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@SXSW: foursquare and the future of direct(ed) messaging

Dennis Crowley is way ahead of the curve. In this case he is exploring the fuzzy boundary between emergent social behavior and directed play. Can you successfully insert a system of goals and rewards on a messaging platform while maintaing its social rele

By Robert Fabricant

New inspiration always floods in after a speaking appearance is over. Kicking myself for not highlighting a couple of things that were right in front of me @ my SXSW panel. Perfectly timed gifts  as usual, in this case foursquare and tweetluck. Let me explain: in the world of social cohesion messaging rules. So, any conversation around behavior change needs to respect that role. Successful behavior change requires immediate feedback, and social relationships offer the best form of encouragement. But messaging platforms are direct, not directED. We spend a lot of time in them because they are open (attendees at SXSW spend much more time twittering than talking). We can do what we want. We insert goals at times, like getting together for dinner, so coordinated behavior emerges all the time. But these goals are ephemeral and not baked into the system.

Which brings me to foursquare. As usual Dennis Crowley (a frog intern back in 2003 BTW) is way ahead of the curve. In this case he is exploring the fuzzy boundary between emergent social behavior and directed play. Can you successfully insert a system of goals and rewards on a messaging platform while maintaining its social relevance? This is a hugely important experiment, and a very challenging one. Will people accept the game model while still using foursquare to meet up and hang out? You need the latter to become an ingrained part of people's behavior and to ensure that enough of your friends will join. But the former can create a lot of additional value - if people are willing to play along.

I am hoping he succeeds, and the leader board is a very nice start (though frustrating slow on my iPhone). I spent some time on my panel discussing reward systems with a real-time experiment playing out in my pocket. Arghh!!! Social competition provides a powerful reward system - but it can really backfire (see 'Harnessing Social Pressure' in HBR's list of breakthrough ideas for 2009). Key is WHO you are competing with. One of the great things about technology is that the playing field no longer needs to be on your block or in your school. We can offer up endless 'fields' of competition. Where is the 'leaderboard' that shows me competing against my friends? Probably on the foursquare website somewhere but I need it on my phone to motivate me. Clive Thompson may be tickled that he is #59 on the leaderboard. But I look at the thousands of points people have racked up in the three days since the service launched in Austin and I give up. I am sure that Dennis is on it and new features will be coming fast and furious that introduce different forms of motivation (I think they are officially called 'nudges' at this point) to get me back in the game. 

It is pretty easy to see how this platform could be applied to more meaningful activities around health, nutrition or energy consumption. One of my panelists discussed a competition that took place at Indiana State University between different dorms to reduce their energy competition for example. That is why I hope foursquare reaches critical mass.

There are other encouraging signs in the the tweetscape. Tim Leberecht was kind enough to forward tweetluck to me right before my panel. A number of micro campaigns have swept through the twitter community with great results. There is a very nice synergy between micro-blogging and micro-giving. We are starting to see more casual donation mechanisms appear in services like Paypal for instance. Pretty easy to check a box and spend an additional $1 when you are completing a purchase. In fact it relieves the guilt a bit - nice nudge. But you would be awfully embarassed to pledge such a meager amount over the phone if solicited directly by Habitat for Humanity. So you might end up saying 'no' instead.

The beauty of tweetluck and related initiatives is not just the kairos factor. twitter taps into additional social incentives and rewards. You can see your friends dig into their pockets and support the cause in real time. And your support, however small, is broadcast without you having to brag about it. Nice! Things spread quickly: tweetsgiving raised $12K in 24 hours. Now we don't want to see our beloved messaging platforms get overloaded with offers and other junk. That is the delicate balance that foursquare is testing. Too many goals and the platform won't appeal to anyone who is not committed to the game. The social relevance will dissipate.  On the other hand, this wouldn't be the first time that a game platform evolved into something quite different. Ever heard of flickr?

I will be looking closely to see if foursquare becomes just another cute gaming platform or something much, much more important.