Six hazards of playing Foursquare

Once I pull my head out of the clouds, I really do have to face the hard truth: Foursquare has some issues.

Anyone who has spent time with me at events in the last month is likely looking at the headline of this post and wondering who body-snatched me. I am a huge fan of Foursquare, so much in fact, that I've darn near brow-beaten everyone in my immediate physical social network into signing up. I even wrote a post a couple weeks ago talking about all of the wonderful uses for it -- especially how it gives small businesses a ripe opportunity to participate in, and benefit from, social media.

Once I pull my head out of the Foursquare clouds, however, I really do have to face the hard truth: the service has some issues. Some of which -- like the fact that it is only available in the U.S. and only certain metro areas within it -- co-founder Dennis Crowley has said they are working to improve. "We want to make Foursquare work on more devices, in more cities, and eventually everywhere," he said.

If you're not familiar with Foursquare, it's a location-based social network that allows users to "check in" and add tips at places they visit. Users can become "mayor" of a certain location after visiting it more than anyone else within a certain time period, can earn badges and compete against friends for points.

Foursquare is certainly growing in popularity. Robert Scoble wrote this past weekend that Foursquare could be bigger than Twitter and even predicted that the service would be mentioned on Oprah within 400 days. I don't necessarily disagree with Scoble, but I do think there is a lot more need for innovation (beyond expanding the service's reach). I also think that Foursquare might be underestimating the overly competitive nature of its user base. Some major issues I've seen:

1. Groundhog Day Remember that movie with Bill Murray? Of course you do. The poor schmuck has to restart the same day over and over again until something happens and Andie MacDowell does something and the movie ends. Well, going from one Foursquare city to another is a little bit like "Groundhog Day." A few weeks ago I was so excited about going to Seattle and checking in at more places on Foursquare (told you I am addicted). Then I realized I had to switch cities. My points start over. I start getting the same badges ("Newbie" again?!), I get pulled off of the San Francisco area leader board, and if I never return to that city, my efforts are all for naught. That somehow makes the game a lot less fun. There's a messiness to the split city model, especially since now many of us have friends all over the world. Plus it gets kind of boring competing with the same friends over and over.

Next: Stalkers and cheaters, oh my -->

2. Stalker Enablement Yeah yeah, I know what some of you die-hard ZDNet readers are going to say: If you use a social network you give up your right to privacy. I agree with that. But Foursquare could benefit from a bit of the "walled garden" approach that Facebook has, at the very least. I'm pretty cautious about who I let into my Foursquare network (sorry, folks) and generally only include people I've met or have pretty close business ties to otherwise. Especially if I am letting people know my almost-every move, I want to be careful who I am alerting. However, that doesn't keep me totally safe from stalker behavior. If you know my Foursquare URL you can view it. You may not be able to see my daily check-in points but you are able to see any place I've reviewed, or the places of which I am mayor, and could track me pretty easily since I must go to those places often(please don't). That's a little unsettling. I think Foursquare could up-level the privacy a tiny bit and put many more potential users at ease.

3. Cheater Cheater, Pumpkin Eater Admit it. You've thought about it. You're driving along the highway and you pass a mall and think, "Technically I could check in here and get the points, maybe become mayor." While that type of behavior is a bit sketchy, I know a lot of otherwise great and upstanding people who have not been able to resist the Foursquare cheat. That, however, compromises the integrity of the service. The good news for Foursquare is that business partners likely won't care; heck, the more people checking in, the more traffic for them! However, this could result in people losing interest in the service. If they legitimately go to places striving for mayorship, and in some cases a prize offered to mayors by the businesses, but keep getting defeated by the cheating, hungry-to-win set, then won't they eventually be discouraged and stop? I'm not sure how Foursquare can control this issue. Right now you can check in pretty much anywhere within your metro area. Could the service institute a true hyper-local element that can make it so that you have to be within a certain radius to check in? And, would that even help? How many of us check in at a shopping center (i.e. Santana Row) and then check into our location (i.e. Foot Candy) once we walk 20 feet? We're racking up the points, but we're making the game less fun.

4. Master of My Domain I'm the mayor of my own house. No, really. I put my house on Foursquare. Except there is no address and it has an obscure name that no one else would likely search for it. Yet, I get badge credit for checking in there. I get points when I check in. I'm the actual mayor. And unless someone else comes to my house more often than I do (um, please don't) then I am going to remain mayor of my house. Should this count? Should we be allowed to do this? Probably not but I see a lot of people doing it. How soon until each room of our house gets its own Foursquare profile. If I see something like "Bob's bathroom" I think that will push me over the edge.

Next: Other antisocial behaviors -->

5. Employee of the Month I'm currently the mayor of my company's headquarters. Why wouldn't I be? I'm usually there five days per week and I am the only person I know of who works there and is really into social media. Not such a big deal for a network security company, but what if I worked at a bar or a restaurant? If I check in five days per week, unless the establishment has some super dedicated customers, I will most likely be mayor. Or, at the very least, another employee might become mayor. Does that kill the opportunity for Foursquare to partner with these businesses? Or, should these types of establishments forbid employees from checking in?

6. Antisocial Networking Finally, this is something that hadn't occurred to me until I read Arsenio Santos' blog post about why he quit playing Foursquare. He talks about how unhealthy the competition can become, a little of which I touched on above, and also talked about how antisocial it is making us in the presence of our friends. He writes:

Today I was out being social, and we happened to be driving across the Bay Bridge, and I was getting ready to check-in… almost entirely because I want to preserve my mayorship. Worse, fiddling with my phone, I realized I was in that moment being particularly antisocial. That was my final straw. The game had not fulfilled any of that initial promise for me, and I was beginning to think it was actually making my social skills a little weaker in the bargain.

I used to be that bad with Twitter. I'd have to stop and tweet something amusing in the middle of a conversation. Having been on Twitter now for two years that's not as exciting anymore so I am not so quick to tweet. However, Foursquare is my shiny object of the moment and there have been many times when I've made real life, in-the-flesh friends wait a minute in the car before going to an event because I needed to check in on Foursquare. How rude! Some of the friends I talked into using the service are OK with this because they are doing the same thing, as we race to be the first to check in or want to see which badge we might earn. However, we're tapping on our phones rather than talking to each other, thus making the perils of social media even more evident: we're all becoming antisocial.

Again, I love Foursquare. I will still play it. I will still compete and try to steal mayorship away from other people who go to locations I frequent. I will still suggest that small businesses look into doing Foursquare promotions. Yet at the same time I will be wishing that Foursquare will address some of the technology issues, and all of us users will start looking at how the social network is impacting our otherwise impeccable behavior.