Why Do We Check In?

“I did not want to be mayor of my dentist’s office. Why did I even check in?”

That’s a tweet posted last week by Steve Buttry, director of community engagement and social media at Digital First Media. Buttry was echoing a thought that I’ve had a lot lately about my habit of checking in to places of all kinds on Foursquare fairly regularly: I don’t know exactly why I’m checking in, or what I get out of it — yet I do it anyway.

In the past week, I’ve checked-in to a conference I was attending; several Amtrak stations; a cafe I sometimes hang out at; a library where I go to work; and my house, several times (which I originally entered as a “place” on Foursquare’s map specifically so I could check-in there). I preserved some mayorships and got a badge, and the 40 or so people I’m friends with on the service got to know where I was — but I didn’t get any discounts, and I willingly submitted specific information about my whereabouts and interests into the vast online social matrix that seeks to hit me with targeted advertising. Meanwhile, my place data will probably follow me on my social profile (in one way or another) in perpetuity.

So why do I do it? One answer, as editor of this site, is that I feel like I need to understand the user experience in order to effectively cover LBS. Responding to a follow-up email, Buttry gave me a similar reason, saying that his urge to check in probably has more to do with the forward-looking nature of the technology than anything else: “I truly don’t care about badges, mayors or leaderboards,” he said. “But I think location is going to be important in the future of journalism, commerce and social media, so I play Foursquare. I want to be there and watching the progress and thinking about the possibilities.” He wrote more extensively about the topic in a blog post last year.

But I can certainly understand the user experience without participating so regularly. Evidently it’s something more than that for me — I just don’t know what that is. With the convergence of LBS and real-time specials and daily deals, there’s a case to be made that more people will start checking in to places in order to get cash off at the places they are at (and provide free social advertising to the business in the process). But based on my experience, most users don’t even really need that as a motivation. There’s something about the act of announcing your whereabouts that is in itself compelling for people.

Asked why the check-in is so compelling, Foursquare’s head of business development for Europe, Omid Ashtari, told me about a number of key use cases (including deals):

  • Foursquare to save money: check in to unlock specials, especially with our Amex partnership is a very compelling reason to check in.
  • Foursquare recommendations: A lot of users are understanding that the power of Foursquare lies in the personalized recommendations that you can get. By checking in you are teaching our algorithm what you like which allows us in turn to give you the most relevant recommendations through Foursquare Explore.
  • Foursquare as a personal diary: When you go on a holiday and want to remember all those great restaurants so that you can tell your friends the next time they go.
  • Foursquare to meet friends: Checking in tell your friends where you are.
  • Checking in can become a utility with some third party apps like Hashtagmom and donteat.at
  • Foursquare as a game: Some people like the leaderboard and competing for points with their friends
  • Brands: Not sure if you’ve seen but brands also check into places to essentially broadcast a location that is important to them i.e. ESPN checking into the stadium before game time to get people to tune in.

At a panel called “Evolution of the Check-in” at the Street Fight Summit last fall, there was a lot of talk about so-called “passive” or frictionless check-ins, where your phone tracks you wherever you go (providing information about your whereabouts to friends and marketers), and pings you when someone or something relevant is nearby. Last year Foursquare introduced Radar, which stays on in the background and alerts you when a friend checks in nearby. And at SXSWi this year, tracking/intro services like Highlight, Glassmap and Introwere among the most buzzed about new apps.

But as first adopter tech-forward types have started using them, these kinds of passive check-in apps seem to have fallen a bit flat. And it’s unclear whether this kind of passive tracking is something that average people will ultimately be comfortable with.

My guess is that part of the reason that these apps aren’t resonating (yet?) is because we like the control that we get from being able to actively check-in or not check-in. And we like some aspect of proclaiming where we are into the digital void.

“People are social creatures, and ‘checking in’ is a way of sharing who you are and what you’re doing,” said Mark Watkins, GM of entertainment content at Telenav. “But sharing location alone isn’t compelling enough on it’s own, and people are looking for ways to share their personal interests and passions. The trend is away from location sharing and towards ‘lifestyle sharing’ — whether that’s a cool new band you found on Facebook via Spotify, or a great wedding dress you’re sharing with your friends on Pinterest. It’s also why the predominant check-in players are either focusing on discovery (Foursquare), or mobile payments (SCVNGR), to deliver core utility as well as a social experience, as interest in check-ins-for-their-own-sake wanes.”

David Hirschman is a co-founder at Street Fight.

Let us know what you think in the comments: Why do you check in?

  1. Your Conscience
    April 4, 2012

    “Why did I check in?” Indeed.

    Why did I channel surf until 2 AM?

    Why did I stare at my reflection for 30 minutes?

    Why did I waste a precious moment of life playing a video game?

