Draft: Politics, Privilege and Competition on Foursquare

Another part of a series of draft essays I did on popular culture. This essay was an exercise in Political-Economy and thus was highly experimental. Particularly when it comes to Foursquare, my ideas of the platform are still very much in their nascent stages. 

There is perhaps no other social network that so directly bridges socializing and consumption than Foursquare. Promoted as an utility to connect friends in cities, Foursquare, as well as such other social networking games as Gowalla, Miso, Untappd and Getglue, employs specific strategies to induce its users to compete and consume. From how the application is deployed, to specific structures in the program, and the relationships and rewards formalized by the site and advertised venues, Foursquare turns socializing, going out and interacting with friends into a commodifiable object.  Ultimately, by luring patrons to particular venues, Foursquare attempts to control participants’ consumption of merchandise and comestibles endorsed by its advertisers and business partners.

However, Foursquare does not advertise itself as a competitive network for consumption. Rather, the application proclaims itself as a way of making socializing in a complex urban environment simpler.  As the “about” section of the application suggests, Foursquare “makes cities easier to use and more interesting to explore[1].” This sets Foursquare in a privileged position as being a guide to the city and its social activities. Friends can “check-in” to specific venues, discern how popular a particular venue is (or how many people are checked in or how the venue is “trending”), and leave feedback about the particular venue for others to review. By contributing to this somewhat egalitarian form of social networking, Foursquare adherents have created a site of exclusivity, not dissimilar from local reviewing websites such as Yelp. Also, the idea of following a friend’s movements gives Foursquare users the ability to know where one’s cool, as well as not-so-cool, friends are. Ostensibly, by tracking a friend’s destinations around a given city, a user of Foursquare can make more discriminate judgements about where to go and consume.

Designed primarily for the iPhone, Foursquare was inherently built for the privileged and savvy. The application would only later be modified for other smartphones, and finally, for ordinary phones. Innovations for the phone are often launched primarily for the iPhone and then ported over to other phones as a secondary option. The very apparatus by which the application is distributed therefore is for a particular type of urban elite.

Foursquare is an application that requires GPS signalling on smartphones to work. Therefore, the use of Foursquare is entrusted to a specific class of users: those with smartphones, access to the internet, etc. and expendable income and time. The fact that it premiered for the iPhone also bestows it with a certain elitism. RIM’s Blackberry, a phone associated with work applications, was the last of the three major smartphone companies (Apple’s iPhone, the Google Android operating system and Blackberry) to be enabled. The initial operating system was designed for a phone used for leisure and more creative professions. Its owners did not need the business oriented Blackberry, but could have the gamut of applications offered by the other two operating systems. Those who can check-in to three to four locations a day (outside of their homes) will use this application more than those who don’t have that luxury either because of working many hours or having little capital.

Certainly the demographic aspects of the application and how it is used were a consideration in the creation of Foursquare. The application distinguishes itself because of the particular echelon that uses it. Additionally, Foursquare works in urban centers rather than the suburbs because of the large number of stores, restaurants and bars located in a concentrated area and competing with each other. This phenomenon has been consistently documented and reveals that the consumption of Foursquare not only happens in urban centers, but specifically those areas known for their nightlife and restaurant culture. In one study of over a million Foursquare users[2], it is apparent that the downtown areas of Manhattan, along with the young urban haven of Williamsburg, are frequented and checked into most often. Rather than residential areas in Northern Manhattan, western Brooklyn, etc., it is also clearly evident that checking in occurs most often in those centers with high retail consumption. As a consequence, suburban, as well as rural areas, where the number of retail spaces is fewer and the application, therefore, less successful, are basically unnamed in Foursquare’s description of itself. Thus, the application becomes something that is primarily accessed and viewed by the elite, the young and the socially active. Its purposes are to reaffirm particular lifestyles and expand upon them rather than to accommodate more domestic and sedentary (less consumptive) lifestyles.

It is the specific structures of “competition” that truly distinguish these applications from other social networking applications. The primary form of competition that exists is referred to by the site itself when it says, “by ‘checking in’ via a smartphone app or SMS, users share their location with friends while collecting points and virtual badges[3].” These, along with “mayorships”, create the specific and overt forms of competition.

Initially, the most direct form of competition on the application revolves around the issuing of points for actually “checking in” to specific locations. Participants accrue more points based merely on the number of places in which they appear, as well as creating new places and checking into new places. All of this encourages diversity, not remaining in the same place, but trying out new venues, bars, etc. These qualifications are important as they encourage more, rather than less consumption. A member of the social network will not be regarded highly on the site’s “Leaderboard” for the week if he does not compete by checking into new and interesting venues, and remains stationary, or, even worse, doesn’t check in at all. This also adds a kind of quantifiable cultural capital, based on region, for the users of the application. Anyone can see where he stands on the numerical leaderboard in relation to his friends or the population at large and inevitably seeks to accrue more points in order to have his name ascend to the top.

