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Foursquare Has Toyed with the Idea of a Stand-Alone App for Discovery–Without Check-ins

"Check-ins help power recommendations, but there are other things that go into it."
6a00d83451b2c969e2017eea003bba970d 500wi Foursquare Has Toyed with the Idea of a Stand Alone App for Discovery  Without Check ins

(Photo: Avc.com)

Last week, a tipster told Betabeat that Foursquare is working on a stand-alone app for discovery that would not require checking in. A handful of sources familiar with the company said a separate discovery app is not actively being developed, but revealed that Foursquare has kicked around the idea of stand-alone apps over the years.

“[The company] had talked in the past about Foursquare being ‘read only’ in the future as only a certain percentage of users will ever check in,” said one source. “It jives with what I have seen out of them: deprioritizing power users in favor of scale.”

Foursquare, which is rumored to be the midst of a raising a Series D round, has been “frustrated with lack of hype/momentum/growth,” said another source. The culture at the company has switched from “uplifting” to “oh shit,” the source added. In November, the Wall Street Journal reported that only 8 million of the company’s 25 million registered members use the app at least once a month.

The ability to check-in and alert others to your location helped popularize Foursquare when it was launched in 2009. (There’s a badge for that.) But the use case for the app has evolved over time. On the same day the company launched Foursquare 5.0, an entirely rebuilt version of the app, cofounder and CEO Dennis Crowley told TechCrunch:

“If anything we might have de-emphasized the check-in a little bit. Just because we’re starting to see that a lot of the people that are using the app are not even checking in. They use it for recommendations, to explore, they use it to look up tips for the restaurant they’re currently at, to see where their friends are. We’ve been seeing this in our data for the past couple months or so.”

On his blog Friday, Fred Wilson also highlighted Foursquare’s utility as a discovery and recommendations engine. “I was stunned,” he said, by a new feature that he calls “places people go next.” (Mr. Wilson’s firm, Union Square Ventures, has participated in Foursquare’s past three funding rounds, which totaled $71.4 million.)

In any case, this is the kind of thing you can do when you have a dataset of billions of checkins from tens of millions of people all over the world.

This echoes what Buzzfeed reported around the time of the version 5.0 launch:

But the new Foursquare is ultimately about something more profound than the check-in, a concept it practically defined. It’s about something that no other social network does right now. It doesn’t want to ask “what’s on your mind?” It wants to say, “Here’s where you’re going.”

Brendan Lewis, Foursquare’s new director of communications, brushed off the notion that Foursquare was downplaying check-ins, but did acknowledge that people doesn’t necessarily need to check in to use Foursquare. “Check-ins help power recommendations, but there are other things that go into it,” he said. “For example, where your friends have been and what they’ve liked, where you have been in the past, and what ‘new’ places share those traits.  We also take into account weather (for example, if you lived in the East Village during Nemo and searched for ‘pizza’ we weren’t going to send you to a place on the Upper West Side.)”

What’s more, the company isn’t just getting its data from Foursquare users. As TechCrunch recently argued, its API has become “a pillar of the mobile app ecosystem.” The location function on Vine, Uber, and Foodspotting all use Foursquare. Even Instagram eschews Facebook’s Places for Foursquare. CEO Dennis Crowley noted as much in response to a recent dig from Keith Rabois about the size of Foursquare’s user base.

“Whenever someone tags a location on a service that uses our API,” Mr. Lewis explained, “we receive a signal that helps improve our service and recommendations. Those signals, combined with the contextual data around specific check-ins, helps power the recommendations in Explore.”

All the bells and whistles of a discovery app, it seems, are already baked into Foursquare. Too bad that as an avid Foursquare user, I still have trouble convincing late adopter friends that it’s about more than checking in.

UPDATE: Vulture’s Lindsey Weber points out on Twitter that while Foursquare has all the juicy data on recommendations, the easiest way to access it is still by checking-in. In other words, the current version of the app doesn’t privilege discovery. I’ve found the same to the true for planning ahead. I’d much prefer using Foursquare to Yelp to find a restaurant or bar in a particular neighborhood, but switching out of the current location mode can be unwieldy.


Follow Nitasha Tiku on Twitter or via RSS. ntiku@observer.com