Foursquare Fights Fake Check-In

Foursquare tries to prevent people from checking in from their couches

Today, Foursquare released a post in their blog announcing that they were determined to play the game the hard way. From now on, they will grant points only to the check-ins for which they can verify the users’ location through GPS data sent from people’s phones or “through other tricks” for phones that do not have GPS.

Seeing this news, I feel genuinely happy for Foursquare to finally take a step forward in dealing with the complicated cheating issue in their game, especially if they want to be taken seriously not just by their avid users, but also by the brick and mortar businesses that grant real world value to Foursquare’s point system and virtual currency. Ever since I started to play Foursquare, I have noticed how easy it is to cheat the system. In my first couple of days, in order to get around the system, I tried all sorts of ways to check in just to test Foursquare’s boundaries. To my surprise, I could basically get points for almost whatever I did, regardless of whether or not I was actually at a venue. I have GPS on my phone, but the GPS data is just for locating me to give me a bunch of suggested locations to conveniently check in to. If I claim I am at a place 50 miles from where my GPS locates me, I can still click to check in and claim points. I have also tried a rapid fire check-in, and claimed over 5 places within 3 minutes, and I got my points too. The system did not seem to have the intelligence to identify such very obvious cheating behavior.

Compared to competitor Gowalla’s stringent approach of verifying the authenticity of people’s check-ins, Foursquare’s initial lenient approach was understandable: it sought to grow its user base, and this primary goal of Foursquare’s was repeated by its founder Dennis Crowley over and over again publicly, and I personally agreed with it very much and saw how it worked well and was taking Foursquare into the right direction. By being less stringent on verifying people’s location, Foursquare opened its doors to a much bigger audience, especially for people whose phones can’t send out GPS data and making themselves look more welcoming. At the same time, it has also avoided a lot of complicated GPS efficiency issues like turning off GPS or GPS’ inability to detect people’s locations when they were in-doors. Just as I am writing this post, a thought came to my mind: what if someone stood outside a store and checked in without actually going in? Could GPS data detect precisely whether a person actually stepped through the doors? Given the current problems reported about GPS data, I am quite skeptical.

With the new rules in place, what about the people who do not have a GPS-equipped phone that Foursquare originally wanted to serve? Since the initial purpose for Foursquare is to help people tell their friends where they are, under the new rule, Foursquare will still let people check in and share their location, but only check-ins verified by GPS data or some other means like their “check-in frequency pattern” (sound very vague to me) can gain points. Umm, will people buy this? If you’ve played Foursquare, you would know how frustrating it can be to check in without gaining points. Yes, it still functions as a friend-finder service, but what defines Foursquare is that it is a game, and I’ll bet more people are using Foursquare to win points than to find friends. I’m interested to see how this will work out.

Throughout Foursquare’s rapid and crazy growth, the easy to cheat mechanics have undoubtedly been a big hole in their system, and I believe if they do not tackle it, it will eventually lead to an implosion of frustration someday once they get even bigger. Foursquare users have been complaining about it forever, without getting any attention. But what Foursquare recently has been working on is a business analysis platform for small businesses to track actual visits, and these new GPS-verified check-ins show that they are making progress. And it is apparent that this new rule reinforces Foursquare’s real value to real world business: traceable in-store foot traffic. So, can we take this new approach as a sign that Foursquare’s focus is shifting a bit from growing its user base to wooing real-world local business partners? It actually does not matter whether this is for users or for businesses, because it is ultimately going to benefit both of them in the long term, as well as Foursquare themselves by legitimizing their platform.

Today I tested the new rule by faking a check-in on Foursquare again. I checked in at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Downtown L.A. while I was actually at USC. It still worked and I still got my points. But Foursquare mentioned in their blog that they are still tweaking things and coming up with new ways to fight cheating behavior, so I will give them more time considering the messy and complicated conditions they face now. Rome was not built in one day. It took hard work, and I am glad Foursquare is finally taking responsibility and working on taking their platform to the next level.

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