Death of the checkin 1.0

So Facebook, confronting a conundrum on where to press on user activity — Places or Pages — has nullified the Place checkin. In favor of location tagging, which is now possible from inside of Facebook posts (no need to be mobile), and free of realtime constraints (can be past, present, or future. More here.)

Now, besides the obvious underutilization of Place checkins by users, Facebook may have had further internal reasons for demoting the checkin. These may have been due to bifurcated data storage on businesses listed as Places vs those listed with business Pages. And so funneling location-oriented activity to the more common practices on Facebook would make sense.  But be that as it may, Facebook’s abandonment of the Place checkin raises doubts for others services, Foursquare most significantly.

There is a problem with the implementation of checkins at the level of basic social first principles. Checkins are a non-social and solitary activity, viewed strictly as user actions. Checkins are a “I am here” expression or update but lacking in any clear social context. All social interaction online requires some amount of social context in order for it to generate follow on activity.

The foursquare checkin, having been put in service of badges and achievements (the game-like gamification of social without a game itself to supply good motives and rewards), was a shallow and poor implementation of location-based social interaction. It suffers now from the “Who cares?” and “So what’s next?” problem of situated social context. The checkin is neither a) addressed to anybody in particular (in fact, it’s addressed to nobody in general) and b) solicits no clear follow on activity by having c) no social context.

Social interaction online is always a poor imitation of real life. But as we build and design social services, we draw from what is real to thicken what is virtual. Learning as we go, and as our technologies enable us to accomplish new forms of communication and social action online that we simply are unable to in the physically constrained world of the everyday.

So there are, in social interactions, a few basic principles that we leverage and extend where possible in our online services.

First, direct action and communication. This is social action that has a direct and clear appeal to another person or persons. Gestures, communication, and social actions (e.g. using “games,” rules, codes, rituals, as well as symbolic mediation supplied by objects and signifiers — scores, media, etc) that are directed at an audience or recipient. Direct social action clearly solicits engagement and can be easily picked up by others.

Indirect communication and social action. This is not directed explicitly or clearly to or at a recipient or audience, but is rather mediated by the social service to appeal indirectly to those who may observe the activity. Communication is responded to, and action followed up, when and where others observe and elect to engage. The inefficiency of indirect communication and action (it can be missed, for it does not directly address anyone) is compensated for by its “reaching” (in theory) a greater number of people. To wit, tweets.

Aggregated, or meta social communication and action. This is social interaction made visible and observable by means of systems that capture and represent overall or aggregate activities of incidental audiences and populations. By instilling this kind of activity in symbolic and signifying features — possible because we can count, order, sort, rank, and distinguish both individual and collective activities — aggregate activity becomes meaningful within a system extrinsic to everyday life. Collectivities and audiences then emerge as their members become connected (social networking), as topics and themed activities are made relevant, and as actions accrue meaning (from posts and comments to Likes and +1s to badges to scores).

Checkins 1.0 failed to deliver on all three counts.

In terms of direct communication and action, the checkin suffered from the “Who cares” factor. Who cares where I am, if they are not here with me? There’s never been a clear articulation of why physical location becomes relevant to another individual if — and this is the crux of social — if there is no social context, shared activity, or relevant communication attached to the location declaration. So who cares where I am, if my declaration (checkin) of where I am is unaccompanied by any direct social or communicative appeal. As in, meet me here. I want to share this experience with you. And so on. (Bell’s first words by telephone: “Mr Watson, come here, I want to see you.” Words disguising an ironic but not surprising appeal to thwart the telephone’s essential differences: invisibility and distance.)

Checkins 1.0 failed on the count of indirect social action and communication. Here they encounter the “So what’s next?” factor. In any socially situated context of action, participants implicitly understand what can be done next, or “how to proceed,” based on place, social context, and social interaction cues. None of these are supplied by the checkin itself; nor are any furnished by services such as Facebook or Foursquare. In fact, Foursquare’s counter-social execution may provide many users good reason not to acknowledge another’s checkin, nor to engage with it (checkins being for an individual’s badges and mayorships). There has been no social interaction suggested or developed by the checkin.

