Why Foursquare splitting in two is a bold and brilliant move

Last week, Foursquare announced that it is splitting its service in two. They are spinning off the social elements from their existing App, including its most famous feature, the checkin, into a brand new App called Swarm.

Swarm aims to be your “social heatmap”, showing the current proximity of all your friends, and providing you with simple tools to help you communicate with them and meet up. Swarm uses the ambient location-detection technology built for Foursquare to update a user’s location constantly in the background – opening the App will give you an immediate real time view of which of your friends are nearby. Privacy of course will be a top priority – a user will only ever be located at the neighbourhood level (unless they have chosen to check-in at a specific venue).

It’s not clear at this stage, what other functionality Swarm will have (we will have to wait till next week when it launches) but it is also only one half of the story.  In the next few months, the current Foursquare App will go through a metamorphosis to focus 100% on local search and discovery, putting itself in direct competition with Yelp. The two Apps will work in tandem with one another, independent but complementary, with tight integration between them.

swarm_group

Swarm helps you see which of your friends are nearby, and helps you quickly chat with them and make plans to meet up. It’s controlled serendipity!

On first hearing about the planned split, I was cautiously optimistic. It is a ballsy move. I was concerned that it might fragment the service, and requiring two Apps was going to require more complicated onboarding for new users. Having chewed it over in my mind for the last few days, I am now convinced that is absolutely the right move. In fact, the more I think about it, the more it makes perfect sense:

  • The fun, social elements of the original Foursquare (friends list, checkins, mayorships, badges, points) have always felt somewhat at odds with the new Foursquare (local search and discovery). By splitting the service in two, each App can focus on creating the best experience for each use case. Furthermore, it will be possible for Foursquare to offer experiences and features in the individual Apps that would not be possible with them married together. The two Apps will serve two different use cases – but will complement one another nicely. Swarms checkins and social interactions will help feed the recommendation engine that powers Foursquare’s local search and personalised recommendations.
  • Swarm will be able to return to the playful roots of Foursquare’s origins – badges, mayorships, points can be given more prominence, and new ways of making the check-in experience more fun and rewarding can be explored.
  • Until now, the friends list in Foursquare hasn’t actually been very good at helping you meet up with your friends. The problem – it relied on a user to manually check in in for it to work, and if they didn’t, their trail went cold.  It also never knew when a user left a location (there was no way to check out) meaning that you couldn’t ever be sure a friend was still at a venue. The ambient location detection built into Swarm will offer a true realtime view of which of your friends are nearby right now (since their location is constantly being tracked), and the experience will be far more immediate and compelling.
  • In recent years, Foursquare has had an identity problem – people tend to still think of it as just “that App where you checkin and get badges” when it is really so much more than that. Checkins are a tiny part of the story. A part of the problem is that the App has had a lack of clear focus. As Crowley said on stage at the New York Ideas Conference: “We believe that the best apps out there are the ones with a single-case use that can be described in a sentence or tweet.” I agree. Personally, I have always struggled to quickly explain what Foursquare does to my non technical friends – it’s been too complex, there are too many components. With Swarm, and the new re-imagined Foursquare, each offers a more concise and focused experience, that is easier to explain (and sell) to a potential user. It removes a lot of the friction.
  • By removing the focus on checking in, the reimagined Foursquare App will be free to focus solely on the local search and discovery experience making it far more friendly to the mainstream user – someone who is never going to check-in, and who has no interest in badges and mayorships. My non-techy friends, for example, never embraced the current version of Foursquare. Checking in is something that is just never going to appeal to everyone – and this unbundling of the two experiences is Foursquare acknowledging this. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. As Bijan Sabet notes: “Just like you don’t need to tweet to enjoy Twitter, splitting the app in two will help make it clear to a big audience that you don’t need to check in to find value in Foursquare.” The new Foursquare won’t require a user to ever check-in if they don’t want to – the ambient location detection will know enough about which places they visit to personalise their experience.
  • Additionally, with Foursquare no longer having to focus on always getting a user to check-in they can now re-focus their energies on getting other types of user-generated content. The most obvious example is Tips. If Foursquare can get users to contribute more Tips about the venues they visit, they will be able to make better recommendations, and users will be able to make better informed decisions about where to go. They can even begin offering incentives to Tip writers – maybe by awarding badges and “leveling up” users who write good content. They can also give more attention to getting users to improve the accuracy of venue data by asking them questions about the venues they visit.
  • If Foursquare wants to be known as a local search tool, it needs to promote itself as one. Currently in the Google Play store, the Foursquare App is found in the ‘Social’ category. Yelp, by comparison, is in the ‘Travel & Local’ category. On iOS the problem is the same, Foursquare is currently categorized as “Social Networking”, whereas Yelp is under “Travel”. The new Foursquare App will be able to actually categorize itself, first and foremost, as a local search tool, and therefore far better position itself to be discovered by new users as a tool for local discovery. Equally, Swarm can put itself in the ‘Messenger’ category to better position itself as a tool for communicating with friends. The current version of Foursquare has the “Jack of all, Master of none” problem. The two new Apps can be laser focused in what they offer, and, more importantly, who they offer it to.

Addendum – some words of caution…

While for the most part I see this an excellent move, execution is key. There is one thing in particular that must be done right for this to work – privacy. Good Privacy controls are critical when it comes to location – people are very twitchy about government snooping and the rest. Swarm needs to provide ways to easily disable location tracking whenever they wish.

There has been speculation that the rise of these so called “ambient location” Apps, will lead to “the death of the white lie” – sometimes, for very good reasons, you don’t want to let people know where you are. There will frequently be times using Swarm when you don’t want people knowing your location – even when its only shown at the neighborhood level. Maybe you’re heading to a surprise party, or shopping for a birthday present across town, or simply you don’t want to let people know where you are this evening. Swarm must provide simple, easily accessible, granular controls to limit when and who our location is shared with.

For each friend, there needs to be a way to quickly change whether they get to see our location as precise (check-in), neighbourhood (ambient) or not at all. There also needs to be a global setting to temporarily disable location tracking for the next hour, two hours, till tomorrow, etc. for the times when we want to go off-grid for a while.