To counterbalance this particular competition, a second set of strategies keeps people returning to the same venues. These are the “mayorships”  awarded to a person who goes to the same place enough times. While mayorships do little in terms of competition on a weekly basis, they perform two functions to legitimate and recognize consistent consumption. It first, and foremost, rewards the mayors and connects them intimately to the venues that they frequent. The term mayor, in and of itself, connotes a place of power and is accompanied by an icon of a crown. These visual indications seat the user in a place of authority among his friends, giving him cultural capital within the actual site, but no actual power.

Still, companies, restaurants, etc. can opt to give “specials” to the mayors. Such rewards, like free drinks, food specials, etc. further encourage the mayor to return repeatedly to a particular venue. It also potentially attracts others to a venue and lures them back in the hope of becoming a mayor and receiving the various deals that might be availed of them. In addition, mayorships provide specific privileges to its mayors. They are able to edit certain tags and categories of each site once they are a mayor, placing them in a position of privilege and expertise. This further boosts consumption, as the mayor will undoubtedly invest more time into a specific venue and utilize its promotions. These promotions and mayorships also bestow authority to each user and encourages repeat visits. It should also be noted that the mayorship system is also quantifiable. Users are informed, via the application, of exactly how many days it will take them to become mayor of a specific spot. Once again, they know that a certain amount of investment and use of the application will give them their, somewhat meaningless, reign of authority.

However, perhaps no other system identifies more specific tastes and interests than Foursquare’s badge system. The system overtly creates rewards, badges, for those who decide to go to specific venues a certain number of times in certain orders, with a badge being a symbolic form of cultural capital. Badges connote the feelings of a reward for merit, as in army or boy scout badges which exemplify good deeds and jobs well done, and, at the same time, affirming a lifestyle where consumption is king. These badges vary widely in terms of how to receive them, ranging from 30 check-ins at coffee shops (which will earn one a “Fresh Brew” badge) to stopping by venues chosen by the users as hip (earning one a “Socialite” badge). Furthermore, specific companies, ranging from Radio Shack to MTV to the Wall Street Journal have teamed with Foursquare to offer specialty badges. Often these badges are only able to be acquired if first a user follows the particular company in their network of friends and then proceeds to check into particular venues that are promoted by that company. Such is the case with the Wall Street Journal’s “WSJ Lunchbox” badge, which is acquired after checking into three venues reviewed well by the Journal itself. Badges are showcased and posted as announcements to friends on other social networks, an advertisement for the Foursquare and its affiliated companies that also instigates competition. Users want to outbid each other for badges and with the number of badges displayed on each user’s profile page, they can see how many and what badges their friends have received as compared to them. Badges also are discontinued on occasion, making them rarities. Once aware that badges may only be an ephemeral award, users can even try to get and consume badges before their expiration by finding out how to get them through unrelated third party sites[4].

The site’s mechanisms have capitalized on the inherent nature of games and competition, using numbers and visual rewards and intimately connects them to consumption, particularly related to nightlife and food. It should be noted that in at least three major cities, namely New York City, London and Paris, the highest amount of check-ins were food related, particularly restaurants. In a break down of venue types for New York City (where Foursquare originated), the highest percentages of check-ins, by far, related to those venues to which consumers “go out[5].” The creators of Foursquare have capitalized on competition for a basic social norm in cities. Consumers compete over going to different places, going to more places and going to those specific places that are promoted by Foursquare through their mayorship specials and badges.

All of this increases Foursquare’s growth and credibility. Any establishment can submit to Foursquare ideas for mayorship specials and badges. Foursquare, in turn. accepts some, and will send promotional material for Foursquare to the venue itself. Foursquare currently sustains itself through private funding, but pictures itself as an intermediary in terms of promotions for particular businesses, encouraging users to not only consume, but eventually to consume at places with which it partners, dictating the choices that users make based on the rewards that it can provide. Even beyond these rewards, Foursquare emphasizes mass consumption. Users want to “rack up points[6]” and acquire the cultural capital that only Foursquare can provide.

