A very dear friend of mine, who is not the most prolific of Facebook users, posted the following message on his feed over the weekend:
“I just unlocked the “Newbie” badge on @foursquare for checking in for the first time!”
He checked in at the local grocery store, and hasn’t checked in anywhere since.
The fact that he’s about two years late on the Foursquare fad notwithstanding, I’m only left to assume that after everyone on his feed found out that he was at the grocery store, he realized just how creepy check-in apps are. It’s certainly not because he’s worried about being caught in a compromising place. He’s the least likely person in my circle of friends to do that sort of thing, mainly because I know what his wife would do to him if he accidently checked in at Tassels Adult Entertainment Complex.
I recently tried the new Saga app myself. It tries to make life a game, like Foursquare does. It gives you experience points for going to cool, new places based on its suggestions. It knows when you go to these places because it’s constantly tracking you. But it sounded like an interesting idea for me because I don’t get out as much as I used to (thanks, three-year-old daughter), so when I do get out I would like to maximize the experience. I also do some travel writing on the side, so finding some cool new places around town is a professional responsibility.
It lasted about two minutes before I deleted it.
That’s how long it took me to realize that all of these apps are thinly veiled marketing schemes and might also be serving to undo the community that they bill themselves as creating.
Before you fit me for a tin-foil hat, let me defend myself as a rational person. I barely read Terms of Service before clicking the “Agree” button. I have all of my usernames and passwords saved in both my browser and my phone. In other words, I tend to think the best of both people and companies.
And I don’t have anything to hide, location-wise. If my wife had somehow gotten access to my Saga data, the only thing she would find out about me is that I go to Target, Best Buy, and Barnes & Noble entirely too much. She already knows how lame I am, so this won’t be news. It won’t divulge my mistress’ address, mainly because we always meet in public places like Target, Best Buy, and Barnes & Noble. Just kidding, honey.
The first thing I worried about was becoming a sheep to the app, blindly following it wherever it led me, even if I had already heard from various sources that a certain BBQ truck was substandard to the one I already frequent. Good marketing can manipulate even the strongest of minds.
In other words, with these apps some people can lose the freedom of choice.
The second aspect that troubles me applies more for Foursquare than Saga. As we know, the gamification of Foursquare assigns “Mayors” to various locales. I’m a very competitive person and I like to think of certain places as “my places,” even though rationally I know these places are visited by hundreds of other people per day.
For example, say there is a place I like to frequent for lunch at least once a week. I’ve been going to this place since college. In my will, it requests that my favorite wrap from this establishment be placed in my coffin with my decaying corpse. I check in on Foursquare and find out that there’s someone out there who goes to this place two or three times per week. They are obviously the Mayor.
I will immediately hate this person, even though he or she is probably a nice person and obviously has exquisite taste. In any other situation we could probably be good friends, which is theoretically the point of all social apps, including check-in apps. But Foursquare has pitted us against each other.
Usage statistics for Foursquare show that the app isn’t growing at the rate it was a year ago, but still shows a user base that numbers over 20 million. That’s 20 million people who run the risk of being blocked from their friends’ Facebook feeds, unfollowed on Twitter, and serving as a conduit for the marketing activities of corporations. As I’ve written before, Facebook and numerous other online entities serve the purpose of marketers, but I concluded that Facebook provides its users enough to make the exchange worth it.
I don’t know if having an outside chance at being the fake Mayor of the gas station across the street has the same value.