Foursquare and Gowalla: some thoughts

Like many others, I’ve been swept up in the geo-app craze lately, specifically Foursquare and Gowalla. This semester I’ve set a couple of MSc projects where my students are using geo-apps but I’m also keen to explore their wider educational potential and have lots of ideas for the coming semester so it’s something I’m pretty excited about. Obviously I need to have a good handle on the apps if I’m going to start using them productively in the ‘classroom’ so I’ve taken advantage of the fact that I’m in a beautiful city (Stockholm) and away from the day-to-day to immerse myself in Foursquare – and to a lesser extent, Gowalla.

It’s fair to say that these apps really do encourage you to leave to house/office – in fact the whole of central Stockholm is now one big meta-office, and I wander from office to office (read: cafe to cafe) frantically searching for free internet whereupon I can plonk myself down, order a coffee and get on with work; that is, until I check the Foursquare leaderboard and see that I’m slipping and have to move on rapidly in order to stay in 1st place… yes, Foursquare has brought out my seldom-seen competitive side. It’s a great way to explore the city, mind you. This is my 3rd year of (quasi)semi-residency in Stockholm and while I’m a dab hand with the underground (winter travel) and know every inch of every shore (cycling everywhere April-Oct) it’s only now that I’ve spent time roaming the streets – literally.

Obviously the great irony of social software/apps is that they can be incredibly antisocial if you’re hanging out with friends whose interest in technology doesn’t reach further than Facebook. It’s a double-edged sword; while it’s antisocial in one way it’s extremely sociable in another, but it’s moving sociability to a different realm. My first real foray into Foursquare was in Manchester, when much to my friend’s annoyance I had to cut our conversation short every time we moved to a new venue so that I could check-in. After that I forgot about it for a while and it’s only really in this past couple of weeks that I’ve become hopelessly addicted, spurred on by collaborating with my significant other. Like a geo-app Bonnie and Clyde, we roam the streets in search of new places (and in my case, free wifi) determined to hold on to our hard-earned places at the top of the Stockholm leaderboard. There’s competition between us too, although he’s more focused on mayorships whereas i’m driven by earning badges. The moment when we checked in at Raoul Wallenbergs torg and I earned my Superstar badge will be cherished for… at least a week.

Yes, my own Foursquare/Gowalla addiction is probably a fad and the act of collecting badges is pretty futile in itself although the social gaming element is loads of fun. From a tourism perspective, it’s like having a Twitter-meets-TripAdvisor with the added benefit of a demographic with similar needs/interests (wifi/music/refreshments). Educationally we’re in the early stages of experimentation although there are established campus-based applications such Harvard’s initiative where Foursquare is used to get students exploring the campus. Obviously one of the biggest barriers to integration is the devices themselves. I’m doing a lot of work with students with mobile phones and video, but it’s all group-based (n=4) as that way I can ensure that there’s somebody in the group with the required technology/functionality.

The fact that I’m contributing to the recording of my own movements is ironic as I’m not a great fan of omniscient CCTV cameras and an Orwellian ‘Big Brother’ culture, yet I’m freely participating in our digital panopticon in a way which occasionally gives me the chills. While I’ve been uploading all sorts of media artefacts to the web for years, there’s something about Foursquare which I find slightly disconcerting. It feels like the final piece in the jigsaw: the potential for our data about ourselves to become much greater and more powerful than us. I love checking in places, earning points and badges, but occasionally the feeling that we are becoming but tiny specks in our vast web of data can be slightly scary as it feels just that bit closer to the ‘bad version’ of technological singularity. While this is a somewhat polar viewpoint, I’ve tended to sit on the sceptics side of the fence when it comes to the singularity seeing it as sci-fi hysteria, and now all of a sudden the idea of hyper-intelligent omniscient machines doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched.

In the meantime, I’ll carry on checking in and flickring and blogging and making YouTube vids, safe in the knowledge that I’ve not got anything to hide and not many people really care about what I’m doing anyway.

My own publicly-private panopticon.

6 thoughts on “Foursquare and Gowalla: some thoughts

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Foursquare and Gowalla: some thoughts « Heloukee: EdTech and Digital Culture --

  2. Thanks for the comment on my post Helen! (

    I know what you mean about iAds, I can’t see the masses of iPhone users taking too kindly to pop up ads every time you just want to open an app. We’ll have to wait and see how they implement it I guess, and if it’s turn-off-able!

    I’m more surprised that you think that commercialisation of foursquare is a bad thing. I think that having rewards at your favourite cafe etc. is quite a novel idea, as it’s not blatant advertising in the way that a pop-up ad is. I’m starting to realise that I’m a bit of a fan of marketing gimmicks; anything but a pop-up ad!!! I can imagine that loads of people would check-in at a Starbucks ten times in order to get a free coffee and a Starbucks badge, it’s no different to the stamp cards coffee shops already do!

    I can also appreciate that foursquare would be a useful tool for exploring a new city, and would probably find you some more ‘off-the-beaten-track’ kind of places instead of the standard tourist traps.

  3. Cheers for the comment Rich! Since being back in Manc I haven’t been so addicted to FourSquare for similar reasons to those that you outlined in your post – it’s definitely something I prefer to use when I’m away some place. As far as the advertising goes, I rather like the idea of seeing FourSquare symbols in cafes/bars etc. but not keen on advertising within the app. As we were saying the other day, people are starting to use the ‘tips’ to advertise their own business/service – interesting use, but can be kind of annoying…

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