When mayors don’t matter

I get the feeling that although Foursquare is bigger than ever, its utility has been steadily decreasing as well. The root of this problem is the source of its value: users.

Standard internet thinking goes something like this: the more users you have and the more active they are, the more valuable your service becomes. So you would think that users who participate frequently enough to hold down a handful of mayorships are the most valuable – and you’d be correct, to an extent. User participation always needs to be managed towards meaningful goals. Linux and Wikipedia are great examples of this; so is Twitter’s ecosystem and the apps and services developed around the platform.

Standard social media thinking goes something like this: at critical mass, good communities self-manage. This is actually false logic; again, Linux and Wikipedia are great examples of this. Foursquare’s user base is not.

There are two types of users with above-average importance in the FourSquare community – mayors and superusers. Mayors of course get their status from patronizing a location most often. Superusers come in three levels, criteria known only to Foursquare management, but they have the ability to impact user experience by managing information.

In other words, mayors come and go but superusers can change the game.

In fact, utility has been decreasing because too many people are trying to become mayor of too many things, creating a useless long tail of locations. Have you tried checking into an airport recently? The “official” record for neither Boston or Atlanta ever comes up in a list of options; people have just created too many sub-locations.

It appears that Foursquare needs to put a much larger number of Superusers in place and allow participation balance outlined in a theory like the 90-9-1 rule manifest. Apparently many users are willing to volunteer. Otherwise, the site risks becoming a victim of its own success.

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  1. Completely agree, except for the ‘more superusers’ part… I’m not so sure it’s a lack of super users that are the problem, I think it’s the fact that the SuperUsers who do exist are crippled on the mobile apps. Aside from marking something closed, there’s not much you can do to update/fix locations from a mobile device, precisely when it’s top of mind. By the time someone gets back to their desk the last thing they’ll probably think to do is hop over to foursquare on their laptop/desktop and fix busted locations. Even giving people the option to merge locations online would make a huge difference.

    They could also benefit from a more intelligent search feature. It’s pretty rigid as is and as a result I think a lot of duplicates get added because of a minor typo when searching… (i.e. I once added a new venue by mistake because I searched “Little” instead of “Lil'” in the name of a place and the venue didn’t show up in the first screen of possible places)

  2. I find the Highlander-esque idea of Mayorship in Foursquare to be an interesting liability. When “there can be only one” Mayor of a place, does that not incentivize individuals to create their own “sub-locations” so that they may become Mayor of their own domain? From the venue’s point of view, wouldn’t it also make more sense to allow a larger (than one) number of individuals to be showcased for their loyal patronage?

    Without getting ridiculous, I guess I’m looking for more opportunities to engage from my location based application.

  3. One solution would be segmentation – you only see groups of friends, etc. and can create mayorships among a subset of the entire user base. This happens already with leaderboards, e.g. My Friends vs. All Austin/Louisville/etc.

    Early on, Foursquare like Twitter was a bunch of people who knew each other, then grew to a group with loose ties, and now a user base with no ties. Relevance was a default; now structure needs to be imposed to bring relevance back.

  4. Your points on nano locations are interesting. The behavior suggests that the community wants to be able to tell you exactly where they are and, in some cases, that is even metaphysical. It would be cool to have super-locations that take priority in the listing and have impact consummate with their actual geographic footprint. With 4SQ and Gowalla you have to be pretty close to to the actual spot where the location was created to be able to check in.* I would love it if when you check in to a nano location, you’re automatically also checked into the super.

    In my mind (a hunch, like your feeling), utility for LBS is a function of the (ridiculous) demand and the ability to for LBS to handle the demand. The fact that these companies are small with processes that are still emerging could lead to an inability for people to find something of value once they hit the “now what”** stage where they have all the badges and mayorships they can handle.

    Luckily the the founders of Foursquare, Gowalla, Whrrl and the recently heating up Foodspotting (see what I did there?) are not resting on their laurels. For instance, recently Foursquare created “specials” that allow people who check in who are not necessarily the mayor to benefit. The game continues to evolve as do the possibilities. I just hope they can handle the increased demand that possibilities create because I for one have some BIG ideas.

    * Sometimes you are actually IN the location and it shows up as 600m away, which is too far to away for Gowalla to even be able to check in. This actually isn’t totally the fault of the tool (Gowalla could be more liberal like Foursquare), if you are on AT&T it is most likely the network’s fault. [ Read http://bit.ly/att3gsucks ]

    ** http://www.virginiamiracle.com/2010/04/15/from-geo-to-micro-to-no-no/

    Also: Mayors do not get their status from patronizing a location most often, rather they get it from recently patronizing a location most often. We proved that here: http://bit.ly/cInHhh

  5. Peter,

    First of all, Que Pasa, we haven’t hung out in a while! I would love to reconnect!

    2ndly (like the spelling 😉 )

    Foursquare has become a very interesting app. As on of the early adopters and part of first wave of “Super Users” There are many things that have altered my personal user experience using the app.

    Ryan, I completely agree about Mobile usage. I have decreased my usage of app, not by choice but because the app has increasing become slower and slower and I get limited by the technology. The tools available for superusers on mobile are almost non-existent.

    I spoke with the @foursquare team a few months ago so that I can help Boston Venues get on board with FourSquare promo’s. There are actually some great Venue analytics in the works that allows venues to see who has checked in and when.

    I think it will also indicate who is deputy mayor, etc, which would be helpful. Mayorships are supposed to recycle every 60 days I think, but it would be great for venue to manually reset it so that they could start a Mayorship based campaign at the beginning of any set time ie we have cleared mayorship so the next person to become mayor gets…or the person the has been the mayor the longest should get a meal for the week, or whatever.

    Schneidermike, I have been in locations with multiple floors, ie Microsoft and it was a cat/mouse game to figure out the spot to go to check into Gowalla. I can understand the cheating part but it should be more about rewarding and making it easier for their most active users.

    I personally think it’s less about the app and more about the application of the app given it’s limitations.

    Software will always be broken ie not perfect. As you add more users the likelihood of other things breaking become higher.

    So I think a possible solution is more marketing focused vs technology based. Innovative venue marketers should leverage Mayorships, checkins and/or their own loyalty programs to develop experience based campaigns that compliment their brands. This is instead of “a free drink for being a mayor” which is simply a lack of creativity.

  6. Yelp truly is the SLEEPING GIANT here in the Location game. It adds so much more value to where you are going and where you are when you ‘check in’.

    Look out for a possible Yelp x Facebook deal soon.

  7. Agree that Foursquare needs to do something to make sure that people can check-in at all real locations and to eliminate many of the redundant and unexisting locations. While it’s fun to sometimes check-in to fake places (including taxi cabs), it is not good for Foursquare to become a platform for incorrect and misleading information. That being said, I love Foursquare.

  8. Great insight, Joselin – and yes, it’s been a while! I’m anticipating that creative people like you will make the experience better for ordinary users like me. 🙂

  9. Seems like there’s plenty of room for an enterprise-focused application here as well. If Twitter inspires Salesforce.com’s Chatter, then certainly developers at IBM/Lotus and Salesforce are already working on an LBS add on…don’t you think?

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