Foursquare's Swarm app automatically shares your location with your Facebook and foursquare fans, but the honeymoon is over
The first thing ReadWrite's Selena Larson did after downloading Foursquare’s new Swarm app when it launched back in May 2014 was to distill her friends list on Foursquare from over 100 people down to just 19.
When Selena joined Foursquare a years earlier, she was living in Arizona, still in college—a completely different lifestyle. As the years went by, things changed but her friends list kept growing. She stopped using Foursquare for checking in, and started using it as a location recommendation service, similar to Yelp. It was her opinion that foursquare wasn’t really a social network anymore—in fact, she started keeping it among the travel apps on her iPhone.
This was the concept Foursquare wanted to build: to move beyond the check-in business model. The company split the original foursquare check-in app into two separate apps—Swarm by foursquare, the social network; and the new foursquare, a discovery app that helps users figure out what to do next.
Foursquare isn’t the first social network to experiment with splitting up its services. Facebook, most notably, has been trying to unbundle itself for years, sometimes failing along the way. Its move—forcing Facebook users into Messenger if they want to chat on mobile devices—was largely criticized, for example.
Foursquare took a huge gamble by dividing its original foursquare app into two distinctly different services seemingly working in opposite directions. Foursquare's location discovery application will use your check-in data from Swarm, but Swarm also wanted to create a different social experience entirely.
Swarm—Creepy Or Convenient?
Swarm was Foursquare's way of ripping the check-in from its flagship app. The new social app uses your phone's GPS function to broadcast where you are at all times, and view others' locations, too.
Named after the Foursquare “Swarm Badge” that signifies a busy location, Swarm is the latest “ambient location” app to launch this year. "Ambient location" apps rely on mobile phones' location services to display your general area to your friends in a passive way, without the need to check into any specific location. That's how Swarm works.
If you decide you want to share your exact location with friends, Swarm's check-in feature is basically the same, but now you can also share your future plans with friends and invite them to join in. Ambient location sharing can be turned off, but it’s on by default.
Selena is skeptical of location sharing in general. She rarely checked-in to places until she was ready to leave, and even then, she didn’t see the benefit. And with Swarm, her general location is visible to anyone at any time. There are only a handful of people she would be okay with knowing that information, and it's not anyone on the friends list she had amassed since joining Foursquare four years earlier.
Selena is probably not alone here. Ambient location apps haven’t taken off, and even Facebook’s attempt to get friends to share their general locations has fallen flat. Most people don’t mind telling their friends where they are, as long as they’re okay with those friends joining them. I bet most people don’t have 100 or more friends they’d enjoy meeting up with randomly on the street.
Foursquare doesn’t disclose monthly active user numbers, but the company boasts over 50 million app downloads. Still, one would imagine users stay in contact with friends over Twitter and Facebook more often than they do with Foursquare, and moving check-ins to Swarm may not help Foursquare in that regard.
Foursquare is simply not as popular as Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, even though the company is technically in the same category as those companies. In 2010, Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley was even dubbed "The New King Of Social Media"—but four years later, Foursquare may be doing more rebuilding than refining.
Swarm, Foursquare's new social arm, will more or less need to build its community from the ground up; Crowley says the company is building tools to make it easier to bounce between Foursquare's apps, but I doubt users like Selena, who primarily use Foursquare as a recommendation tool, will find Swarm appealing.
A New Direction For Foursquare
As Swarm tries to popularize proximity apps, Foursquare will have its own hurdles to jump.
The new Foursquare app which was released in August 2014 offered suggestions on where to go and what to order, based on users' unique location histories. On the plus side, Foursquare’s directory of places consists of over six billion check-ins, which is more than any other service—arguably enviable by Google or Yelp.
Foursquare will learn your behavior based on your previous check-ins and ambient location data—such as where you like to eat, or when you like to go to the movies—and tailor suggestions for where you should go next. The Foursquare app delivers push notifications when you are at a new location, and serve up suggestions for what to do there.
Many places have “tips,” or small reviews written by Foursquare after they check in. Unlike Yelp, these Foursquare reviews tend to be short and concise. As Foursquare moves away from the check-in, these reviews will be the focal point of the new application.
The only way for Foursquare to collect your location data once check-ins are removed is to use location services running in the background to track where you’ve been, which is concerning for privacy-conscious folks. In order to receive tailored push notifications, you’ll have to let Foursquare track you.
Foursquare’s collection of places is likely robust enough on its own to succeed as a competitor to Yelp. But will users be comfortable giving up their location information to both Foursquare and casual contacts on a regular basis? Selena is not convinced.
COMMENTARY: If you have been following my blog posts about foursquare, you must know by now that I, along with other social media researchers, predicted the demise of location-based social networks (LBSNs) like foursquare, and often quipped about the amount of venture capital (now $100 million) thrown at foursquare.
It has now become obvious that foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley's effort to re-invent foursquare requires a lot more than splitting up the original app into two separate apps, For the new foursquare app to feed you "tips" on where to go next (based on the historical data about where you have been, it needs your Swarm check-in data. It really wasn't necessary to breakup the original app, but eliminate the check-in and badges and add the location discovery capability.
In August 2014, Foursquare’s relaunch reversed a startling downward trend in the Apple App Store charts. But after relaunch hype subsided, interest in the new Foursquare and its check-in companion app Swarm dropped. Data from comScore that depicts the rise and fall of Foursquare’s unique app visitors makes this trend painfully clear.
Foursquare iOS App Rankings - 2010 through October 2014
App download rankings from app tracking site App Annie back up comScore’s figures. Here’s a closer look at Foursquare’s download rate rankings overall in the U.S. Apple App Store, from Foursquare’s 2010 launch to today.
Foursquare Android App Rankings - 2012 through October 2014
The results are similar in the Google Play store, where Google estimates Foursquare has been installed on somewhere between 10 million and 50 million devices.
For its part, Swarm saw an immediate rise in Swarm usage and number of users when it was launched in mid-May 2014, often rising into the Top 10 and Top 100 apps list, but this has all changed and Swam now ranks about 150th for both iOS and Android versions. I looked at the historical ranking data from App Annie for Swarm, and the numbers show this quite clearly.
Swam Rank History - Android Version (Since Launch)
Swarm Rank History - iOS Version (Since Launch)