Foursquare and Swarm

Full disclaimer: I am an avid Foursquare user. I can barely grab a coffee without checking in at a café. However, I have thought about this from a number of product angles and still find it questionable. Or maybe Foursquare is in a much more dire place than I thought.

A couple of weeks ago Foursquare announced that they were splitting their app into two separate apps. The main Foursquare app would be a place to get recommendations for things to do, places to eat, and so on. The new app, Swarm, would allow you to check in to places and see where your friends are.

When I read this, I was pretty shocked. If I asked you, “What does Foursquare do?” I expect you would reply with something like, “It’s an app that allows you to check into places.” Even the Wikipedia entry describes it as an app whereby “users ‘check in’ at venues […] by selecting from a list of venues the application locates nearby.”

Foursquare: List of suggestions

It seems strange that a business would remove core functionality from their flagship app and move it into its own app. What if Twitter allowed as many characters as you wanted in a tweet? What if Secret allowed non-anonymous postings? Checking into venues was at the core of what Foursquare did, so why would they move it elsewhere?

I understand that this was probably not a decision made rashly by Foursquare. Evidently something was not working with the current Foursquare app – either user growth was stagnating, or monetisation strategies were not working as well as they had planned. This might lead a company to a radical re-think of their business. The current play seems like a dicey move, though.

Foursquare claims that people use the app “to discover great places,” and that’s what they will be focusing on in the new Foursquare. In my experience, very few of my friends use Foursquare for recommendations. I have used it to check what’s good on a menu, but that’s usually because I just checked into a location and I might as well see what people recommended while the app is open. I’m not sure I would check in on one app, then move to another for some information.

The new discover screen looked like (and felt about as useful as) Yelp: random food places in the neighbourhood that had generic ratings (from where? by whom?). If this is a play by Foursquare to directly compete with Yelp, it’s an interesting one. Yelp has a lot of problems, but I’m not sure if Foursquare has an unique angle that would solve them. My main issue with Yelp is that it has a bunch of reviews from people I’m not sure I’d trust. Foursquare seems to have the same problem. Or maybe it’s just because I don’t have enough friends on Foursqaure for enough friend reviews to show up?

Swarm: All my friends are far away

OK then – if Foursquare is trying to be the new Yelp, what about their new app, Swarm? It came out yesterday, and I’ve been playing with it since then. The very literal core functionality – checking into a location – is there. Good job! However, it seems like points and badges have been removed. Those were two of my favourite features of Foursquare. For those unfamiliar, you get an arbitrary number of points for every Foursquare check-in. These form a cumulative total over any seven-day period. I remember going around New York City last October – for SassConf – and trying to beat my maximum seven-day point score (I got to 402).

There was also something thrilling about the badges. If you visit a number of different places of a similar type (e.g. airports, or Italian restaurants), you go up a level. Reaching a new level felt like an achievement, however meaningless it actually was. Removing these “gamification” aspects is a bold move, although it seems like the new “stickers” feature may perform a similar function in Swarm.

One aspect of competition that has remained, however, is mayorships. The announcement of mayorships in Swarm left me cold. After living in San Francisco for a while, there was never any chance I would get a mayorship outside of our home (even that one was a tough battle with Hampton). To get a mayorship of a local place, you had to go every night. In Swarm, it seems like mayorships will be between friends, so a location can have multiple mayors between friend groups. This sounds pretty neat, and hopefully the new mayorship style will reignite my interest.

Requiring your main fan-base to switch over to a whole new app and interface is a risky move. As a fervent user, I’m willing to make the switch. What’s a riskier move is trying to get new users to use the Foursquare app to discover new places.

I’m interested to see how this plays out over the next few months.

Michael headMichael Lintorn Catlin is a front-end developer who is passionate about design and web technologies. After studying biochemistry and developmental biology for a while, he switched tracks and co-wrote The Pragmatic Guide to Sass with Hampton. He also enjoys tweeting and instagramming his food and travels.