Location-based social networks such as Foursquare, Gowalla, and Brightkite are getting a lot of attention for their integration of social networking with physical location. They allow you to “checkin” at locations around town, see who else is there, share tips, collect points and special offers, and see where you friends are.

There’s a certain addictiveness to trying to become the “Mayor” (Foursquare) or “Duke” (Yelp) of your favourite coffee shop – and wresting it back from someone else after you return from vacation. I recently did this – it felt good. I also like the “Trending” feature for seeing where the big crowds are so you can head down there or avoid the masses depending on your mood.

Checking in has proved so popular that a “check-in ecosystem” has emerged. Traditional review sites such as Yelp have added check-in functionality. In fact the increasing number of check-in networks means that one’s social circle can be spread across multiple check-in networks. To avoid so-called “check-in fatigue”, meta check-in sites now allow you to check-in on multiple networks at once. These include Check.in and Footfeed.

Checking-in for the Anti-social

However, not everyone is addicted to checking in. In fact I have many friends who hate the idea of publicizing where they are. “Why do you use it?” they ask, “whats the point? Why checkin everywhere? Who wants to know? Why do they want to know?”

My answer often surprises them. I want to know where I’ve been. Sites such as Foursquare, if consistently used,  provide a useful personal history of your journey around the physical world – for one’s own use. Thats right, this most social of web applications can act as a personal information management tool for the most anti-social and introverted of people. I’ve seen nothing written about this use of the checkin services, hence this article.

Why Check-in (anti-socially)?

Why do this? I find this personal history useful for two primary reasons:

  1. Time tracking for productivity reasons – what have I done this week? Did I really do nothing this Monday? Your history can also serve as a useful crosscheck in case your calendar entries aren’t as accurate or complete as they might be.
  2. Looking back for sentimental reasons – what was I doing X months/years ago? This is always a fun thing to do over the span of years. I’ve done it once or twice with my old childhood diaries, and all I can say is that my foursquare history is a lot more interesting. Which was that cafe I went to when I was up in Santa Rosa? Where did I meet that client?

Hey presto – social networks as a personal information tool.

Using Foursquare as a Personal History

How to do it in practice? I primarily use foursquare, so here’s how to import your foursquare feed into your calendar so you have a nice handy record of where you’ve been:

  1. Login to foursquare, and go to http://foursquare.com/feeds/
  2. Click on the ICS/ical option (this is a complete record of all your checkins)
  3. Import into your favourite calendar. For instance, in Google Calendar, go to the Other Calendars widget in the bottom left of the screen, and open the Add menu. Then select “Add by URL”. In the dialogue box, paste in the URL and bing, your foursquare history is integrated into your personal calendar. This process may actually be quite slow if your ICS file is large due to lots of checkins! The feed will appear as new calendar, e.g. “foursquare check-ins for Richard B.” [One limitation to beware of is that you import your ICS feed repeatedly, you’ll get multiple foursquare calendars. However, you can always delete or hide the old ones].
  4. To check-in without pinging your friends just uncheck “Share with friends” on the Foursquare checkin details page. However, note that your name still comes up on the places page. If you want to take it further, choose a false name, and have no friends to share your check-ins with in the first place. Still if you ask me, that misses out on a lot of fun.

I’ve tried to find the equivalent in the other networks. Gowalla doesn’t seem to have the export functionality. Yelp has downloadable feeds for reviews but not for checkins. I’d expect them to add it soon.

A couple of usability issues with Foursquare (and similar check-in sites)

Being a UX guy, I have to throw in a few nitpicks. Here are a few usability issues with foursquare which I find bothersome:

  • Check in location ordering (Foursquare): I’d like the automatically generated list of local places to be ordered alphabetically by default. More often than not, knowing the name of where I am, I find myself scanning through the seemingly arbitrarily ordered list of locations to find its entry. Often I end up searching if its not highlighted in the Trending or Favorites call outs. Proximity could be a nice alternate ordering although  geo-locations aren’t as accurate as they might be.
  • Friends with similar names (Foursquare): I have 2 friends with the same first name and surnames which begin with the same letter. Since foursquare reports your friends location by Firstname-Initial-of-surname, I can’t distinguish between Richard WhoIWantToAvoid and Richard WhosGreatToHangOutWith!

In one of my next posts, I’m going to talk about UX challenges for check-in sites in general including check-in fatigue (solved by Footfeed!), notification spam, and of course privacy.