HypeBusters: Why Foursquare is Doomed

Each week, we’ll invite a member of the community to take some air out of what they see as an overinflated trend. In the first installment of HypeBusters, Traction executive creative director Theo Fanning takes aim at location-based services king Foursquare. If you have an idea for hyperbusters, please e-mail me. Special thanks to Zugara CEO Matt Szymczyk for the HypeBusters idea.

I don’t like Foursquare. I never have. Just writing about it irritates me a little. While there are are countless reasons for me to continue to dislike and mock Foursquare and all it stands for, I will narrow it down — for the sake of brevity — to the big three:
1. Broadcast static: I have a big problem with social apps whose primary word-of-mouth functionality is to encourage users to clutter the social landscape with pointless “updates” that add little or nothing to the conversation. “Hey, I’m at Starbucks on California & Van Ness!” “I’m the mayor of 24 Hour Fitness!” Who cares? These pointless broadcasts are incredibly irritating, irrelevant to the majority of people who receive them, and often feel like limp-wristed boasting. They remind me of a small child screaming: “Look at me! Look what I can do!” And the whole becoming the “mayor” of a location jumped the shark after it became obvious that it was akin to being McDonald’s Mayor McCheese: you have no power and nobody respects you for your title.
2. Everyone’s a winner: We all love to play games — well, those of us who aren’t dead inside — and I am all for the trend of adding game logic to online, mobile and real world activities. But when the gaming-engine is just pointless incentives that have no real meaning, value or prestige,  I cry foul. Adding weak, transparent incentives to “checking-in” does not make for good game play. It’d be like playing Monopoly without the board, community chest, and property cards. You’d just roll dice and stick money under the little metal dog, race car or battle ship. I’ll return again to how Foursquare is making us like children. When kids play sports, everyone has to get a trophy. Same logic here. Real games need strategy. The only strategy in Foursquare is checking in more often (not really a strategy) or cheating like mad, which I guess a few bored people have started doing by creating clones of locations (misspelling the name or address). And while I applaud these rogues for hacking the system, this is pretty pathetic.
3. Mindnumbing pointlessness: My biggest grip with Foursquare ultimately is functionality. What is the user benefit to using Foursquare? Is it really social? Sure, I guess you could use it to see which of your friend’s are at the location you just checked-in to, like the nearly forgotten app Loopt. I know of few who really use it for that. Besides outside of high-density cities like New York and San Francisco, this isn’t really all that useful. Is it tips? Perhaps. But there are some many other apps that are more review centric that you can get more qualified information. (Think Yelp, Where, Urbanspoon, UrbanDaddy.) Sadly, once you strip Foursquare of it’s quasi-gameplay, lame incentives and weak social mechanics, it is an app that let’s you announce your location and get random tips about where you are at.  Oh and if you are really lucky, they may have a drink coupon or appetizer for checking-in. Good luck explaining to the wait-staff that as “mayor” you are entitled to free buffalo wings.
I believe so little in the value of Foursquare that I actually bet against them. Nearly a year ago, I bet my business partner, Adam Kleinberg, $100 that Foursquare would not reach critical mass — we arbitrarily defined it as 20 million users — by March 10, 2012. This hasn’t made me popular among the “super mayors” that spew endlessly about how the location-based social app is the future, but it has made for some wonderful dialogues (arguments) between myself and some other industry luminaries (my idiot coworkers).
Now, to put my opinion into context, I will share the following disclaimers. When Twitter launched, I also thought it was stupid and irrelevant idea. (I was wrong.) And in 1999, I didn’t show up for a job interview at Google because I thought the Internet didn’t need another search engine. (I was stupid.) So really what the hell do I know?
Theo Fanning is executive creative director at Traction, a San Francisco advertising agency. Follow him on Twitter.
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