I’ve recently started to “play” Foursquare – and I’m equally fascinated, amazed, confused and slightly worried by the paradox it presents to me.
For those who have never heard of it, Foursquare is a web service that asks you to broadcast where you currently are – via Twitter if you want to – and leave comments about the places you visit. You can also track your friends locations and comments. In addition, you can get badges for certain activities and if you are in a registered location more often than any other member, then you become its “mayor”.
What fascinates me is that Foursquare is actually fun in a really strange way. Maybe I have played too many highscore-based games in my youth but I get a strangely perverse satisfaction out of being the mayor of a place where hardly anyone else goes to. For example, I’m currently the “mayor” of the bar across the road from work which is, if anything, just sad.
What astonishes me is that I’m obviously not the only person who feels that way and I’m amazed that this absolutely silly and completely virtual reward-system is enough to get people to compete for visiting a certain business or a certain type of business more often than anyone else. Imagine you own a restaurant of bar and think about it: here is a website that makes your customers compete with each other for who eats and drinks at your place most often. And it doesn’t cost you a dime! (Though clever business owners have started to give small real-world incentives to their “mayors”, which no doubt makes these locations even more hotly contested.)
What confuses me is how so many people (me included) are willing to share what is pretty sensitive information. We all freak out when we hear that we can be tracked by law enforcement through our cellphones or that Google’s ads on Gmail are context-sensitive to the content of our emails, but we are willing to publicly broadcast our movements in exchange for a virtual badge or a few meaningless points in a game where there isn’t even a winner. Since Foursquare ties in with Facebook and Twitter I’m pretty sure that you could quickly create a very comprehensive map of who is (regularly) where, when and with whom. It’s gotta be a burglars dream come true – you potential victims are publicly broadcasting their schedules and where they currently are. Already, users on Foursquare are demanding a tighter integrating with the GPS modules in their phones so that no one can lie about his or her location.
Which leads to what is slightly worrying me: to me it feels like that this kind of game has certain risks. It makes me uncomfortable. Maybe the whole thing reminds me slightly too much of the fictional game “Spooks” that Charles Stross describes in his book “Halting State”. In Spooks people play the role of secret agents and are asked to pick up and deliver objects in the real world as part of the game. Later it turns out that it wasn’t really a game and that some players really were smuggling secrets around the world. With a “Spy” badge you could probably make that happen right now.
From Foursquare to fundraising
In case you are wondering whether I have a point or whether this is just a paranoid rant: I’m not sure. But I believe that if you can harness the will to compete for something meaningless like being “mayor” of the local supermarket, then there should be a way for non-profits to take that same drive to compete and turn it into something useful. To a degree people-to-people fundraisers already do that through leaderboards that show which person or team has collected the most money. But I suppose foursquare demonstrates just how much potential and power the will to compete has – at least if you are dealing with 30-somethings that grew up with arcade games and always wanted to beat the highscore. I just suggested a new badge for Foursquare: “Bleeding heart do-gooder” for everyone who visits the Red Cross museum in Geneva.