June 7, 2010

My foursquare "Aha" Moment

You remember your first time, right? The moment you realized email was more than just cool? Or the web, or blogging, or Facebook, or cellphones, or or or – take your pick. There’s always that moment where you realize that this shiny, new thing actually has value for you, and that’s when you really buy into integrating it into your life.
I’ve been using foursquare for a while and having fun with it, but my “aha” moment finally came last month on a trip to Washington D.C. Foursquare (and services like it) use GPS built-in to your smartphone to locate you. They show you venues nearby and let you “check in” at a specific one. Foursquare treats this like a game, and if you check in often enough at a specific location (and more often than anyone else), you become “the mayor” until someone else has more check-ins there than you do. Foursquare also allows businesses to offer “specials” to those checking in, such as discounts or free items. Other services, like Gowalla, BrightKite, and Loopt, mostly just show you where your friends are, which can be handy if you end up near each other and don’t know it. In general, you can also broadcast your location on Twitter or Facebook, and sometime this year Facebook is supposed to implement its own location-based check-in service.

I'm currently the Mayor of ALA

Sure, it was fun when I was the original mayor of MPOW, and I got a glimpse of how useful a location-based service could be during ALA’s Midwinter Meeting in Boston in January, when I could see friends checked in at the convention center or a nearby restaurant. But let’s face it – it wasn’t difficult to become the first mayor of ALA, and you expect to see specific types of checkins at a conference. It’s really the unexpected moments that result in a “whoa” or “aha.”
I had two of those on the D.C. trip. The first happened when I checked in at the National Building Museum and foursquare showed me that “Fiesta Asia Street Fair” was a nearby trending place. This piqued my interest, so I looked it up on the web and found out it was actually the National Asian Heritage Festival, which was happening just a few blocks away on Pennsylvania Avenue. I changed my plans, headed down there, and found music, food, vendors, and more. I had a great time, and I wouldn’t even have known about the Festival if I hadn’t checked in on foursquare at the right time in the right-ish place.
I caught another glimpse of the power of information plus location when we went to dinner that night. I checked in at Rosa Mexicano and got a little popup with historical information about where we were courtesy of The History Channel. I’d read about THC’s campaign using foursquare, but surprisingly I only ran into two factoids twice while in D.C. This first one noted we were at the spot where Samuel Morse opened the world’s first telegraph office.

History Channel factoid that popped up during dinner

The second one popped up when I checked in at the National Portrait Gallery. Unfortunately, we’re still at a point where “location” can be a little geographically-challenged, so even though I was precise about where I was checking in, the factoid that displayed was for the nearby International Spy Museum. It was also worded in a way that implied the information was about the Portrait Gallery, which is unfortunate. It’s a good heads up that if you end up writing these kinds of descriptions for a local history tour or other orientation to your town, be sure to be explicit in naming places in the description.

History Channel factoid about the International Spy Museum

Still, it was pretty cool to have information displayed to me based on my location with very little effort on my part. And while I’m calling this my “foursquare moment,” it’s really my location-based services one. It could have happened on any of them, although foursquare seems to have the most critical mass (I very rarely have to enter a venue anymore) and the “trending places” feature has been unique for me so far.
That said, I’m very interested in Gowalla’s trips feature, which lets you create a tour or itinerary for friends. I’m very intrigued by this, and I believe it could be a great opportunity for libraries to offer local information, but Gowalla didn’t click for me on this trip the way foursquare did. I did dual checkins to both services, and while I think I picked up a couple of random “items” on Gowalla, I also had to enter a couple of venues myself, a sign that it doesn’t have the same adoption rate. I had hoped to find some good D.C. “trips” to consider following, but unfortunately the Gowalla app doesn’t show nearby trips, which sorely limits the utility of the service. Every time I checked nearby trips, I got the same list of national ones, even though the Washington Post recently created one specifically for D.C., as did National Geographic.
I expect to see a lot more use of both services during ALA’s Annual Conference in a few weeks. If you’re attending, make a note of the Gowalla trips ahead of time, because you won’t find them serendipitously via the app. If you’re using foursquare, help us make the conference hotspots trending places. And if you have a smartphone and aren’t using either of these services, you might want to give them a try onsite to see if you have your own aha moment.


