Foursquare and the problem of SuperUser fatigue

UPDATE: As if on queue, things are suddenly looking up. :)

Foursquare’s greatest strength and also it’s greatest weakness is that its database is built and maintained by its users. Users can instantly add venues that the database does not contain, and easily make changes, such as adding a new phone number or submitting duplicate venues to be merged.

The advantage of this system is that new venues are rapidly surfaced by the community, making Foursquare’s venue database one of the most accurate available. The disadvantage is that the system can easily be abused – both intentionally (by people creating fake/spammy/illegal venues) or unintentionally (by inexperienced users accidentally creating duplicates or entering incorrect data).

To help keep the database clean, Foursquare employs so called “SuperUsers” – dedicated and passionate members of the community who help clean up the venue database. When a regular user submits a fix or change – SuperUser’s are the people who approve it.

In dense urban areas, where the Foursquare community is flourishing, this system generally works pretty well, since there are plenty of enthusiastic SuperUsers to help out. This makes Foursquare’s location database generally far more accurate than its competitors, but unfortunately not always – there are situations when it falls short. In small towns and rural areas where there may be no local SuperUsers the system breaks down, since fixes submitted by users are not being processed. Equally, in some large cities, there are simply too few SuperUsers to cope with the volume of work being created, and many problems remain unfixed.

Take for example, Kuala Lumpur, capital city of Malaysia. It currently has just over 140,000 issues awaiting moderation – that’s 140,000 requests that must be manually approved by the local SuperUsers. It is a daunting challenge for the local SUs, and only the most dedicated are plugging on. The rest are giving up and consider it to be, quite simply, not worth the effort. The incentives for them to continue just aren’t there.

Kuala Lumpur is just one example, but there are many other places across the globe with similar problems, let alone the countless small towns and rural regions where SUs do not exist. Furthermore, with many SUs calling it quits the problem is rapidly getting worse. As users continue to submit fixes and updates, there are fewer and fewer SUs approving them and the backlog increases.

I make no secret of being a big fan of Foursquare. I have been a user since the beginning, and I am big believer in their mission to become the de-facto local search provider. I also believe that they are the company best positioned to dominate in the local search space, in the long term.

I personally find Foursquare most useful when travelling. I used it extensively last year in Phuket, Thailand to seek out the best restaurants and it proved invaluable – way more useful than its competitors. Unfortunately, as discussed above, it is not perfect everywhere, and I wanted to see if I could figure out where the issue lies.

What’s causing the problem?

  • Careless users are adding new venues without first checking if one already exists. This has created many duplicates that need merging.
  • This is exacerbated in areas where there are lots of users, but few (or even no) passionate SUs working through the change queues. Vacation spots are a good example of this – lots of Foursquare users visit the area but there are no local Super Users to manage the venue database.
  • Many of the problem areas have had their database built mostly by visitors rather than locals, resulting in many inaccuracies and sloppy data entry.
  • Not enough venues are being claimed by businesses, who could enter accurate data for their venues.
  • Spammers are creating many fake venues.
  • Foursquare’s duplicate robot is generating far too many false positives.
  • There are not enough SuperUsers covering remote geographical areas.

What can Foursquare do to mitigate the problem?

  • Prevent new users from creating venues, until they have agreed to the rules. The first time a new user creates a new venue on Foursquare, they should immediately be sent an email containing guidelines on venue naming conventions, do’s and don’t etc. The email should request that they agree to the rules of venue creation, before their created venue is approved in the system (currently they can check into it themselves but it is not yet permanent). A link will take them back to the Foursquare website, where they must sign in and click ‘I Agree’. They will be then given the ability to edit and confirm the data of their recently aded venue, and from then on will be free to create venues on Foursquare. If they do not agree, they will be forbidden from creating any more venues until they do. In this instance their venue, should be held in queue for a few days, before being approved by an SU. Similarly, the first time they submit an edit of a venue’s data, they should also be requested to agree to the guidelines, if they have not already done so. This system will both educate new users on how to add venue data correctly, and also prevent spammers from creating new accounts and immediately adding lots of new venues. (Perhaps the button should include a CAPTCHA to prevent bots abusing it.)
  • Introduce “Foursquare Ambassadors” who work with local businesses to help them claim their venues and update their information themselves. Local business owners are notoriously non-technical. They need help understanding how Foursquare can help them, and how to claim their venue(s). Foursquare Ambassadors could be Foursquare’s employees “on the ground” working to improve the database in their local area.  Foursquare SUs should be able to apply to become Ambassadors for their local area, and Foursquare should introduce a rewards program for people who help local businesses claim their venues. Local businesses really have a motivation to keep their venue data accurate, once they undertsand how it works.
  • Queues should prioritise changes submitted by real users, before the robot generated changes are offered. People generally submit fixes for selfish reasons – they personally find the problem annoying and want to see it repaired. If users see their fixes approved quickly they will be more inclined to submit more fixes. By offering SUs the user submitted fixes for approval first, they’ll be approved faster, and people will see the results of their fixes more quickly.
  • Provide regular users with incentives for submitting merges, fixes and changes. Keep visible scores of the total fixes that they have submitted and have had approved, similar to what the SUs have. Maybe offer a level-up badge for the number of approved fixes. Once they reach Level 10 can automatically be invited to become a SuperUser.
  • Create a monthly SuperUser day where everyone is encouraged to fix the database in their area. How about on the Fourth day of every month?
  • Widen local SU reach in areas where merge queues are small. In areas where the merge queues are small, Foursquare should automatically widen the geographical area that SUs can work on to incorporate surrounding areas that may not have a local SU. For example, if a city has a lot of SUs who have worked through their merge queues, widen their reach to incorporate the surrounding towns and rural areas. If the merge queue size increases, reduce the area covered.
  • Encourage people to become SuperUsers in Small Towns and Rural Areas
    If a user is a local in an area that lacks an SU, and is an active user, invite them to apply to become an SU by submitting fixes. Email them with this suggestion, explaing how they can do this, and why they should. Create a SU coverage map showing where Super Users are needed.
  • Promote the Idea of Helping Out to active Users
    Foursquare should explain to active users why they should help out, and how they can help out. They should send out an email to new users, who are actively using the service, explaining how submitting fixes helps the community. By honest about it, tell them: “this community is built by people like you, and helping fix it improves it for everyone”. Create a “Foursquare Etiquette” manifesto, explaining what good Foursquare user behaviour is. Send them Tips on how to help.
  • Foursquare needs to offer better incentives to the SUs in problematic areas. How about upgrading trusted SUs to paid content managers, whereby they receive financial compensation for their hard work? Or, recruit trusted SUs from other areas to help out process the larger queues? Or, offer Foursquare sponsored discounts/specials at local businesses for the top performing SUs?

How can you help?

As Foursquare transitions to become the location layer of the internet and the leader in local search, they need your help to improve their database. They currently have the most accurate location database available but it still has a long way to go. If you are a user of the service, why not help out occasionally? It improves things for everyone. Start with your local neighbourhood. After all, you know it better than Foursquare does – for now. ;)

If you are a Foursquare user interested in applying to become a Super User you can apply here. It is a good idea to familiarise yourself with the guidelines here first. If you have already applied, keep submitting venue data fixes and duplicate merges, and be active in the community – it’ll help your chances of getting approved. For more tips please see my previous post here – it contains everything you need to know on getting the most out of Foursquare.