On the final count, that of aggregate social action and communication, checkins 1.0 again failed. Disappointingly, because this is where social tools can accomplish feats of social mediation impossible in the everyday. Game-like badge, social ranking, and mayorship (leaderboards and the desired status of being special) “incentives” are simply too thin to become mainstreamed social commonplace (ritual). So the “small form” of social gaming appealed to a fraction of users too small to care about, and by definition unscalable (the population’s core values and practices exist at a small scale; and their activities cannot scale without wider adoption). And checkins 1.0 were not implemented in any large form social game or practices, wherein location checkins would have accrued value to other practices — social practices extrinsic to the “game constraints.” (I contrast small and large form games as those providing socialization of games vs gamification of social)

Core principles of social interaction should be the designer’s touchstone when building for social at scale. The checkin 1.0 simply took too small a view of its own potential and social opportunities. Checkin 2.0 may yet succeed where 1.0 has now tapped the wall.

A checkin 2.0 would have to successfully meet one or more of the conditions of social action and communication described above.

On direct action, it would successfully couple to responses, replies, sharing, and ongoing activity with one or more individuals. Imagine, for example, that tweeted location checkins (twitter location tweets or Foursquare checkins) were printed with response action buttons. (This making use of what I covered in my action streams proposal.) Checkins would have communicative value for being easily communicated. The checkin would in effect be only a reference of a statement/post/update for which there were a structured communication response (“I’m coming” “I have been there too” “I like it” and so on — endless possibilities). And social actions of different kinds could be enabled similarly, for example to create social distribution of checkin references (serving, perhaps, social deal sharing).

On indirect action, it would successfully facilitate possibilities and promote the probability of these possibilities of social action and communication based on rendering checkins visible and observable. Facebook is doing this now by demoting the mobile checkin in favor of a location tag that can be assigned to posts and activities with atemporal specificity (past, present, or future). In other words, it has increased the number of uses and observations (where locations are noticed) of location tags — presumably to learn from use what they might be good for. Location can become incredibly interesting if and only if it is wrapped in relevant and action-enabled online social contexts. It then becomes a reference around which additional action and communication can become meaningful to people.

On aggregate social action, the checkin 2.0 can succeed if it is given new follow on life and significance by means of social practices made possible by new social technologies and techniques of use (socio-technical features — or design features having social uses). There would be countless ways to design interesting and compelling activities and interactions around aggregated views, trends, events and more derived from individual checkins. Color was and is one attempt at developing new experiences from the coincidensity of the locations of individuals.

It is that time to recognize the failure of some social media (1.0?) features and practices and to innovate based on what we can recognize were the reasons for failure. In many cases, I think, we should take responsibility for having drawn too small a circle around the social uses of our designs. For having extrapolated too optimistically from features and uses that appealed primarily to early adopter and core user types. For having been too set on our own business models and startup schemes to admit to our own social blindspots, and misperceptions. And for having neglected to recognize and appreciate, with earnest intent, the motives and interests of other people (designers have a world view). And, in my opinion, for failing to integrate fundamental principles of social interaction, by means of social logics, in the rationale with which we design technologies for social use.


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  • Greg Rublev

    It’s interesting how the media got this so entirely wrong.  Rather then “pulling out of check-in’s”, FB is making the transition in check-in’s from a novelty to a useful feature in context of social interaction.  I hope FourSquare is reading your post!

  • sull

    This sums up my view perfectly.  I declared foursquare a failure so long ago based on this line of thought.  Sure, they have had success and may have more success but in the grand scheme of it, they (and most other prominent location based services) have failed.  Its possible the failure was intentional and the path they took was the public pre-pivot pitch used to gain traction from early adopters and inve$tor$ and eventually formulate some new more sensible and monetizable product developements.  In other words, a way to buy time before posts like this start appearing and rightly announcing the death of checkins (for checkins sake). 

    The question moving forward is how to find a balance of what is best on an academic level and what is best for a typical user wanting to engage simply yet thoroughly with their social circles and/or beyond them.  Something normative must come out of all of this.  A new wave of innovation.  Hopefully their are many, like myself, who chose to observe this space from the sidelines and/or tinker with advanced concepts as a hobbyist and not as an entrepreneur building a startup company to (prematurely?) capitalize on trends and hype and early touches of innovation around social and activity/action streams.  Fresh eyes are needed from the unstuck stock of visionary technologists.  

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