It is precisely this cultural capital, with Foursquare acting as the promoter of particular brands, that reveals some of the implicit mechanisms that drive Foursquare users. Foursquare not only acts as a way of creating competitive consumption from every day social interaction, but also acts as a way of driving taste in urban centers. While the promotion of badges is an overt mechanism by which Foursquare does this, more implicit mechanisms compel users to consume particular objects based on socialization, namely what their friends and cultural critics consider to be “cool.” Foursquare enables this specifically through its system of social networking (connecting friends), which allows users to track their friends activities and through their rating and tips system.

By far the most “social” part of Foursquare is that users, as in any social network, can connect with friends, see where their friends are and comment on their friends’ locations. In turn, this networking effects the specific choices that a user may make about venues that he chooses to check into himself. Rather than checking into more “commercial” stores (chain stores like McDonalds, Duane Reade, or banks), the user often chooses to represent himself by checking into locations that he deems characteristically appropriate. Time spent in homes and more mundane venues is less advertised than trips to boutiques and more unique commercial and cultural locales. The choice made about where to check-in (after all the process is not automatic) portrays one’s public commercial and consumptive life. Users may also decide to visit specific venues based upon which venues are “trending” or have the most users checked into them in their area as indicated at the top of the application. This impels users both to go to popular places and to avoid checking into or disclosing their life outside of the world of consumption. To further enhance the experience, badges are given for attending particularly high trending and, therefore, usually high consumption, events.

That the user’s choice is of paramount importance is emphasized by perhaps the most innocuous consumptive aspect of Foursquare, its “tips,” and “things to do” which are added to every venue. Users can read the tips on what should be purchased and consumed at a particular venue, from happy hour specials to a noteworthy dish at a restaurant. Anyone can leave these tips and users can check off if they have followed a particular tip. No rewards are given for leaving tips. It is specifically a social aspect of the website. However, the tips are quantifiable. Only those tips that have been checked off by numerous people are visible and a numeric value based on that population garners a hierarchical rank to a tip. It also becomes a way of planning consumption and engaging with businesses as these same tips can be archived by any user for future use when they attend a particular venue by adding it to a “To Do” list.

In addition, these tips allow for an almost “personal” engagement with individual companies and are a hallmark of Foursquare’s business model for companies. Foursquare encourages the companies to start leaving tips for particular venues and sites, allowing these places to be connected to brands such as the Wall Street Journal, Thrillist, Bravo, etc. These companies then, when followed, are not advertising themselves, but are, in essence, becoming taste makers and are driving business to particular settings. This creates a fan base that might migrate from Foursquare to not only the particular venues that the companies advocate, but also to the companies themselves (be it newspaper, website or channel) because they are considered “cool.” Conversely, because a particular company is “cool,” users might then flock to a particular venue that they have promoted as a tip.

Finally, Foursquare has succeeded in promoting itself by linking to other social networks and opening to web developers. Foursquare badges can be viewed on Facebook profiles. Check-ins have the option of Facebook statuses or Twitter “tweets”. Third party websites and developers can produce software and games that augment Foursquare and spread its reach. When someone wins a badge, he has the option to have that “accomplishment” published automatically to his Facebook or twitter page (or both). Thus he shares the cultural capital of Foursquare with a wider audience. Foursquare then becomes a utility, as it advertises itself, and creates competition in life’s social activities. It becomes an addictive and easy to broadcast game to flaunt good taste and allows companies toself-promote.

It is no wonder then, why Foursquare has spawned so many copycats. Various companies have mirrored Foursquare for the consumption of entertainment, such as GetGlue which monitors books, television, movies and website traffic; Miso, which makes a game from checking into television shows and movies; Foodspotting, which monitors various recipes and cuisines, and even Untappd, where users can check in (at 15 minute intervals) to the various types of beer they have drunk.

Foursquare, in essence, underlines a basic human instinct to play and to win. That they have discovered a way to do it based on something so simple and elemental is informative. In an age where users are so quick and eager to broadcast who they are to the world at large via social networking, and implicitly compete for cultural capital through frequency of status updates, posting of pictures and general communication, it is not surprising that Foursquare has come into being. Before its inception, people were already searching for dominance on social networks, competing by clogging up pages with chatter and becoming the most visible updater among their friends on their respective news feeds. In essence, Foursquare merely added a numeric value to this and attached it to socializing at real places. By fusing real world movement and virtual world competition, Foursquare has cleverly created consumption on and beyond the internet, one iPhone at a time.

[1]                See http://foursquare.com/about

[2]                See http://www.urbagram.net/archipelago/

[3]                See http://foursquare.com/about

[4]                an example can be found at http://mattersofgrey.com/foursquarebadgelist/

[5]                See http://www.urbagram.net/archipelago/

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