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Foursquare and Swarm: Breaking up is never easy

Nicole Lee, @nicole
06.24.15
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More than a year ago, Foursquare decided to split its app in two. The main app was now focused on location discovery, while Swarm was created to handle the social check-in side of things. The reason? To streamline the two seemingly disparate functions so that each feature could flourish without encumbering the other. That sounds like a good idea in theory, but check-ins and mayorships were so integral to Foursquare's identity that removing them seemed like a bad move. Recently, Foursquare decided to re-integrate global mayorships into Swarm due to user demand. But that might not be enough to win back its once-loyal user base.

As someone who was a fan of Foursquare (and even its predecessor, Dodgeball), I was open to the idea of the split. The old app did feel a little stale, and perhaps a split was enough to get me to use it again. However, I'll admit that I was disappointed that Foursquare had removed the concept of mayorships -- the idea that you could be the "mayor" of a location if you had the highest amount of check-ins at that place. Instead, Swarm limited "mayorships" to just your social circle, which meant that a single location could have multiple "mayors." It's a silly little title to begin with, but sharing that title with countless other people? It loses its meaning entirely.

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When asked why it did this, a company spokesperson said it was to make mayorships seem more attainable, plus you were competing against people you knew instead of strangers. Additionally, she said that while badges and mayorships had been a great way to introduce people to Foursquare, the team wanted people to use it "past the onboarding point." That's because the app was really always meant to be a discovery and recommendation tool rather than just for check-ins or collecting badges.

As expected, removing mayorships wasn't a very popular decision. So, Foursquare brought the old mayorship mechanic back. In a tweet from Dennis Crowley, Foursquare's CEO and co-founder, he said, "You thought our old Mayor game was more fun. We thought our old Mayor game was more fun. So we fixed it." It's a welcome change, but in a lot of ways, it's too little, too late.

See, the only reason I even used Foursquare was for the gaming aspect of it. I liked checking in to locations just so I could get badges and to vie for that coveted mayorship spot. Location discovery was a superfluous feature for me. I understand that a lot of people liked Foursquare because it was more personalized than Yelp, but for me, I don't always want to eat at restaurants that my friends like and I don't always want to eat at familiar places. In the months following the split, I found myself using the Foursquare app less and less. I still used Swarm occasionally to check-in because I like seeing a personal history of where I've been and I find it fun to see where my friends have been as well. But even then, I found that I had to remind myself to use it, instead of it being second nature like it used to be.

It seems that I'm not alone. I caught up with the same people I interviewed for last year's story about Foursquare and some of them don't seem to be using the new version as much, either. Carla Borsoi, vice president of marketing at 6SensorLabs, says that she uses Foursquare only rarely now. As for Swarm, it's still something she uses for personal history, but she found that a lot of her friends who used it aren't around anymore. Borsoi is, however, looking forward to the return of mayorships to see if she could reclaim her SFO crown.

John [last name withheld], a software engineer, has dropped the app almost entirely since the split. "Swarm is Foursquare's Qwikster, but they lacked the sense to kill it when they had the chance," he said. He used both apps for about six weeks before deleting them and then downgraded to Foursquare version 6.4.2 of the iOS app. But even then, his check-ins became sparse. I asked if the return of mayorships would get him to return to the fold, and he said no. "Reinstating functionality the app had five years ago might slow the rate that they're losing users, but it's not going to spur a big surge in adoption. They've dropped below critical mass and I don't think they can fix it."

Foursquare won't share specific numbers with me, but a spokesperson did say that it has around 55 million users each month across the two apps, desktop and mobile, and that the company was "quite pleased with recent growth across both apps, both in the United States and internationally." Eddie Codel, a live-video consultant who's also a big Foursquare user, said that his usage of the apps hasn't changed. In fact, he says he uses Swarm's Messages function a lot to meet friends for drinks or announce last-minute film nights.

Yet, I can't help but shake the feeling that Foursquare's time has gone. Like Borsoi, most of my personal network has moved on. The removal of the original mayorship feature strikes me as an especially terrible idea, and I don't know if reintroducing it after people have left will be enough to salvage it. At least not for me and, as several comments in our last story on Foursquare show, many of you have given up on it as well. If you have anything to share about your use (or non-use) of Foursquare and Swarm, let us know in the comments. Or, if you have an even longer tale to weave, you could sign up for our Public Access blog to tell us your story in greater depth.

In this article: foursquare, swarm
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