Throwback to Foursquare, the app that made life a game


If you were researching tech trends over a decade ago, you would learn that 2009 has been dubbed “the year of social media.” Facebook became the most popular online social network in the US (overtaking MySpace), the Like button was born, and Nielsen reported that time spent on social networks and blogs surpassed personal email . People tweeted “what happens” 2.5 million times a day, and when Twitter was overloaded (like after the news of Michael Jackson’s death), Fail Whale “lifted” our spirits. Before the rise of influencer (and cancel) culture, celebrities like Oprah and Justin Bieber joined the craze and got verified with a shiny blue tick.

That same year, a location-based search and discovery app called Foursquare launched at SXSW and made a huge impact on the tech-obsessed crowd. In its heyday, Foursquare (and “Check-in”) was innovative and exciting, paving the way for FOMO years before Instagram would steal the spotlight. The app became a companion in our everyday lives and arguably made leaving the house more fun as we became a nation of overshare. There was a plaque for that, of course. Critics claimed that devotees needed professional help—but to be fair, many called their therapist’s office.

Privacy took a back seat to the exhilaration of humble boasting that became so normal (and addictive) that no person, place, or thing was too obscure to check out. While some check-ins were simple and predictable (e.g. where you live, where you work, your daily Starbucks run), others got creative, like checking each other in – totally worth it to explain You were someone else’s mayor. And we all had that friend who linked their Foursquare account to Facebook and Twitter so we were bombarded with their daily gym check-ins on multiple platforms and ended up being flagged as spam.

We knew that the dark side effect of publicly announcing that we weren’t home (and stating the exact number of miles away) was that would-be thieves and stalker could use the information to their advantage — and, spoiler alert, they did. We were playing a potentially dangerous game and the Please Rob Me website was the wake-up call we deserved.

Added to this was the psychological torture induced by off-the-grid check-ins. Here’s so and so that they’re up to something, but the details were private, and they weren’t willing to sacrifice coin-collecting for the leaderboard.

But despite negative press, at least in real life we ​​were social. Foursquare made it easy to meet friends in and around our neighborhoods and encouraged us to step out of our comfort zones. Sometimes all it took was a chance to earn us a new badge to get us out there. It was “doing it for the gram” before the gram existed. There was also serious peer pressure to fit into social media culture; If you didn’t check in, did it even happen?

We used the app to network at a time when it wasn’t considered scary to actively look for others checked into the same facility — particularly the mayor — who you might recognize in their photo. It was an automatic icebreaker. We’ve reached out to friends and strangers for city guides and restaurant tips (e.g., “cash only”), and tipped our hats to the heroes who provided WiFi passwords.

I was proud to share the news of becoming mayor of a corporation, like I’d suddenly acquired partnership and needed to notify someone in payroll. And it became one personal attack as colleagues fought to claim my bureau mayorship (where I was actually on the payroll). Everyone would find ways to cheat—he checked into his lunch break, conference rooms, stairwells, the restroom, his desk, and then back to the office. If you were really committed, victory was just a few check-ins away.

Because I loved telling this silly story, as the mayor of an inanimate object, I embraced minor conquests that I knew I could win—like the time I became mayor of my company’s water dispensers. Of course, one day you’re in and the next…you get a passive-aggressive response notification that you have been dethroned (or ousted). It was wild, but when you challenge the world to a little friendly competition, someone’s feelings are bound to get hurt.

By 2010, location-based technology was seemingly everywhere; and by that I mean literally an astronaut checked into space. And because imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Facebook launched Places and Yelp introduced check-in offers. The next logical step for Foursquare was to get companies to play along — including mega-chain Starbucks — which was rewarding the mayor of individual stores with $1 off Frappuccinos for a limited time.

In 2011, Foursquare, in partnership with American Express, had amassed over 8 million users, including President Obama and current mayors, including New Yorker Michael Bloomberg, who declared April 16 as “Foursquare Day.”

In the years that followed, the company continued to grow, but as fans, our priorities changed. Little by little, friends who once had multiple check-ins a day became inactive. The fascination and the urge to make every single moment, everywhere, count more than it actually was had subsided. We just grew out of it.

In 2014, the company boasted 50 million users, surpassed 5 billion check-ins, and sent shockwaves through the tech world by announcing that the app was split into two parts – Foursquare and Swarm. Foursquare stood behind its significant change, but loyal users felt somehow betrayed. For one thing, mayoral offices were lost in the update. They were eventually reinstated on the Swarm app the following year, but by that time many had already “checked out”.

In hindsight, Foursquare’s ultimate quest was to be “the first” to open up the modern world and provide personal opinions about everything that exists. The app inspired me to explore and try new things and managed to turn life itself into a game that I certainly enjoyed playing.


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