Foursquare, ESP and Pat Phelan

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If this turns into a bit of a meandering post you can blame Pat Phelan, it is all his fault and being a Galway person I love having any excuse to blame a Cork man. Phelan’s post got me thinking about Foursquare and the phenomena of ‘check-in fatigue’.

But before I address Foursquare, I wanted to introduce a new name: Luis von Ahn. von Ahn is one of the foremost thinkers on ‘human computation’. That is getting humans to do tasks that computers find difficult if not impossible to do. If you use the web as much as I do you will be familar with his work at least in one respect.
That annoying box is called a Captcha, it’s purpose is to try and reduce the proliferation of spam and ensure that valuable computing services are only used by human viewers rather than machines. It is von Ahn’s other human computation projects that are of most interest. von Ahn’s team have worked on a series of games to solve a number of problems. von Ahn wrote a paper published in IEEE Computer magazine which covers the whys and wherefores.

von Ahn’s work is recognised by the titans of computing such as Microsoft who have sponsored research into measuring the probability and predicting what labels | tags humans are likely to assign an image. And Google bought the reCAPTCHA system which was used to protect sites from bots and help digitise collections. Every time you complete a captcha you are helping to digitise the archives of The New York Times.

Google also bought a licence for von Ahn’s ESP game. This is where two users (unknown to each other) are shown the same picture and they get a higher score the quicker both of them put in the same label. Google uses this to improve the semantic data that its search engine has around images. If you’ve got time to waste check out Google Image Labeler (though personally I think they should fire the branding person and call it the Google ESP game). People in low stress monotonous jobs have been known to spend 40 hours a week on the ESP game! Clay Shirky calls this cognitive surplus; von Ahn went for the more descriptive Games With A Purpose.

Which got me thinking about Foursquare, Pat like Om Malik, was interested in the phenomena of check-in fatigue but I was more interested in the other side of the game.

When I started to use Foursquare, I got a strong sense that is was a game with a purpose. Six people in an office in New York got the world to build a database of locations and tips, that they otherwise would have had to license. And that this database and user information would have some sort of value that could be monetised at a point in the future – it is updated more often than the directories that Google licenses for its local search products for example.

Then there was the marketing opportunities that you could potentially exploit in the game: sponsored badges and company profiles a la Louis Vuitton. So if the game needed to be changed in order to combat check-in fatigue it shouldn’t be that much of an issue.

However, if the game is the purpose then Pat and Om’s concerns are a much bigger issue. You can’t stray too far from the first successful formula otherwise it isn’t Foursquare any more.