FourSquare – Re-writing the Rules While Killer Application Remains Elusive

“Nature is by and large to be found out of doors, a location where, it cannot be argued, there are never enough comfortable chairs.”
– Fran Lebowitz


I’m a believer that Location Based Services (LBS), coupled with the latest smartphones, will evolve a number of indispensible, and unexpected, killer applications.

That said, it’s pretty clear that those mission critical applications remain to be found. Essentially, the whole LBS opportunity, is a social experiment that early adopters are collaboratively helping to clarify.

It was with those thoughts in mind when I decided to start using some of the popular LBS social media applications, or should I say social games? These included FourSquare, Yelp and Gowalla.

Let me put this in context of other social media applications with which I’ve experimented. Back in 2007, I decided to try microblogging service Twitter, that was then in its infancy, I had low expectations. In fact, I expected to hate it, but mentally committed to give it a two week trial just for the purposes of self education. Over 3 years later, I’m still using it, love it and have found many applications which Twitter excels at – personal clipping service, early information and a sense of what my universe of followees is up to are among them.

FourSquare, although popular, hasn’t (yet) passed my personal usefulness test. And, I suspect most others still consider it more a game than a mission critical application. While there is an element of fun, it seems to be the sort of thing you could easily drop without much loss.

In that context, it surprises me that FourSquare recently pushed a new version (1.7.1) to my iPhone that checked my actual proximity to locations Since then, almost half of my check ins fail to pass this new proximity test, even though I was physically at the location in question. Below, I have re-posted my support request that gives more background.

But, suffice it to say, an application change that, on the surface, seemed sensible, made the application way less attractive to me. That’s doubly deadly in a space which is still finding it’s spot. I’m interested in comments on both the major issue (startups alienating early adopters) and even the specific issue.

I’m surprised the FourSquare has re-written the rules of an emerging LBS service without any notification. I am referring, of course, to the latest upgrade on my iPhone on which checkins deemed too distant from the intended location (by an undocumented and new algorithm) are suddenly deemed ineligible to accumulated points or badges. Because it is so fundamental, I’ve also decided to re-blog this as well, because  it illustrates how the law of unintended consequenes can have a huge impact on a young service’s future prospect. Translation: this wasn’t a well thought out change in so many ways.

Why do I saw this? Here are just a few reasons:
1. For those of us who live in rural areas where cellular tower infrastructure is typically much more widely spaced (and often in the 850MHz band vs. the 1900 MHz band for broader coverage at lower densities), the inherent accuracy of locations reported by mobile devices is much lower. For example, at locations near to me, it is not uncommon to have the phone’s margin of error be as much as 4500 m to 6000 m. Although FourSquare doesn’t divulge their required closeness, I think it may be something like 500 m. With that in mind, it is almost by definition that most rural “check ins” will be, starting this week, flagged as ineligible. And, that’s the behaviour I’m seeing. Of course, in many instances GPS lowers this error, but it is surprising how many locations don’t have great GPS reception, such as indoors or in an automobile.
2. By changing the rules of the game on the fly, FourSquare has penalized those checking into locations that weren’t located that accurately in the first place – whether because of the reasons in #1 or because people weren’t told they had to define the location within a certain minimum delta of the actual location. For example, I suspect that people actually defined the location as they were walking toward the actual location, knowing that FourSquare didn’t care where the real actual location physically was. I find this behaviour in about 30-50% of the check ins I’m doing since the change.

FourSquare was an experiment for me, but given these new rules which appear to not have been well thought out for large swathes of geography, I’m considering shutting down my personal FourSquare use.. For something that still provides no direct utility, I really don’t want to have to go back to re-enter all locations information from scratch.