My first check-in was at the Rondo Community Library in St. Paul: 3:15 PM on August 24, 2009. My last was at the Minneapolis Club: 7:01 PM on October 21, 2014. After five years and two months on Foursquare, I’m done.
In 2009, Foursquare was all the buzz. All my early-adopter friends—especially the ones in the music scene—were talking about checking in and fighting for mayorships. I didn’t even have a smartphone yet, so I’d check in via text message. You’d text your location, and Foursquare would text you back. “Okay! We’ve got you at Bev’s Wine Bar.” Then it would tell you who the mayor was.
It was a big deal to be mayor: the mayor got a lot of glory, and pretty soon, establishments started offering specials to their mayors. There was a period when I actively tried to hold down as many coffee shop mayorships as I could, making a point to spread my coffee stops around. I was in a pitched battle for the mayorship of Spyhouse, and for a while I didn’t let a day pass without at least swinging by for a quick espresso.
My greatest moment of Foursquare glory was the brief period when I was mayor of both First Avenue and the 7th Street Entry—the adjoining rooms that are two of the most popular music clubs in Minneapolis. First Avenue would give its mayor a free drink—any free drink, even a giant bomber of Sierra Nevada—and I had a ready answer for anyone who scoffed at my devotion to that nerdiest of social networks.
As more and more people started to use Foursquare, mayorships became harder and harder to hang on to, and eventually I stopped trying. Friends who had been devout users dropped off, until there were just a few die-hards who regularly used the app. When I realized that Foursquare had taken away the stats feature—and the mayorship feature, opting for a focus on tips and discovery—I finally decided to throw in the towel. Frankly, it was a relief.
I stuck with Foursquare so long mostly because, as a former sociologist, I’m fascinated with data—with quantifying the human experience. One feature that helped to keep me hooked was the pop-up that told you how long it had been since you’d checked in at a venue; I was continually surprised to learn that, for example, I’d let three years pass since last eating at a restaurant I always describe as one of my favorites. Or I’d think back: “Oh, yeah. November 2010. I remember who that was with.”
For several years, I also had a professional interest in attempts to develop technology that played on our relationships to geography, our senses of place. From 2007 to 2013 I worked at the Twin Cities Daily Planet, a publication that’s trying to reinvent community news for the online era. That job involved continually asking questions like, how do people want to get news about their neighborhoods? What do they think of as “local”? Foursquare, like the Daily Planet, is premised on the idea that place matters to people even in the placeless expanse of the Internet: that you know where you are, and you want to know who else is there and what they’re doing.
That sounds like a no-brainer, but all manner of Internet projects have found place-based applications a harder nut to crack than affinity-based or relationship-based apps. As we talked about what a “neighborhood” meant for Daily Planet users, I’d notice how idiosyncratic and variable people’s online representation of place is. Almost everything you do online is somehow tied to where you are geographically, but the way you represent that—or don’t—changes from moment to moment. Both because of privacy concerns and because it’s boring to constantly talk about the places you spend most of your time—your work, your home, your commuting route—people’s explicitly place-based online activity tends to spike when they’re in places they rarely visit.
That’s a challenge for the Daily Planet, but an opportunity for Foursquare, which is all about swarming. In my super-dedicated early days on Foursquare, I’d even check in at gas stations—but soon realized that was embarrassing for me. No one was checking in at gas stations, because no one wants to talk about gas stations. They’d check in at clubs, and restaurants, and record shops. At first, Facebook’s place-based check-in feature felt like a Foursquare wannabe, but now it seems to be working for Facebook as a purely special-occasion feature. You see people checking in on Facebook when they’re at Taylor Swift concerts and national landmarks—not at gas stations, or even at bars.
The potential of an app like Foursquare was most brilliantly demonstrated through the social map feature, which worked just like the Marauder’s Map at Hogwarts: you could open it up and see where all your friends (at least those who had checked in on Foursquare) were in relation to you. Only a couple of times have I ever known people to actually meet up based on noticing their proximity via Foursquare: mostly, it was just voyeuristic in the finest tradition of social media. As I’d slide across the Minneapolis map with the little faces of my friends pegged to their current whereabouts, I thought of Arthur C. Clarke’s aphorism: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
I’m apparently not the only one using Foursquare: user numbers are plummeting. Some pundits wonder whether Foursquare has shot itself in the foot by relegating the whole check-in process to the secondary Swarm app, but it’s hard to fault Foursquare for trying a new approach: old-school Foursquare was tanking too. Industry wonks debate the best approach to “SoLoMo” (social media + location + mobile technology), but the big-picture question is what place means to us in 2014—how much we want to focus, moment by moment, on where we are and what’s around us. It matters, but does it matter enough for us to pull out our phones and tell our friends whenever we arrive somewhere? Apparently not.