Why Do We Check In?

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“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?