comparison, has incredibly high levels of interaction: 57.4 % of users have checked in to 50 different venues, and 77.3% of users have checked in more than 30 times in a month. This speaks volumes about the motivations of users at the two different sites;  Foursquare users are clearly more interested/motivated to interact.

The stats all look very rosy, but it is worth mentioning that Foursquare is still dwarfed by the supernova’s of Twitter (100M users) and Facebook (500M users), so lets keep the Veuve Clicquot on ice for the time being.

The marketers catch on

Of course the power of this medium has been recognised and exploited by various organisations and agencies who have successfully (and unsuccessfully) used it as part of the marketing mix.

Non-profit organisation, Earthjustice, have spun a campaign (covered by mashable) to engage the younger demographic in California, and to encourage them to consider, and get involved with ecological issues. As a bit of an eco-warrior (more an eco-peon) myself, this is particularly attractive to me. Without digressing too much, it is important that we look to ways of getting the younger generations interested in looking after the planet, and the use of new media is a clear avenue to consider.

There have, of course been ‘unsuccessful’ (read crude) attempts at utilising Foursquare, one such example is discussed over at The Expendables, a movie by Sylvester Stallone involving guns, explosions, death and probably some gratuitous nudity, has been promoted on Foursquare by leaving ‘tips’ at foursquare venue pages in 11 US cities. The author of the post, William Beutler, remarks on the campaign and calls it ‘gimmicky’, recognising that the marketers at Lionsgate haven’t really understood the point of social media marketing – to create conversations. Their approach has been misunderstood, lackluster, and ultimately a good example of how not to use Foursquare and other platforms to engage with consumers.

A host of other organisations have also taken Foursquare’s platform and turned it into a marketing tool for their products and services, but the one campaign which keeps popping up in my mind as an example of both an incredibly creative use of Foursquare and other social media platforms, but also a clear focus on creating conversation through these media is the Jimmy Choo campaign.

The innovative ‘catch-a-choo’ campaign was designed by social media agency, Fresh Networks, and involved the shoes (the new range of Jimmy Choo trainers) taking on a life of their own and checking in to various locations around the city of London. This gave social media users the chance to ‘catch-a-choo’ and win a pair for themselves in a digital meets real life treasure hunt (much like geocaching in a way). This campaign created a heck of a lot of buzz, and some impressive figures too. Over 4000 individuals participated in the hunt, which was covered by outlets such as Reuters, Marketing Magazine, PR Week, Mashable, Vogue, and The Evening Standard, and daily trainer sales went up an impressive 33% during and following the campaign.

Foursquare controversy

It was inevitable that geotagging would throw up some concerns. Questions about how to balance the privacy of the platform arose, questions on how safe it is to use geotagging for fear of home invasion or stalking also came about. Unfortunately, these concerns have been largely justified as one blogger found out when she was stalked by a creepy guy as a result of her Foursquare usage. The man in question actually rang a restaurant she was dining at and spoke to her asking her to go for a bike ride with him.

There have also been concerns around how secure your data is with Foursquare. When the team were approached by a white-hat hacker and were told about a number of exploits and leaks they were subject to, they responded with a message stating they would fix the problem. After 9 days the company responded again and notified the hacker that they had fixed 1 out of 3 ‘privacy leaks’ and were working on the others. Since then, nothing has been said (to my knowledge). Story here.

A system like this is also open to abuse, which blogger Jim Bumgardner of found out in his exploration of what could be done to cheat the system. The post (which has a response from co-founder Dennis Crowley) documents Bumgardner’s various exploits of the platform to achieve some lofty achievements, one of which was to become the ‘mayor’ of the North Pole from the comfort of his own home. (somewhat overshadowed by 15 year-old Parker Liautaud who genuinely managed it)

Theory: Connecting analog and digital spaces

As a concept Foursquare is a strange one, but for some reason it works. As people become more and more ‘mobile’ with smartphone’s, netbooks, ipads and other cutting-edge technology then it only seems like a natural progression to mix the two domains somehow. Foursquare is doing that incredibly effectively. I am wondering, however, if there is a limit to the ‘good’ side of this story. While I’m an avid user of social media, and I love the conversations and the interaction that happens with it, I wonder if this is a step too far. Where will it stop? At what point does someone draw the line and say this is where the two worlds stop merging. Ultimately if there was a global blackout, we’d all lose our digital lives, and would be forced back into the physical space that we are increasingly ignoring as technology advances. You can’t see a map for all the satellite navigation units that exist today, it wont be soon (perhaps we’re already there) before you can’t see a street for all the phones attached to their biological appendages. Come to think of it, we really are there already.

I suppose my point is that everyone needs a break from technology occasionally, but increasingly the venue for this seems to be disappearing. Will be ultimately sense a disconnection from what is ‘real’ – perhaps that is a tad nihilist, but a question worth asking all the same.


Foursquare is in its relative infancy, but already there have been some really creative and effective uses of the platform. There does seem to be a large amount of ‘good will’ towards Foursquare also, and a 2 Million strong user base is a good place to build from towards the future.  As a medium Foursquare has the potential to be a nexus between online and offline buzz.

There are some bones of contention, however, what with questionable privacy settings and leaks, and questions over personal and home security still raging, and it is clear that the team have some work left on the drawing board to fix. Overall, though, if they get it right in the coming year, Foursquare will become a very powerful tool both in a marketing sense, and in a just-having-fun kinda way too.

Share Button