  1. Gowalla’s Washington Post and Nat Geo trips are really weirdly handled. You have to visit those links you mentioned, then ‘follow’ those accounts on Gowalla. Now their trips will show up in your trips list. It’s a couple extra steps that most users probably won’t figure out – like you said it’s a shame that they can’t be stumbled upon while wandering DC. Still, I’m looking forward to trying them out 🙂
    The History Channel bits are very nice, but I wish Foursquare was responsive at all to working with libraries. I’ve been trying to contact them for 6 months and haven’t gotten a single response.

    Comment by Chad — June 8, 2010 @ 9:46 am

  2. Yeah I’vebeen hoping that we could get them to have some sort of library badge… maybe you could talk to them? I’ve enjoyed it at big tech heavy events like SXSW figuring out where my friends are, but it’s also a neat place to find local tech-friendly cafes and the like. Seeing the “specials nearby” button means you know there’s a foursquare-aware place to hang out which is a decent indicator that there will be other laptop toting nerds there. I’ve definitely used it to see what’s trending nearby and, most importantly, where my friends are in the airport when I’m heading into or out of a big event. Nice post.

    Comment by jessamyn — June 8, 2010 @ 9:53 am

  3. Chad, I’ll email you the contact info I have for someone there. I’m sure they’re just overwhelmed, but it took me months to get to someone, only to be turned down for working together on something for Annual. Same thing with Gowalla. Very disappointing.
    Which leads me to ask… how’s your app coming? 😀

    Comment by jenny — June 8, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

  4. Thanks, Jessamyn. There’s an effort to get a bookworm badge going at http://getsatisfaction.com/foursquare/topics/bookworm_badge_please, but it doesn’t seem to be making much headway. I talked to someone at 4sq about that, too. He forwarded my request to “the folks here who work on that,” but I haven’t heard anything further. It’s a shame, because that would be a great badge that might prompt more libraries to get involved with their service.
    The airport checkins are definitely interesting, although some folks get so granular that I think it defeats the purpose. I’m trying to write a post about thinking through broadcasting your checkin to other social networks, and I might include that piece, too. This might be where gaming the “mayorship” works against the “social” discovery.
    I’ll keep watching for you nearby. 🙂

    Comment by jenny — June 8, 2010 @ 1:39 pm

  5. Thanks for the info, Jenny! Sorry to hear you didn’t have better luck though 🙁 My app is coming along, but much more slowly than I expected… I’ll know whether it can be done in time this weekend thought!

    Comment by Chad — June 8, 2010 @ 3:57 pm

  6. […] My foursquare “Aha” Moment Published: June 7, 2010 Source: The Shifted Librarian You remember your first time, right? The moment you realized email was more than just cool? Or the web, or blogging, or Facebook, or cellphones, or or or — take your pick. There’s always that moment where y… […]

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  7. Okay – this has convinced me. I’m installing foursquare on my iPhone now. I have been seeing little snippets of info on this (so and so just checked in at….) but didn’t realize the potential this App offers. Thanks for sharing!

    Comment by Fran — June 9, 2010 @ 7:07 pm

  8. As a massive geography & information nerd, as well as for other reasons, I enjoy the idea of a system of sharing location and travel data with my friends… but every time I start to think along that line, I get overwhelmed by the massive creepiness factor of telling thousands, if not millions, of random people I don’t know who I am and where I’m at all the time….

    Comment by Jonathon — June 10, 2010 @ 2:12 pm

  9. […] * One person’s FourSquare “aha” moment. […]

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  10. Great post! I’ve been trying to explain how the tips section of FourSquare and the fact that you can see what’s going on locally around you is a bonus. I used it in place of Zagat’s when I traveled the last time and found some really great places to eat in town.
    Thanks again and I’ll be sharing your post at the Social Butterfly Lounge at #ISTE10 this June where I am presenting FourSquare.

    Comment by Lisa Thumann — June 11, 2010 @ 6:13 pm

  11. …and I’ve just decided to stop “playing” foursquare. It eats up so much of my Blackberry space, memory, speed, and shuts down everything else I’m using, that I’m giving up. Maybe I’ll have to rethink it.

    Comment by Marian — June 15, 2010 @ 8:17 pm

  12. I am so pre-aha.

    Comment by Shelley — June 18, 2010 @ 12:59 pm

  13. Marian, I think you can try playing via SMS if the app won’t work well for you.

    Comment by jenny — June 21, 2010 @ 6:44 pm

  14. […] with Foursquare and their library users. And Jenny Levine (The Shifted Librarian) shared her Foursquare “a-ha” moment with us. These are just a few […]

    Pingback by Leveraging Location-Based Social Apps: A Foursquare Example « Speaking of Information — August 3, 2010 @ 7:33 am

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