    Why did I eat a whole sleeve of Girl Scout cookies?

    Lots of ways to ask the same question.

    1. Adiddlyfdiddly
      April 11, 2012

      Why does everyone feel the need to be so exhibitionist, lately???

  2. tishgrier
    April 4, 2012

     Hate to say it, but if you were a woman, you’d see the whole thing differently….

    Women, who have a lot more to be concerned about with “checking in” with these kinds of apps, don’t.  If you look at the numbers (I believe Pew Internet and American Life has them) men are more likely than women to use these sorts of apps.  Subsequently, the apps cater to the way men think about themselves in the gaming space: men want to display, to win, to beat other people to different levels.  The gamer aspect of Foursquare makes it appealing to men.  Most women, on the other hand, could care less about being “mayor” and more about who may or may not be watching them…

    When Foursquare started giving coupons for check ins, well, that got *some* women more involved–but not the critical mass necessary to make it worth disclosing their locations. 

    Oh, and you wonder why passive check-in apps have fallen flat?  Well, no gaming aspect for men, and an increased dislike by women. 

    This seems like a total no-brainer to me–which makes me wonder why ya’ll seem to be obsessed with dissecting it and finding the “user experience” hook.

    BTW, if you’re looking for your glasses, they’re on your head 😉

  3. April 4, 2012

    I’ve been using Foursquare for a few years. Initially it was a strain as I live in a relatively small town in Canada so every check in required me to add the address of the place I was checking in to. In the last few months that has changed and for the most part every place I choose to check in to is already listed.

    Choice is important, I think. I usually check in as I leave a location as it “feels” safer. I’m not overly paranoid but having worked in the justice system for many years there are some folks I would rather not run into.

    I also think there are other reasons people check in. I check in to my favorite locations as a way of supporting that particular business. There are a few local stores in my town that are new and I really appreciate their service and/or products. I am Mayor of most of them 🙂

    Unfortunately none of these business know I’m mayor. They may have Facebook pages and some are using Twitter but not a single one tracks those well. – When I use Foursquare to check in it posts to Twitter and to my Facebook wall – so the information about my patronage is out there even for non-Foursquare users.

    A few days ago I had a conversation with a local business leader and shared with her my concerns that many local businesses weren’t using social media channels as well as they could. Her response to my Foursquare story was that I should post to the businesses accounts and not have the audacity to expect them to find me. She didn’t use those words but the implication was clear lol

    I think Foursquare is an excellent tool but its a two handed tool. One hand being the customer, the other being the business or brand. Maybe local businesses are too comfortable with their current profits. Maybe they don’t want to reward customers who both buy from them and promote them. Maybe they just don’t have the knowledge about this kind of marketing to make any other kind of decision besides what they currently do. I dunno. 

    I do know that using a two handed tool with one hand gets tiring after awhile even for a mayor 🙂

  4. Jon
    April 9, 2012

    Good question. 

    Think this comes down to what benefit you receive and as several folks pointed out, you are not getting much (maybe a little money, maybe some recognition from your friends, likely no recognition from the merchants you visit).

    Foursquare has a mass of users a la Yelp but it is yet unclear to me whom they are trying to market to and where they have a sustainable business model. Walking the tightrope between  consumer vs brand / merchant focused product is a challenge. 

    From the business side: Educating small businesses to utilize and pay for a service would seem to be both the most sustainable and most expensive path. That or running ads which seems unlikely at this point.

    From the consumer side: If there is no benefit for checking in why would I continue to do it? The author clearly does because of his profession. I too fall in this category. Judging from the ‘leaderboard’ of my friends there is consistently less engagement with foursquare.

    The endgame is near for check-ins that do not provide tangible benefit 

  5. July 19, 2012

    Great thoughts here on why do we checkin?

    From the blog post I wrote: “What is wrong with current location-based checkin service?” based on a small survey and some facts:

    Link: http://majikal.com/blog/2012/41/what-is-wrong-with-current-location-based-checkin-service

    – Biggest concerns for the users is the privacy concerns with the
    location sharing, they think location-based check in is actually too
    much of sharing.- The survey highlights the fact that current location-based services
    doesn’t solves any problems (since user already knows where he is and
    where he wants to go).- Not much real incentives to check-in and there is nothing much to do after you check-in.- 63.4% people said they will use check-in services if they get real incentives ($$) instead of cool badges.- More than 50% respondent agreed that check-in should be beginning of
    an experience and not end of it. You can think this as check-in in real
    world, for example checking into a hotel or an airplane is beginning of
    your experience and not end of it.

  6. matthew tim
    September 14, 2013

    I myself want to start a blog , thanks to you now I can
    understand the pattern of writing a blog of my own.


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