The problem with pure “social”
Today, we saw the long-awaited announcement of FourSquare's $20M round. Whispered about and long in coming (well, not too long considering the company's relative youth) my hat is off to the founders and their VCs. The “traction” (to overuse a term) FourSquare has been able to generate is remarkable. However, I, along with others in the web/blogosphere keep asking the same question: ”Now What?”
The pattern I have seen with people in New York, and especially with people who come from the NYU’s ITP program is their fascination with “social” aspects of the internet for the sake of these social aspects themselves. Every presentation is about friends, trust, networks, graphs, recommendations, etc. They seem to live in a world of recent college graduates who feel that the dorm culture they experienced in college (not sure if NYU has dorms or just cool SoHo pads) where the social ties that were strong during their undergrad days somehow persist into adulthood. Sadly, that’s rarely the case.
I graduated from Stanford in 1989, where people DID live in dorms. Most of my friends went to work for Oracle because that was the sweet, high-paying company that enabled one to work around Highway 92 and still have a manageable commute from San Francisco — “the city” (or, as I now call it, “the town”). We used Oracle*Mail to communicate work-related and non work-related intentions because in those days every new Oracle employee got a VT220 and a 9600 baud modem for their home (how fast was that!) and even a leased line if you were a developer. We used email to be social, and continued to use it to be social for the first couple of years after graduation. However, we grew up. The number of “friends” decreased, people got married, people moved away, people moved on to start companies or work at others. We kept in touch electronically through occasional emails, FaceBook profiles, and LinkedIn. But the interest in “where is everyone tonight” faded exponentially.
I use FourSquare every day. I love the application, love the fact that the back end is in Scala (my favorite functional-ish language) and the fact that in the two places I have lived in the past year (San Francisco and New York) there are so many venues into which I can check in. My wife uses it too. She is a VC in Medical Devices - smart, tech-savvy, but no computer geek by any means. I asked her recently why she uses FourSquare. Her reply: “to kick your ass.” She felt that it was a competitive game against me on who can have more checkins during a given day. When we walk into a restaurant together, we whip out our iPhone’s and see who can check in first. Sometimes I have to remind her because geekiness is always on my mind :).
So, what will happen when either one of us gets tired of this? Why would we get tired? Because FourSquare, at this early stage, offers no value other than “social connection” which has less and less relevance in my life once I know who is in my social circle, once my social circle shrinks as I figure out who my few friends that matter really are. Social is NOT the ultimate reason one uses a product. UTILITY (if you’re an Adam Smith capitalist) or HEDONS (if you’re into felicific calculus). "Social" is a vague awareness of what others are telling you they are doing, feeling you’re a part of a group (watch South Park's Facebook episode). The need to have many “friends” fades with time — the few real friends (you know who they are and you know where they are) remain.
In order for “check-in” services to continue to keep the attention of adults like me (it’s a pretty good market, too), they have to provide something useful in return for my telling them where I am. Whether it’s financial offers for something I WANT (come on guys, you can figure out my gender, age, income just by looking at my checkin history) or telling me about something I might like (sort of the way Hunch and Amazon’s recommendations do). When I travel, and I arrive into a new city (I recently went to Raleigh where I have never been before), FourSquare told me nothing. I had no friends who checked in anywhere, “likes” from people I didn’t know and whose profile I could not query. I resorted to Yelp — something of real value on the web.
FourSquare is, arguably, a web phenomenon that others are actively chasing… and the competitors are not amateurs (Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Yelp). There have been lasting and powerful web phenomena (FaceBook) and not so lasting (Second Life).
As I mentioned, I am really a FourSquare fan. I just hope they start delivering value to their loyal “gamers” that goes beyond social. They’re smart, I think they’ll figure it out.