4 things Foursquare gives my brain

by Nathan Hartswick

So, admittedly I came a little late to the Foursquare game (though comparatively early for Burlington, VT). I didn’t see what all the fuss was about, nor did I feel too comfortable with others knowing my whereabouts all the time. But a few weeks ago I took it for a spin, and found I rather liked it.

My concerns about privacy were quelled when I realized that A) I make a really unlikely candidate for any stalkers using Foursquare, B) I get to choose who gets to follow me,  and C) I can even do a “private check-in” if I don’t want anyone to see where I am.

I can see how the app would be a ton of fun in a larger city – especially if all your friends are using it. It encourages spontaneous meet ups between friends in the real world, which is a nice departure from most supposedly “social” media. (Apparently I just missed the Burlington Foursquare Day, which sounds like it provided some of the perks the service offers in larger cities on a daily basis.)

Here in Vermont, though, a lot of us seem to be going through the motions of checking in, earning badges, becoming mayors, and waiting for a critical mass of our friends to begin using Foursquare so we can start organizing flashmobs and getting free pizza. But what I’ve noticed is that even with a lackluster social aspect to the service here, I’m still enjoying the “game” of checking into places and receiving virtual currency for doing so.

Here’s what I estimate my brain is getting from this:

  • An ego boost. We all want to be seen as fun, spontaneous, happy-go-lucky people. It’s that stinking real life that gets in the way. But using Foursquare, you don’t have to climb a tree in the middle of the day to be seen as a wild and crazy guy. You’ll check into a dozen locations doing your Saturday errands, and the service will say, “You just became mayor of this place!” or “You’ve unlocked that badge!” This little pat on the head reinforces the self-delusion that buying frozen meat qualifies you as adventuresome. At the same time, the service rewards actual spontaneity, so you may find yourself – armed with a new confidence and a curiosity about available badges – considering doing fun and interesting things you might have skipped in the past.
  • Something unexpected. Think back to when you were a kid and you won that award you didn’t expect. Maybe it was for sportsmanship, or attendance, or it was a short story contest you never thought you’d win. Nothing feels quite the same as unexpected recognition. Every time Foursquare hands me a badge or a mayorship, I get a miniature version of that feeling. It doesn’t matter that it’s only virtual currency – the prize at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box is basically worthless – it’s the surprise of getting something unexpected and going, “Hey, that’s kinda neat.” We all crave it.
  • Stuff to collect and hoard. Back when the Beanie Babies were big, I knew a 65-year old man who bought, collected and traded them like they were financial derivatives (and they’re probably worth about the same now). I never understood the “collector’s” mentality. But I have to admit, using Foursquare has given me a little taste of that craving. Matt Ridley claims in his new book that what first distinguished us from other species was our desire for and ability to trade. As humans we are innately programmed to seek, retain, and protect “stuff” we didn’t have before. This stuff can be raccoon pelts or Foursquare badges.
  • A hit of dopamine. I’m sure if I asked a scientist for the common denominator in the above three bullet points, the answer would be dopamine. What can I say. I’m a rat pushing a button. Sometimes I get cheese, and it makes my brain feel good.

So setting aside for the moment the social and commercial genius of Foursquare (as I have here in Burlington, where there are still only maybe 50-75 Foursquare users), obviously there are other important features that contribute to the psychological stickiness of this app. The question is, how can you apply this to your nonprofit?

In other words, what are you offering your donors – or what can you start offering them – to give them an ego boost, unexpected recognition, something they didn’t have before, and in the process, a little hit of dopamine?

Published by

Anna Palmer

Anna Rosenblum Palmer is a freelance writer based in Denver, CO. She writes about sex, parenting, cat pee, bi-polar disorder and the NFL; all things inextricably intertwined with her mental health. In her free time she teaches her boys creative swear words, seeks the last missing puzzle piece and thinks deeply about how she is not exercising. Her writing can be found on Babble, Parent.co, Great Moments in Parenting, Ravishly, Good Men Project, Sammiches and Psych Meds, Playpen, Crazy Good Parent, and YourTango. She also does a fair amount of navel gazing on her own blog at annarosenblumpalmer.com.

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